The Ethics of Scent of a Woman

The Ethics of Scent of a Woman

To snitch or not to snitch. Hoo-wah!

scent_of_a_woman_poster

Completely unrelated thought: is this title appropriate? It makes the movie sound like a romance, which it's so not.

At the end of Scent of a Woman, young Charlie Simms tells an obvious lie to the Headmaster of his boarding school, in front of all the students and teachers. He fully expects to be expelled. Instead, his new friend Colonel Frank Slade decides to get a few things off his chest. “If I were the man I were five years ago, I’d take a flamethrower to this place!” he thunders, moral outrage crackling out of his fingertips. (By the way, I always wondered whether he meant “five years ago, when I had more backbone and courage,” or “five years ago, when I could see what I was lighting on fire.”) When the dust settles after his five minute rant, the faculty board exonerates Charlie on the spot, the student body erupts into riotous applause, and (I assume) Headmaster Trask goes home to stick his head in a goddamn oven.

The speech probably has a lot to do with Pacino winning his only Oscar, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s so much fun, in fact, that it’s easy to miss two things:

  1. All this fuss is about a large balloon filled with white goo.
  2. It’s by no means clear that Charlie did the right thing.

Let me refresh your memory.

Coming home from the library late one night, Charlie and his friend Willis (Philip Seymour Hoffman) see three students planting something on a lamppost. The next day, after the Headmaster parks his swanky new Jaguar, a voice on the P.A. recites a satirical poem, and then a large balloon inflates over the car showing Trask kissing the ass of a gentlemen labeled “The Trustees.” When Trask pops the balloon, he and the car are coated in white stuff, and there is much rejoicing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H-ln9ZkxWY

Clearly the writer wanted to create the most elitist prank imaginable, working in both poetry and editorial cartooning. I’m pretty sure they got this prank out of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Anyway, a teacher saw Charlie and Willis at the scene the night before, and Trask knows they know who did it. They both lie and claim they didn’t get a good look at the pranksters. Trask then says there’ll be a hearing after the weekend, and if they don’t name names, they will both be expelled. He then privately tells Charlie that he has a special arrangement with Harvard, and he can get Charlie in… if he cooperates.

Got it? Okay, let’s break it down.

The bribe, I feel, is an ethical red herring. That is, it SEEMS like it’s important to take into account, but it’s not. Think about it: if protecting your fellow students is the right thing to do, the bribe doesn’t make it wrong. And if being honest with Trask is the right thing to do, the bribe doesn’t make it wrong. The bribe gives us the impression that cooperating with the Headmaster is immoral. But really, the only immoral thing is naming names because you want the bribe. Colonel Slade actually says this in his speech:

I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here today is right or wrong; I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: he won’t sell anybody out to buy his future!

Slade leaves open the possibility that its okay to cooperate with the Headmaster, so long as you’re not doing it to get into Harvard. At least, that’s my interpretation. Later in the speech, Slade says, “He has chosen a path. It’s the right path.” Most people would interpret that as, “Charlie made the right decision in not snitching.” I actually think Slade just means, “Charlie made the right decision in not being tempted by the bribe.”

So let’s put the bribe on the back burner and examine Charlie’s predicament:

TRASK: Mr. Sims, you are a cover-up artist and a liar.

SLADE: But not a snitch!

Those are Charlie’s two choices: he’s either got to lie or snitch. Which of these sins is the lesser of two evils? Well, it depends on your value system, of course.

It’s actually somewhat ironic that Colonel Slade, a military man, praises Charlie’s decision to stay quiet. Slade is presumably a graduate of West Point, where the famous Honor Code says: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” In other words, if you know one of your fellow students has done something wrong, you have a duty to snitch. If you don’t, you’re just as guilty as they are.

Ironically, I stole this photo of the Honor Code.

Ironically, I stole this photo of the Honor Code.

They are deadly serious about the Honor Code at West Point. In 1951, a cadet named George Holbroke offered his roommate Brian Nolan help on a math exam. Nolan went straight to the administration. They then had Nolan infiltrate the cheating ring to see how many people were involved. That August, 90 cadets were expelled, thanks largely to Nolan’s snitching. Believe it or not, Nolan’s a hero to a lot of people.

But I’m guessing he’s not a hero to Busta Rhymes. In February 2006, one of Rhymes’ bodyguards was fatally shot on the set of a music video. Although there were many, many witnesses (over a hundred by some accounts), no one was willing to come forward. Absolutely no one. The NYPD Commissioner publicly complained about Busta’s refusal to answer any questions:

He's not a fan.

He's not a fan.

I’d think he’d be knocking on the door… If your employee’s murdered in front of you, you think you might want to talk to the police.

But in the hip hop world, any cooperation with the police for any reason constitutes snitching. Gangsta rappers, by definition, don’t want to be seen as law abiding citizens. Anderson Cooper once interviewed the rapper Cam’ron about snitching, and asked him if he’d call the police if he learned the man living next door was a serial killer. Cam’ron replied:

No, I wouldn’t call and tell anybody on him, but I would probably move. But I’m not going to call and be like, you know, the serial killer is in 4-E.

So a West Point cadet would say that Charlie has to tell the Dean everything. Cam’ron would say that Charlie should keep his mouth shut, even if he saw those three students raping a nun right there on the quad. Most of us, however, are neither cadet nor Cam’ron, but somewhere in the middle.

Let’s assume that people’s default setting is to cooperate with authority. (This is, after all, the very backbone of the Social Contract, without which life would be nasty, brutish, short, and generally sucky.) I see two general circumstances in which one might ethically lie to an authority figure.

1. You think the offense is small and victimless. In my books, ethics doesn’t force you to report your neighbor for not recycling, or your friend for illegally downloading mp3’s. Overlooking these minor infractions is justifiable because strengthening neighborhood and community bonds is a worthy end. A society of tattletales and spies wouldn’t be a very pleasant place to live. Therefore, a certain amount of “mind your own business” is fine.

2. You think the justice system is unjust. Take, for example, the McCarthy Hearings. In general, we can agree that cooperating with Congress is a good thing. But looking back on the McCarthy from the vantage point of 2009, refusing to name names was the only right decision. The people who cooperated, like Elia Kazan, have been judged harshly by history. And yet, all they did was honestly answer a question, while under oath, posed to them by a United States Senator.

Another good example is the concept of jury nullification. This is the rare instance in which a jury refuses to convict because the jury dislikes the law in question. At first, this may seem like an abuse of the jury system – how can it be ethical not to uphold the law? But jury nullification is actually a crucial part of our legal system. John Jay, our first Chief Justice, wrote, “The jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy.” Today the concept is controversial, but definitely alive and kicking. In Indiana and Maryland, judges are actually required to explain to juries they have the right to nullify.

charlie_prank

Charlie enjoying the prank.

Okay, back to Charlie. I think he decides not to name names for both the above reasons:

1. It’s a prank we’re talking about here. The only harm that was done was done to Trask’s pride, his suit, and his car. The crime isn’t severe enough to overcome Charlie’s natural inclination to be a good friend (even though the perpetrators aren’t really his friends).

Moreover, it’s a prank Charlie approves of. Trask is unpopular, vain, and generally assholish. When he gets his comeuppance, Charlie laughs along with everyone else. By refusing to cooperate in the investigation, he’s practicing civil disobedience. He’s standing behind what the pranksters were trying to accomplish.

2. Maybe the bribe plays a role in this ethical calculus after all. Because of the bribe, Charlie knows for a fact that Trask isn’t a fair administrator of justice. He knows the system is broken. And since he knows this, Charlie can’t in good conscious do anything to help that system.

There’s actually a shortcut for solving this moral dilemma: Utilitarianism. Just look at the outcomes and pick the one that’s the least bad for humanity in general. If Charlie stays quiet, he will likely be expelled. If he names the three pranksters, they will likely be expelled. Three is bigger than one, so a Utilitarian would say Charlie should keep quiet for the greater good. (I don’t believe that’s how Charlie made his decision. I’m just throwing it out there.)

But Charlie’s decision may not have been made for ethical reasons at all. The entire student body is sitting there, staring at the back of his head; the peer pressure to stay silent is enormous. Charlie’s an outsider, and he will certainly lose the few friends he has if he rats out the pranksters. Sure, Trask has threatened to have him expelled if he doesn’t. But honestly, I think a lot of people would rather be expelled a hero than stick around a villain (especially teens).

Slade praises Charlie’s actions as the hard choice. I’m not so sure – usually you don’t get a standing ovation for making the hard choices in life. That’s what makes them hard choices. But I do know that Brian Nolan, the cadet who helped get 90 of his friends expelled… THAT kid made a hard choice. Maybe he was a classmate of Colonel Slade’s.

26 Comments on “The Ethics of Scent of a Woman”

  1. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    You know what I just noticed? On the poster, the movie is heralded as “From the director of Beverly Hills Cop.”

    Reply

  2. fenzel #

    That explains the zany, incredibly unwise and dangerous car chase scene.

    Reply

  3. Gab #

    Utilitarianism=awesome. The concept you’re talking about is called the “Greatest Happiness Principle.” JSMill and Jeremy Bentham ftw, srsly.

    My opinion lies with the second-to-last paragraph. I’ll admit I haven’t seen the whole movie in ages, but I don’t think I ever felt he acted 100% out of integrity- a lot of it had to do with what he thought his peers would think. But I think this is fine, for it’s more realistic than trying to present a purely flawless moral character. Humans are selfish, after all.

    You know about this, right?

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24880042/

    Reply

  4. Okie #

    The outcome of this movie has bothered me a little bit every time I’ve watched it, but I’ve never really taken the time to analyze it. Thanks for a thought provoking discussion here.

    I wasn’t a fan of Slade’s message…he always felt a bit too hypocritical and sensationalistic. His biggest motivation always seemed to be a self-centered desire to make himself the center of a contraversy.

    I think the simplest & most logical answer is that Charlie (despite how smart/thoughtful/sincere he is) felt the sting of peer pressure and would rather maintain the elitist “friends” he has at the school with the hope that they will respect his actions. As you said, he’s the outsider looking for validation. To one extent, it was as if he was hoping for a “bribe” from his “friends” through his silence rather than through Trask for his confession.

    I also don’t think Charlie likes Trask, which could have swayed his decision. If he had liked Trask more, he likely would have confided in him, knowing that his “friends” weren’t quite as open as he might have hoped.

    Reply

  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Okie –

    Thanks for reading! Yeah, studying Slade’s speech, I was kind of put off by how incredibly over-the-top it is. “I say you’re amputating that boy’s SOUL!!!” Really? If I were student who came to a hearing about a prank, and this stranger starts ranting, I would 100% crack up at “There is no prosthetic for that.”

    I like your analogy, that Charlie is being bribed by the students as well. Here’s how it breaks down:

    STUDENTS TRASK

    SNITCH Outcast Harvard

    NOT SNITCH Popular Expelled

    Basically, Charlie would rather leave Baird a hero than go to Harvard as a pariah.

    And yeah, Trask is pretty hard to like, which makes the ethical decision easier. Let’s say Trask was, say, Dumbledore. And the prankster was Malfoy. You’re telling me Harry Potter would keep quiet to protect Malfoy, if Dumbledore asked him nicely?

    – Matt

    Reply

  6. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Okay, that little diagram didn’t format the way I was hoping. But you get the picture.

    Reply

  7. neubauer #

    I can help it, I have to point out the whole scene in the video clip was filmed at an all *girls* high school in Troy, NY (where I attended)and those pretty houses across the street are RPI frats. The “courtroom” scene, however, was filmed elsewhere.

    Reply

  8. CppThis #

    I think Charlie was ethically justified. As others have said, were Trask not a total jackass the outcome would have been entirely different. Peer pressure is definitely involved, but one also has to consider why it’s there in the first place–this prank wasn’t some random outburst by the class sociopath. Nobody likes Trask, including Charlie, so basically it comes down to civil disobedience and Charlie not wanting to sell out for a scholarship.

    Reply

  9. DP #

    Good article. The movie seems to take it as a given that Trask is a jerk and is more interested in vengeance than justice. I think Charlie simply did not believe that expulsion was justified for anyone involved in the prank, the fact that Trask was victim and authority made it seem more like vengeance than justice and the admission to Harvard made it all seem even more sleazy.

    Reply

  10. Joe Mac #

    Now Scent of a Woman is one of my favorite movies, but I must admit the final speech seems prechy the second time. The first time your like, GO AL PAcino, tell that jerk off. The second time its like, what is he screaming about?

    But here’s my stance on Chrlie’s decision.

    I think the fact that the school already knew who did it, (they keep staring at the three kids) and Phillip Seymore Hoffman tells them already, was why Charlie didn’t snitch. Putting Charlie on the spot like that seemed uneccesassy, especially after praising Hoffman and the bribe made the whole deal nasty. If Charlie snitched he would have become what he didn’t want – a little jerk like his so called friends.

    The fact that Charlie didn’t become a sell out, not becuase he didn;t snitch becuase he showed the system was self righteous and wrong, was why the kids were cheering, not just becuase Al told off the jerks.

    Reply

  11. Milk #

    I saw this movie for the first time recently and I pretty much disliked it. Al Pacino’s acting is a joke already at this point in his career and his character is a caricature. Everytime he went “hooha” I just wanted to punch him. Actually it might have been the definite turning point when he finalized his transformation into just being Al Pacino, as opposed to an actor (though I always liked to think that really happenned in Scarface). This is not good acting by any means. It seems like the academy awards were prescient at this point and knew if they didn’t give him an oscar now then he would never get one. And personally I couldn’t help thinking all the way through that i’d DEFINITELY rat out those rich assholes to get into harvard and I like to believe most people, especially from a modest background like Charlie is, would take the bride. I would have without hesitation. Getting these rich cunts expelled and a free ticket to harvard? Where do I lose? No moral dilemma, because getting these guys expelled IS the right thing to do.

    Reply

  12. Gab #

    Whoa, Milk, do you have to use the C-word?

    I come from a modest background, too, and I don’t think I would have taken the bribe. I try to get my foot in the door whenever possible, but I do it honestly and fairly. And I don’t believe in handouts: I’d want to get into Harvard on my own, if Harvard was even a goal of mine. Which it isn’t, not remotely- I don’t want to be around those ::insert your choice explative here:: anyway, which is what would happen if I did go there. Oh sure, I went to college and plan to do graduate level work, too, but I want to avoid places like that to avoid PEOPLE like that. That’s where you’d lose, you’d be around the exact kind of person you hate again.

    Reply

  13. lori #

    The biggest ethical problem with this film is how Al Pacino got an Oscar for this overacted piece of crap.

    Reply

  14. Gab #

    Ah, well, Lori, the Academy may argue it’s QUITE ethical, so it depends on whose ethics you’re talking about. All of their politicking makes it difficult for people to get the awards they deserve the year they deserve them, so the Academy gives a lot of make-up (so to speak) ones out, and it isn’t hard to swallow this is *really* why Pacino won for _Scent of a Woman_. Yeah, I think it’s pretty awful, too, but it fits the ethics of the Academy…

    Reply

  15. Joel #

    How can people speak bad about Pacino and this film? I’ve seen almost every Pacino film out there and I honestly think that Scent of a Woman was his finest performance. You’re forgetting Colonel Slade was played by the same guy who portrayed Michael Corleone, that’s versitily!

    I also would’ve ratted out three rich assholes for admission into Harvard. Sure the Headmaster was a total prick, but you can’t let your opinion of someone get in the way of justice. Hoo-hah!

    Reply

  16. deDude #

    Yep, I have a problem too with the purported “hard” choice.

    I think it is most logical that he is reacting to peer pressure, if he is a regular kid.
    If he is somewhat grown up and intelligent he would have a problem with supporting a failed system as you say. Although utilitarianism wouldn’t enter into his mind, I think.

    Ponder; 4 patients enter the emergency ward at a hospital. One has failing kidneys, the other has COPD(Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), the third congenital end-stage heart failure and the fourth patient has a broken leg. Utilitarianism for greatest happiness makes the treatment choices easy. We slaughter the broken leg guy to give kidneys, heart and lungs to the other patients.

    This is somewhat extreme as a basis for Charlies ethics, I believe. I guess he is basically an easily pushed around kid, falling for peer pressure.
    This in turn leads to Slade being untrue to his supposed ideals and ethics…making me wonder if untruth and dishonesty to one’s character’s ideals then is the basis for nomination for an oscar?

    Reply

  17. Gordon #

    Hi:

    Thanks for that interesting article.

    Moving to some of the comments. To all those who have seen this movie recently and were dissapointed, let’s keep in mind it is over 16 years old; to say that doesn’t make a difference rings true only if you can leave your bias at the door before viewing. His newer films may appear duller to some (and I too fall victim to this), but why penalize him if he is doing his job? If you already go in watching the movie hating the guy there is no question you will be annoyed. The notion of expecting to be entertained may only go so far. Perhaps,we too have somewhat of a responsibiltiy to at least keep the “vessel” open before sitting in front of the screen?

    At any rate, the writing was fantastic, and as far as Pacino doing his job by taking the script and turning it into and entertaining performance, in my view, few moviegoers would disagree he failed to do so.

    G.S.

    Reply

  18. marina #

    I love the speech; whoever wrote it is a genius.
    I love Mr Pacino’s interpretation; it’s flawless.
    SPEECH + INTERPRETATION = shivers down my spine every time I watch it, and truly a desire to be a better man.

    Reply

  19. Riley #

    To be completely honest, Colonel Slade is awful. But he’s a fun, oftentimes-sensitive type of awful which is why I’ve forgiven 100% of his uncomely hoohahs and his need to make a giant show out of everything. He came to help and stand by Charlie after Charlie had gone totally out of his way to help him. In my humble opinion, this reciprocated kindness was the point of the film. If you’re nice to people they might just well end up being nice in return, however unlikely that seems judging by their appearance, err, language and alcoholism. Morals and ethics and shit, that’s … that’s kinda just there to keep the story going, I guess.

    PS: Just to please ya lot with another opinion on the matter: I come from a very modest background and I have learned many lessons on how you can /never/ become of them if “them” stands for “rich kids with influential parents”. So… I would be tempted to publicly describe the three perpetrators down to the shoe-size and eye-colour. However, that headmaster guy strikes me as a right arsehole which is why I would also be tempted to make a little speech of my own, yelling, just like Colonel, about how exactly is this institution that claims to shape leaders and governors shaping them by tolerating the slimy, miserable excuses made by Willis the Wimpy. What was that shit he said anyway? He could see them but then he couldn’t at the same time? The fuck? In a room full of teenage boys and bored adults, I believe pointing fingers in the direction of the already shady party would’ve created just about enough distraction to make a wonderful mess of things. A mess in which the need for me to make a choice to either snitch or not might disappear. Who’s to say the boys wouldn’t eat George Magic Eyes alive after being nudged in the right direction? Who’s to say that hearing wouldn’t become a full on riot, bunch of people screaming at each other, threathening to call their parents, leaving the room, perhaps retorting to good ol’ punching? At the end of it, Charlie Simms and his testimony might become the least important thing on the to-deal-with list.
    You know how they say you always have a choice? Well, I agree but why on Earth would one want to limit onself to only two choices? :D (That is, except when it comes to voting out a new 45th US president. I admit that’s a position when one is rightly fucked.)

    Reply

  20. Michael #

    Trask was being a hypocrite. He stood in front of the student body and proclaimed that the prank represented a breakdown of morals and ethics, all while he himself was being immoral and unethical in his attempted bribe. Charlie’s hard decision came because he was pretty much the only person in the room (until the colonel walked in) that knew that Trask was being totally two-faced.

    Either way, he was letting someone get away with something. It just came back to whether he punished three immature idiots or whether he punished someone who was abusing his authority and who should have known better.

    Reply

  21. Fresh Whiff #

    Ok so I’m embarrassed to admit this but I JUST watched this movie for the first time and found this thread. I think the point a lot of people are missing is that a true ethical dilemma isn’t about the outcome, but about the reasoning behind it. If Charlie made a decision to stay out of a situation he wasn’t part of… he shouldn’t have to change his mind because of a bribe, peer pressure, or threat of expulsion. If someone holds true to their code of ethics (in this case their idea of integrity), then it shouldn’t HAVE to be coerced by any means. It’s an incident to the rich kids. It’s an inconvenience to the headmaster. It’s a spectacle to the student body. But it’s Charlie’s future. His world. Sure, Slade is flamboyant about it, but it really is the kid’s soul in the balance. He wouldn’t have even been there in the first place had he not jeopardized his code of ethics in the first place by being pressured into lending a book that was reserved for someone else. A book one day, a simple snitch a week later: where does it end? I think the undeniable truth is that the kid would’ve been expelled regardless had it not been for Slade’s presence and because of his outbursts (it almost perfectly set the tone as to how ridiculous all of it was anyway). Sidebar: Charlie’s real ethical victory was to save the life of a man whose own family wrote him off; a man who was the only one to stand up for him in his hour of need.

    I’m not with Charlie because he shouldn’t snitch. I’m not against him because those punk kids deserved punishment. I think it’s preposterous how an underaged student was set up in a courtroom-like situation without any guidance (had it not been for Slade) and was treated like a pawn in this obviously ongoing game between entitled brats and inept facilitator. He chose not to participate.

    Reply

  22. Michael Prendeville #

    Wow – I wish i had read this when my former boss, a West Point grad, told me it was his favorite movie. I would have known then that I was supposed to conceal lies and cover up. What was I thinking – I initially went along with the lies but when I finally stood up for the honorable “West Point thing to do” he fired me saying I wasn’t a good “fit.” That makes 3 West Point grads I know who take protecting each other well over protecting their team or their honor.

    Reply

  23. Victor #

    I believe the movie addressed some of life’s basic concepts. Despite Col Slade’s struggles with blindness and his perceived career failures, he did not lose sight of a zest for life, after all, the car scene was exhilarating, and the tango scene was tender, heartwarming, and inspiring. True, at times he was despondent and suicidal, yet in his rational moments he was a foundation of strength, courage, and knowledge. And, he learned from his mistakes.
    The friendship that developed between Frank and Charlie was a central theme. They were able to confront adversity because they had each other; this devotion and loyalty to each other saved Frank’s life, and saved Charlie’s integrity and career. And, ultimately, they each had hope for the future and an opportunity to pursue their dreams.
    What a meaningful ending, or shall I say, beginning to the rest of each of their lives. In their darkest hour, they simply did not give up; it’s an empowering message.

    Reply

  24. jim moore #

    One of the best movies ever.

    Reply

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