This is an ethical review of the film Wall Street (Stone and Weiser). It examines ethical dilemmas Bud Fox faced and what made him vulnerable to crossing the ethical line, as well as what factors led to Fox’s attempt to repair the ethical breach. It examines Gordon Gecko’s thoughts on a person’s vulnerability to making an ethical breach and how this related to Bud Fox. Finally, it will take a look at factors in the film that relate to the Enron and WorldCom cases.
The film “Wall Street” is about Bud Fox, an ambitious rookie stockbroker and Gordon Gekko, an aggressive and ruthless Wall Street power player. Bud Fox spends a lot of time and effort trying to become part of Gordon Gekko’s inner circle. Once he succeeds in doing so, Bud’s life moves into the fast lane, a fancy apartment, money, power and a hot new girlfriend. As time goes by, Gekko makes more and more unethical and illegal demands with the final straw being the takeover and dismantling of Bluestar Airlines where Bud’s father works. As should happen in all good movies, Bud Fox then comes up with a plan to make things right.
Before we can determine the ethical dilemmas Bud faced we need to understand what makes an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemmas happen because of a conflict between the rightness or wrongness of the actions and the goodness or badness of the consequences of the actions. An ethical dilemma occurs when it appears a wrong action will produce a perceived good end, or when a good action will produce a wrong end. There is an outcome that we really think we want or don’t want. Bud Fox was confronted with a number of ethical dilemmas throughout the movie.
Bud desperately wanted to be part of Gekko’s inner circle, but what he had to do was against the principles, or values he grew up with and believed in. He wanted the success that Gekko offered, but he also knew that using inside information that he had obtained from his father about Bluestar airlines was both illegal and wrong.
A second ethical dilemma was driven by pressure at his firm coupled with his poor financial situation. The sales manager, Harold Salt, was really on him about not producing, and in fact told him that he would have to make up a loss with his own money. Bud wanted to do business the right way, but he was always broke and barely making it on 50 thousand dollars a year. He even mentioned that American Express had people out looking for him.
Yet another ethical dilemma for Bud was getting inside information from his lawyer friend, Roger Barnes. After being unsuccessful at getting Roger to provide the information, Bud got in with the office cleaning company, made his way into the law firm’s offices and stole the information. Bud knew stealing was wrong both legally and morally, but his desire for money, power and acceptance by Gekko made him cross the line.
You knew that Gekko knew Bud was susceptible to making an ethical breach when you heard his locker room statement “; I want guys that are poor, smart and hungry. Win a few, lose a few. If you need a friend, get a dog.” Gekko was saying that he wanted guys that would do what it took to make it, and he knew from checking into Bud’s background and his persistence in getting into see him that Bud was a guy that was vulnerable. Bud would make the ethical breaches needed to get ahead.
What makes someone cross the ethical line? It’s a controversial question, and one that has many different answers depending on who you ask. People are faced with ethical dilemmas everyday, which often times they decide without thoroughly examining their options. Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill are two philosophers who focus on the topic of ethics, yet with two different outlooks. Kant is considered a non-consequentialist, which means he feels the intentions, motives, and good will are more important than the results or consequences of an action. On the other hand, Mill is considered a consequentialist, which means he feels the right action must do the most overall good. It must maximize good, or minimize bad from the standpoint of the community (Donaldson, Werhane, and Cording).
What made Bud cross the ethical line? Bud’s initial intentions and motives were good, in that he wanted to succeed and make his father proud. This is what drove him. The results or consequences of those actions were secondary. Bud was a non-consequentialist.
What made Bud change? First, it was because Gekko lied to him about his intentions with Bluestar Airlines. This was the proverbial “straw that broke the camels back”. The values that Bud had lived with all of his life never left. He just subdued them in order to obtain his goal. When he found out what Gekko was doing to Bluestar Airlines it made him really think about what he was doing and how his actions affected those around him, the community. Bud became a consequentialist. He felt what he had been doing was wrong and had to fix it. He had to do the right action that produced the most good for the community.
How does the film “Wall Street” relate to the Enron scandal? The Enron Company had been one of the most successful companies in the world, as was Gekko’s company. The scandal at Enron involved the highest levels of leadership, to include the CEO, as was Gekko’s company. Vital to the ethical issue is the fact that the CEO participated in fraudulent schemes and courses of business that operated as fraud or deceit on purchases of stock by disseminating false and misleading statements, or by acquiring information illegally or unethically. We have seen the likes of Enron and other companies go through scandals that involved deceitful and fraudulent practices, as did Gekko’s in the end.
There are many people that would do anything for exceeding amounts of money. In competitive markets, when doing business often involves beating out the other guy, getting the best of the deal, turning one million into five, clear definitions of what is ethical and what is not can be difficult. How do you know when an action is a brilliant tactic or dishonest deal? It is possible to understand why Bud Fox did the things, both good and bad, that he did.
In summary, watching the film “Wall Street” from an ethical perspective is quite a bit different than watching it for entertainment. It made me think a little about how I do business on a daily basis. I have always felt that nothing should prevent a person from maintaining high ethical standards and social responsibility, even in the quest for high performance and quality. I can only hope that ethical standards and social responsibilities have guided me and will continue to guide me throughout my career.
Donaldson, Thomas, Patricia H. Werhane, and Margaret Cording. Ethical Issues in Business. 7th ed. Upper Saddle Rivery: Pearson Education, Inc, 2002.
Stone, Oliver, and Stanley Weiser. “Wall Street.” Video Recording. 1987.