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Ethical Issues And Analysis Arising From Philadelphia Movie Philosophy Essay

Released in 1993, Philadelphia opens with a promising and competent lawyer – Andrew Beckett – who was afflicted with AIDS and subsequently fired when his illness was discovered by the partners in the firm. Beckett tries to engage a lawyer to sue his former employers at Wyant Wheeler for discrimination but is rebuffed by every lawyer he visited. His fortunes changed when Joe Miller, a lawyer he once defeated in an earlier court case, decided to represent him in court after witnessing discriminatory acts against Beckett. After a series of proceedings, Beckett finally succeeds in his case, setting a precedent in America. This movie was inspired by the true story of Geoffrey Bowers, an attorney who in 1987 sued American law firm Baker and McKenzie in one of the first AIDS discrimination cases in the country.

Central Dilemma

The movie provides a backdrop that forces the viewer to examine the struggle between discrimination and morality (or rather, perceived morality).

The central dilemma of the movie is whether it is ethical to fire a man who is fully competent at his job simply because he has a disorder or a lifestyle judged to be morally reprehensible.

In examining the central dilemma, a question arises: should the lifestyle of an employee come under the purview of the employer? In the film, Beckett was seen to be an extremely competent lawyer. Self-assured and meticulous, he had defended numerous clients with great success, and also befriended the firm's management, including Wheeler himself. These accomplishments had been attained under a veil of deception because of Wheeler’s prejudice against homosexuality. Things came undone when lesions on his face (which can only be caused by AIDS) had become apparent to all. Beckett was subsequently fired on grounds of incompetence due to an incident which could have been staged by the firm. Generally, the conduct of employees should be subject to the employer’s purview because they have received consideration for work. If the employer feels that the errant employee’s conduct could affect the company adversely, control measures may be acceptable. This may be especially so for a law firm, where the image of conservatism is important in instilling confidence in their clientele. However, lifestyle and sexual orientation are merely personal choices and to have them subject to the employer’s purview would seem to be unethical and overstepping the boundaries of personal freedom.

Having established that, it would then follow to look at the ethicality of the law that governs dismissal on discriminatory grounds. According to American statutes, it is illegal for an employer to fire a man because of a terminal illness such as cancer or AIDS, provided that the illness does not impede that man's performance. However, is it ethical to criminalise firing a person on what can be seen as discretionary grounds as well? Business management decisions are made every day based on the manager and business owner’s discretion. By criminalising the act of firing someone on the basis of discriminatory grounds, it seems that the right to autonomy of the employer is infringed upon. This is incompatible with the Kantian and Rawlsian ethical theory. However, by choosing to set his business up in America, Wheeler (the employer in this case) has implicitly agreed to participate in a social contract, which affords him other rights as an employer in return for his agreement to curtail some of his autonomy. Since approval has been implied, subjecting him to the laws of America would still be ethical even if it infringes upon some of his autonomy as an employer.

Thus, upon careful consideration of the arguments above, it seems that it would be unethical to dismiss a competent man on grounds of discrimination of his lifestyle. The same resolution is reached in the movie as well. The jury, after swift deliberation, decides that Wheeler is indeed guilty of violating the law and award Beckett a sizeable compensation. Though his case is not yet fully closed, he had won the trial and refused to passively accept the prejudice that lost him his job.

Ethical issues and analysis arising from the story

Discrimination

The ubiquitous theme of discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status is arguably the most important ethical issue that underlies the movie. Several key events in the film illustrate this.

Beckett works for a large law firm, Wyant Wheeler, in Philadelphia. A brilliant and capable lawyer, Beckett is rewarded with a job promotion and handed an important case to work on as recognition of his contributions to the firm. Beckett is diagnosed with AIDS and does not inform his co-workers of his sickness and that he is homosexual. After some of the senior partners were made aware of his sickness, he was wrongfully accused of misfiling important documents and was abruptly fired from his job. Accordingly, the capricious attitudes of the senior partners suggest that Beckett was unfairly dismissed because of his HIV status and sexual orientation, and not his alleged incompetence.

At a scene in the library where Beckett was researching on his case, the librarian realizes that Beckett has AIDS and curtly suggests that he retire to a private room. The librarian’s insensitive gesture also lands Beckett in an awkward situation where others nearby begin to cast uncomfortable and cold stares at him. What the librarian probably means is that he and the other users at the library would feel more comfortable if Beckett isolated himself. This event particularly highlights the connection between ethical concerns regarding discrimination and social justice, or more specifically, social oppression.

This raises the question of whether it is ethical to discriminate against an AIDS patient. There are many reasonable grounds for people to shun an AIDS victim. In the 1990s, AIDS was a relatively unknown disease, only that it was associated with homosexuality and that it was deadly. Given the circumstances, not many knew about how AIDS was spread, hence it seemed prudent and even justifiable to stay away from the “source”. Not only that, most inhabitants in Philadelphia subscribed to a moral code, which seemed to derogate homosexuality. What is seen as discrimination now was merely the public expressing their freedom to thoughts and showing emotions and may not have been unethical. However compelling the reasons were, it still does not detract from the fact that such expressions were also invading the principles of justice, where all men are equal.

Lying

This movie also highlights the ethical issue of lying. Is it morally right for Beckett to conceal his homosexuality and illness from his company? Has the principle of honesty been infringed upon in this instance? In addressing these questions, we will first need to consider the extent to which Beckett is obliged to disclose the intimate details of his personal life to the firm. An employee is contractually required to uphold and promote the interests of his employer, such as performing well in the assigned position, in return for an agreed salary and benefits package. Therefore, if certain characteristics of an employee would in some way or another contravene the interests of the firm, then it most certainly possesses a right to access this information.

Although Beckett’s sexual orientation seems highly unlikely to interfere with his job performance, it is a different story with regards to his illness. The unpredictability of Beckett’s ailing health is evident when he suddenly collapses at home due to bowel spasms. It would have been especially disastrous if this had happened during a client consultation. As we can infer, even if he was allowed to preserve his job, the deterioration of his health would most likely impinge upon his ability to function optimally at work. Cognizant that he would not be able to fulfil his duties for long, which is clearly not in the best interests of the firm, the onus is on Beckett as a responsible employee to inform Wyant Wheeler of his condition. Beckett’s withholding of the truth may thus be interpreted as dishonest behaviour and a breach of fiduciary duty.

Justice of the ruling: an alternate ending?

The court eventually ruled in favour of Beckett, awarding him back pay, damages for pain and suffering, and punitive damages totalling nearly $4.5million. On top of having to pay a decidedly hefty amount in legal reparations, Wyant Wheeler also suffered a severe hit to its otherwise sterling image. At first glance, this appears to be the ultimate desired outcome where Beckett successfully obtains the legal redress which he seeks. However, upon careful deliberation, the gravity of the crime does not seem to warrant such a heavy penalty, which in turn raises questions about the integrity of the judgement.

Firstly, the court’s decision seemed to be based to some extent, on the principle of beneficence, the rewarding of a man for his assertion of dignity in the final days of his life instead of pure justice. As a result of its malfeasance, Wyant Wheeler was deprived of many of its funds. The court's decision thus smacks of consequentialism, pursuing reparations to Beckett for physical and psychological harms without considering that the means of such pursuit could greatly jeopardize the financial future of the company. In trying to pass a fair verdict to punish the perpetrators for their discriminatory conduct, the court seems to have over-penalized Wyant Wheeler, which in itself does not seem to be a just decision.

Secondly, given the unprecedented nature of the case, the sentencing seemed to be intended as such to set an example for future judicial decision making concerning similar crimes. Since one of the core functions of the court is to guide public opinion, a harsh verdict invariably signals to the public that the court does not condone the act and that offenders will be severely dealt with. Hence, the court might plausibly have imposed a disproportionately heavy penalty, at the expense of Wyant Wheeler, to deter potential offenders. Such an act relegates Wyant Wheeler to merely a means to achieve the court’s ends, which is ethically incongruous with Immanuel Kant’s principle of humanity.

Recommendations for director

The overarching ethical issue in the movie is that of prejudice and discrimination on the part of Wyant Wheeler, contrasted with Beckett’s reluctance to notify the firm of his possibly debilitating illness. Both parties have their own points of view on the situation, but as we see in the movie, the focus was slanted more towards that of prejudice from Wyant Wheeler against Beckett. Before we dive deeper into the analysis, let us first elucidate the salient points involved in Beckett’s reticence.

Beckett was a lawyer, and a very good one as evident by his stature and responsibilities at Wyant Wheeler, the best law firm in Philadelphia. Given these circumstances, even if the firm admitted to dismissing him based on the grounds of his AIDS disease, would they not be justified in doing so?

To answer this question, it may be prudent to first examine what purpose a lawyer is supposed to fulfil. A lawyer is a person whose job is to advise clients as to their legal rights and obligations, and represent the client in the courts if necessary. In such a profession, one of the most important elements is that of “trust” between the client and the lawyer as the client has effectively given the lawyer the mandate to handle the client’s rights and obligations.

Such work necessitates a lot of client interaction, and even if the partners at Wyant Wheeler were not personally prejudiced against AIDS or homosexuality, there is no guarantee that their clients will have such a mindset. Society, religion and upbringing have conditioned most individuals to shun away from AIDS or homosexuality; after all, is it not a visceral response to keep away from sickness or people who make you uncomfortable?

Furthermore, at the time the movie was filmed, the general public awareness of AIDS was somewhat limited – it would not come as a surprise if clients balked after finding out their litigator, Beckett, was a victim of the AIDS disease. Wyant Wheeler’s stellar reputation might plausibly have been ruined if they had allowed Beckett to continue serving clients. In the general interest of the company and their many other employees, they would have been justified in removing Beckett from his litigation role – there is no value in risking the employment of the other employees just to uphold the practice of non-discrimination.

As a group, we feel that the movie has not handled this facet of the ethical dilemma well enough. Right from the start, the conclusion seems to be a forgone one as Beckett was portrayed to be the haggard underdog while the partners of Wyant Wheeler were shown hiding behind their teak desks and cigars, all classic cinematic signs of them being the ‘evildoers’. Such an arrangement naturally leads the viewer to root for the underdog, Beckett, and the rest of the movie became more of a formality in seeing that justice for Beckett was done.

It would have been more interesting for the purposes of debate if Beckett was shown to have been allowed to continue his litigation work and thereafter lost some client business after his illness was discovered by the client. Doing so would allow the viewer to keep both perspectives in his mind even as the plot unravels, and prevent the viewer from taking sides too early.

Even if such an approach is not taken, a longer look at how the jury came to a decision may prove illuminating to most people. It is quite naïve to fast forward to the verdict when the jury’s timeout for such a controversial issue should be expected to produce some drama and emotions of its own as the jury members struggle to reconcile their own moral values with intellectual reason.

Ethical issues and analysis arising from the presentation of the story

The goal of the movie is to educate the audience about AIDS and its social stigma. A main point it is trying to put across is that any person afflicted with AIDS is really just a normal person worthy of compassion and love from others, once we have let go of our prejudices and looked at his character. This is concisely summed up by Beckett in the movie: “I don't consider myself any different from anyone else with this disease. I'm not guilty; I'm not innocent. We're just trying to survive.” The director had portrayed Miller as the normal man in the street: from having deep-rooted prejudices against homosexuals to finally bonding with Beckett. It can also be seen from Beckett’s family and partner, who are extremely supportive of him.

However, in trying to prove this point, the movie becomes overly didactic and sometimes comes along as being trite. For example, it fails to develop the characters in the movie entirely, showing them to be one-dimensional characters and dividing them into two camps: the good guys (supporting Beckett) and the bad guys (the partners at Wyant Wheeler). The “good guys” are portrayed in an extremely positive and empathetic light while the “bad guys” are portrayed as inhumane bigots. It forces the audience to come to the conclusion that if they are to discriminate against those afflicted with AIDS, they too will be seen in such light.

The director does try to deliver some sort of balance in the movie by showing that Beckett was partly at fault for getting infected because of his reckless act in the pornographic cinema. Nonetheless, this was only a small flashback and showed how much remorse Beckett was in, which again, stirs the audience’s sympathy for him.

Whether the director had been ethical in presenting the story depends on whether he is trying to educate the public or is directing merely for entertainment’s sake. When we juxtapose the movie against the social background in 1993 when this was made, we are more inclined to think that it was to educate the public than for entertainment because it is the first major movie to talk about AIDS, during a time when AIDS was still relatively unknown and still a taboo subject. If this movie is truly to educate the public about AIDS and its social stigma, this seems to be rather unethical, because the movie tries to foist its moral lesson onto its audience.

Evaluation of the creative and artistic merits of the movie

Miller, as a character, was also brilliantly used as a symbol to portray an average person in society. Miller’s initial reaction upon grasping the nature of Beckett’s affliction was especially telling. However, he soon realises and identifies with the effects of prejudice (as an Afro-American, he would have encountered his fair share of prejudice) on Beckett in the library scene. A bond slowly evolves between Beckett and Miller, culminating in the final scene where Miller visits Beckett on his death bed and shares a moment with him. This symbolises that when a man puts aside his prejudices against a homosexual and AIDS victim, he would realise that they are more alike than ever.

The use of the aria in movie was also beautifully placed as a way to reflect Beckett’s humanity and to signify a turning point in the relationship between Beckett and Miller. The aria is a reflection of Beckett’s internal turmoil at the prospect of death. His impassioned narration together with the aria revealed his softer and more vulnerable side, which invokes the pity of the audience. The aria is also a poetic way of transitioning the lawyer-client relationship into a deep bond shared by the two.

The director also made good use of the scenes in the library, the supermarket and the bar to portray the shallowness of the public. Patrons in the library began feeling discomfort when they realised the presence of a man with AIDS. The librarian’s reaction—disgust but the social convention of good manners did not allow such outward negative expressions—is reminiscent of the way any member of the public would react. Miller’s encounter with the homosexual student in the supermarket and experiences in the bar where he was mislabelled a homosexual are indicative of the public’s tendency to jump to hasty conclusions. If a man was defending a seemingly morally-bereft homosexual man by their standards, then the only plausible explanation for his actions is that he is also homosexual.

The actors were good in their little actions which insinuate their thoughts. For instance, when the few partners were discussing at a back alley about the suit that Beckett was bringing against them, they were full of themselves that their action was justified and not wrong. However, their reaction when someone passed by the alley showed that they instinctively knew that they were wrong.

The director paid attention to details of the situation and inserted subtleties in various parts of the movie to express the mood of the scenes and the development of the characters in the story. At the start of the movie, the director showed us the daily lifestyle of the Philadelphia city and people going on normally with their lives. If the viewer had not read the synopsis, he/she would not anticipate the heavy themes ahead. The purpose of that scene, later contrasted with the public outcry against homosexuals outside the court proceedings, was to let the audience later on reflect that homosexual discrimination was lurking underneath the calm of the society waiting to be explode despite “All men are created equal."

However, the main failing of the movie was that it was overly simplistic. The one-dimensional portrayal of characters and its pro-Beckett overtones immediately led the audience into siding with Beckett and Beckett alone. This did not allow the audience to ponder and reflect in their own actions as it morphed into a David-Goliath story of claiming justice for a disadvantaged individual. Had it been richer in character development or more balanced, the average audience member would no doubt have left the theatre richer for the experience.

Conclusion

Philadelphia is a beautiful movie which showed perceptive insights into an AIDS victim perceptively in a poetic sort of way. The ethical dilemmas presented in the movie were dilemmas faced by the public but had never thought about deeply. While it was undoubtedly hard hitting, the superficial character development weakened the strong statement sent out in the movie because it did not allow viewers space to think and evaluate. Nonetheless, the dilemma of discrimination brought up in the movie is still very relevant today and this movie may serve as a good starting point for those who wish to study the ethics of discrimination. One must note, however, that as culture evolves towards the acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life, the ethics of the movie would evolve along with it.


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