Ethical Analysis of the Shawshank Redemption

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Ethical Analysis of The Shawshank Redemption
Scott S. Critzer
Dr. Gerry R. Sokol and Dr. Nancy Powers
EDLP 705—Frameworks for Decision-making: Ethical Perspectives Virginia Commonwealth University
February 11, 2012

Author Note
Correspondence regarding this paper should be addressed to Scott S. Critzer, Assistant Principal, Randolph-Henry High School, 755 David Bruce Avenue, Charlotte Court House, Virginia 23923. E-mail: critzerss@vcu.edu Ethical Analysis of The Shawshank Redemption

It has been suggested that a person can learn a great deal about a society; its customs, values, ethical beliefs, etc…, through its cultural works (art, film, literature, etc…). In the case of the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, a story of one man’s wrongful imprisonment and subsequent freedom, the viewer can gain a great insight into two ethical principles that help to govern society. The Shawshank Redemption provides the viewer with a backdrop against which to consider the ethical principles of justice and power and the implications that the way in which those principles are dealt with in the film can have for society. Ethical Principles

Ethics can be defined as, “a social, religious, or civil code of behavior considered correct, especially that of a particular group, profession, or individual” (Ethics). While the individual principles that make-up such “correct behavior” can be debated from group to group and society to society, there are certain ones that seem to transcend culture and societal boundaries. One of these is “justice.” Justice can be defined as “the quality of being fair and reasonable/conformity to moral rightness and attitude” (Justice). It is a sense that a person is being treated in a manner that is in accordance with a reasonable and fair application of both written and unwritten “laws” that are considered to be righteous and is an almost universal ethical principle. One can see the ethical principle of justice in The Shawshank Redemption from the very beginning of the film. The foundation of the movie is the unjust imprisonment of the main character, Andy Dufresne, and the subsequent injustices that are done to him while there. These injustices take the form of sexual assault by other prisoners, a refusal on the part of the warden to acknowledge evidence of his innocence, and a resulting two-month assignment to solitary confinement when he tries to argue the point. The other characters are not free from the effects of injustice either. From the new prisoner who is beaten to death for crying to Red, who his continually rejected for parole despite obviously being “rehabilitated,” the characters continually face situations in which they are treated in a manner that both they and the audience would view as unjust. The second main ethical principle in the film is that of power. Power exists any time one person exerts some advantage over another. It can take the form of intellect, money, strength, etc… and with it comes an inevitable ethical dilemma of how to use the power. As was discussed with justice, there appears to be a universal belief that power should be used in a judicious manner, but that does not always happen. Johnson (2012) suggests that, “…we recognize that power has a corrosive effect on those who possess it,” (p. 9) and that kind of behavior is evident in the film. Warden Samuel Norton abuses his legitimate power, or power of his position, along with both reward (delivering something of value) and coercive (penalties or punishments) power to use and abuse prisoners for his own personal gain, even going so far as to have one shot in order to protect his financial and personal interest (Johnson, 2012, pp. 7-8). Head guard Byron Hadley abuses his power through coercive measures, beating and killing prisoners and running the prison through fear and intimidation. Even the other guards, though they do not abuse the prisoners physically, take advantage of their position to get free financial work from...
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