Is Academic Ethics an Oxymoron
Making the Case for Moral Education in our Schools

An Ethical Analysis of the Movie "Whiplash"

Do the Ends Justify the Means in Pushing a Person to Excel Beyond Normal Limits of Behavior?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of blogging on societal ethics issues is the opportunity to comment on cultural aspects of our society including the ethical message of television programs and movies. Two weeks ago I blogged about "The Ethics of Shark Tank." In today's blog I examine the movie "Whiplash" from an ethical perspective. If you haven’t seen it as yet, I highly recommend it for its dramatic excellence, acting, and thought-provoking message about when do the ends justify the means from an ethical perspective?

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie and want to be completely surprised by its message.

"Whiplash" is about the relationship between a music student and his teacher that turned it into a thriller built on expert social commentary about when is enough, enough, in pushing a student to reach to the stars and beyond in pursuing his dreams of becoming the greatest drummer since the likes of Buddy Rich. Ethical issues abound such as to what lengths should a music teacher (and mentor) go to push someone else to force them on the path to success?

The movie centers on the relationship between student and teacher that begins when the student is practicing late at night at his New York music school, one of the best in the country, when his drumming catches the ear of the infamous music guru, the most important teacher at the school and the conductor for its most important jazz band.

To go straight to the heart of the matter, the teacher encourages the student to practice, practice, and practice some more in order to have a chance of joining the elite group of musicians at the school that perform for the public. The teacher can make or break the student’s career as a musician so the student strives for excellence including drumming so hard and for so long that his hands bleed from the work, and the pain he is willing to endure shocks our conscience. But, that’s all right, at least according to the movie, because the ends justify the means. To say the teacher is abusive in his attempt to push the student is an understatement.

There are some ups and downs for the student as he becomes better and better. He is on the “A” team then dismissed by the teacher only to be put on once again prior to an important performance. However, due to a car accident, he is late for that performance and fails to achieve any level of success in his performance. So, he is dismissed once again.

As it turns out, the teacher abuses many of his student all in the name of going beyond what most would consider to be a reasonable effort to achieve uber-success. In fact, one student who achieved that success ultimately took his own life and we are left to believe it was a direct result of the teacher’s abuse of the student and life-long effects on his psyche. It’s almost like having “PTSD.”

Since the student is no longer with the music group, he is asked to testify against the teacher in a legal case arising out of the death of the other student. He winds up doing so and the music guru/teacher is dismissed from the school. I won’t go any further with my review in case you have read this blog and have decided to see the movie.

Did the ends justify the means given that the student, despite that one mishap, has special talent as a drummer and the potential to be world-class? How can we evaluate this issue from an ethical perspective? One way is through Kantian ethics that posits an ethical action is one that is universally based -- the "categorical imperative" -- that says in evaluating the ethics of an action we should look at whether we would want others to act in the same way the teacher did if we were faced with the same situation. Would you want a music teacher to push your son or daughter to the lengths the teacher did if they were aspiring musicians? What if the "abuse" is obviously having its negative effects on your child? If you were the teacher would you feel comfortable pushing your child to the extremes as depicted in the movie?

One statement by the teacher at the end is that the worst words in the English language are to tell someone they did "a good job." The implication is good is not enough. What's needed is greatness and beyond. To be the best at what you do and excel in using those skills to become the best at what you do is greatness and that is the message of the movie.

I believe that, in general, the ends do not justify the means. If they did, we could rationalize any kind of action (i.e., financial fraud) or decision (push a student beyond any measure of normal limits) because of the end result. The means are important. How we get to our goal in life is just as important as the goal itself. It is wrong to step all over someone even if it is, presumably, to help that person achieve his/her goal in an endeavor or life itself.

On the other hand I agree that telling someone they did a good job when designed to encourage them can be fraught with (ethical) danger because that person may cease to work at it harder and harder in the pursuit of excellence, an ethical value, because they have achieved a measure of success. As I have blogged about many times before, one problem in our society is the lack of a strong work ethic. However, taken to extremes, as in the movie, it can be harmful to the individual and lead to dysfunctional behavior.

One reason the movie is as great as it is can be seen in the message the audience is asked to ponder both during and after the movie ends. How many movies have left you analyzing what happened and why from an ethical perspective? Not enough in my opinion, which is why Hollywood no longer serves as a beacon for self-examination as it once did; now it is a beacon of self-indulgence and self-serving behavior. Hollywood has lost its way. Of course we could say it is giving society what it wants to see in movies whether it is gratuitous violence, unabated sexuality, death and destruction, and so on.

I wish more movies would be made that appeal to American society on both dramatic and ethical levels. I know it's not likely to happen and Whiplash is an anomaly. Still, in this holiday season we can hope that our society is given an opportunity to reclaim the ethical high road through the arts and entertainment industries.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 9, 2014. Dr. Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Professor Mintz also blogs at: