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Ethical Analysis of the Shawshank Redemption Essay

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 Dufresn.

The use and abuse of power extends to the prisoners, as well. Red uses his influence with the guards to get all of his friends on the same work detail. At the same time, Boggs and The Sisters use their physical power to force Andy into unwanted sexual acts. Even Andy uses his power, exercising the expert power of his financial abilities in illegal ways and, in doing so, gaining privileges for both the other prisoners and himself (Johnson, 2012, p. 8). While the audience may ultimately view these actions more favorably in light of the injustices faced by the prisoners, they nonetheless represent actions that, in and of themselves, would be examples of abuse of power.

Character Reactions

The ethical principles of justice and power play-out in the film through the reactions of the different characters to the environment of injustice and abused power that is present in the prison. It is the prison establishment, represented by the Warden, Hadley and the other guards, that provides the catalyst that drives the character interplay. The Warden and Hadley are the main abusers, but even the other guards, who show fairness and justice to the prisoners when left on their own, fall victim to the pressures of the Warden and Hadley’s evil “shadow” (Johnson, 2012) and join-in to some degree. It is this situation that causes the prisoners to have to choose how they will react. In the face of the unfair treatment and abuse of power, the prisoners choose to react in different ways.

Boggs and /The Sisters become part of the abuse through the use of physical strength, beating and sexually assaulting Dufresn and others at will. Red and the rest of Dufresn’s group are able to maintain a semblance of ethical normalcy but become numb to the things going on around them and begin to take them as a matter of course. It is Dufresn who refuses to give-in to the injustice and abuse. He fights the Sisters, even though he does not always win, plots behind the scenes to escape, makes use of his position as “financial advisor” to help the other prisoners and, through it all, he maintains his inner strength, hope, and ethical outlook. This interplay between the prison establishment and the prisoner, as well as the differing ways that the prisoners choose to react to the situation helps to bring to light some ethical implications suggested by the film.

Ethical Implications

While there are several suppositions and implications that can be made from the movie about society and its beliefs, two seem to stand-out. The first ethical implication of the movie is the idea that society takes a utilitarian view of ethics. Under a utilitarian approach, decisions are based on their consequences (Johnson, 2012, p. 154) and the “ends justify the means.” There is a sense that while certain actions, in and of themselves, can be considered unethical, society is willing to view them more favorably within a certain context. For example, there seems to be an inate need for people to feel that justice has been done, and certain unethical behaviors may be acceptable in achieving that end. This can be seen throughout the movie. Boggs, the leader of the Sisters, is beaten until he is paralyzed for hurting Dufresn. Dufresn escapes from prison and takes $370,000 of ill-gotten, laundered money in the process. Either of these might be considered unethical in and of themselves, but the audience is willing to applaud both in the interest of justice being served. We see this same utilitarian view in the use of power in the movie.

The Warden and the guards abuse their power to differing degrees and the audience is meant to frown and look askance. However, when Dufresn exploits his financial capabilities in an illegal activity and escape or Red engages in smuggling items into the prison, the audience applauds. In a vacuum, all of the acts are unethical. However, the actions of Dufresn and Red seem to serve, in the eyes if the audience, to balance-out some of the abuses of power and advance the cause of justice. As a result, they are looked at as being ethical in as much as they helped meet the ethical principle of justice despite being unethical themselves. The second implication is the power of ethical leadership. This can be seen in the reaction of the two main groups, the governing power of the Warden and the guards and Dufresn’s group, to their respective leaders. In the case of the guards, we see the influence that the leadership of the Warden and Hadley has over them.

As was mentioned earlier, the guards are motivated to act in harsh ways towards the prisoners when around the Warden and Hadley, but we see more ethical and humane interactions when the guards are alone with the prisoners. Even Hadley changes once the “spell” of the Warden’s leadership is broken, crying like a baby when he is arrested. Thus, one sees the length and power of the shadow that the Warden casts. In contrast to the guards, one sees the positive influence that Dufresn has on Red and the other prisoners in their group. When he arrives, they are practical and pragmatic, resigned to the way things are. However, Dufresn shows them that ethical behavior and rightness can still exist. This begins with their first meeting, when he asks for the name of a prisoner who was beaten to death.

This seems inconsequential to the others but serves as a symbol of Dufresn bringing the ethics of the outside world with him into the prison. Despite all that occurs during his stay, he never loses those ethics. He never loses hope. And, in the process, he raises the ethical level and level of hope for all members of the group. Both men lead their respective groups through their actions and decision-making. One’s actions lead in an unethical manner and the other in a more ethical one.

Through this, it is evident just how influential the ethical decisions of a leader and the “shadow or light” they cast can be (Johnson, 2012). Thus, against the backdrop of the microcosmic subculture of Shawshank Prison, one sees the importance of justice and fair use of power to American society. The adage that, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” (Johnson, 2012, p. 11) becomes a reality within the prison walls and the characters are left to make sense of it. Ultimately and ironically, it is the seemingly unethical deeds of Dufresn and Red (who breaks his parole to go to Mexico) that restore the balance of justice and power that the audience is seeking and, in doing so, reveal the important role that these ethical principles play in society.

Ethics. In The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Retrieved from Glotzer, L., Lester, D.. & Marvin, N. (Producers) and Darabont, F. (Director). (1994). The Shawshank Redemption [Motion Picture]. United States: Castle Rock Entertainment. Johnson, C.E. (2012). Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow, fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications Ltd.

Justice. In The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Retrieved from

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