In Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, the protagonist, Bud Fox is faced with a series of ethical challenges. His actions in the beginning of the film would have pleased Nicolo Machiavelli, however, Fox’s decisions at the film’s end would have greatly disappointed the Italian. On the other hand, Fox’s first actions would have disappointed Henry David Thoreau, however, Fox’s decisions at the end of the film would be more to Thoreau’s liking. At the start of the film, Fox works as a stock broker, trying to compete for big men’s money.
As long as he behaves ethically, the big fish won’t give him a chance. Fox’s first ethical decision, then, is whether it is worse to follow the law and remain poor, or to break the law, to make money that will help him and his family. Fox’s decision to break the law and provide big-time capitalist Gordon Gekko with insider information would have been applauded by Machiavelli, who, in The Prince declared the following: It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. (Machiavelli 62)
The decision is even more complicated, because the insider information Fox has to trade is about his father’s own company. If Gekko buys stock in the company, it will help prop the company up, however, Fox’s father would never approve of such an unethical deal. But If Gekko buys company stock, he is likely to do well. He and Fox will make a great deal of money, and Fox’s status will go up accordingly. This is justification enough for Machiavelli, who states that the most important thing a prince can do is get himself the reputation of being “a great and remarkable man.
” (Machiavelli 86) Gekko does, indeed profit from Fox’s information. Fox’s wealth and reputation skyrocket. Fox is even able to date the interior designer he is interested in. All is well, until Fox is presented with another question of ethics. Gekkko begins making changes to his father’s company that the company does not appreciate. Fox must decide whether he ought to go along with Gekko’s plan and backstab his father, or to support his father and lose the perks of his relationship with Gekko. If he works against Gekko, he will lose his sources of income.
He will also lose his girlfriend, who is a former girlfriend of Gekko and has had her career fostered by the tycoon. He will also lose the contacts he has made through Gekko. If Fox does go along with Gekko, he will probably continue to live richly. He will enjoy the company of his girlfriend. On the other hand, he will let his own father be ruined. He will destroy his father’s company and he will let down his family. He will be compelled to continuously break the law and he will risk prosecution with every step. Henry David Thoreau would object to this decision, because it would mean treating other men unjustly.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, would heartily approve of Fox’s decision to break his father’s company. Indeed, Machiavelli praises the notion of destroying one’s enemies in order to secure one’s position (Machiavelli). Fox’s father has a heart attack, and this seems to turn Fox around. Instead of allowing his father’s company to be ruined, he works with one of Gekko’s competitors to drive the stock down until Gekko sells. The competitor agrees not to sell off parts of the company, and so rescues Fox’s father and his counterparts from ruin. The move also allows Fox to break free of Gekko’s grip.
Yet, it involves more insider trading and law-breaking. This, Thoreau would have praised. Indeed, in his Civil Disobedience, Thoreau speaks against following unjust laws and recommends that laws that further injustice be “transgressed. ” (Thoreau 12) Thoreau, then, would happily have broken the law to bring justice to Gekko. While Fox could sit by and hope that someone else could make things right, Thoreau urges men not to sit idly by. At the film wraps up, Fox rescues his father’s company from ruin, but he lands himself in jail for insider trading.
This is a move that would have shamed Machiavelli. For the Italian, a prince showing weakness is a very bad thing. Machiavelli does not believe in sacrificing oneself for others. While Fox’s move to save his father’s company seems virtuous, Machiavelli warns that things that seem like virtue are often ruin him (Machiavelli). This is certainly the case with Fox’s decision. Yet Thoreau would likely have done the exact same thing. Indeed, Thoreau went to prison, rather than paying taxes which he felt he ought not pay (Thoreau).
Fox’s move, then, although it put him behind bars for a time, is exactly the kind of action Thoreau would applaud. Although I would hope that I would not make Fox’s original decision to get ahead by breaking the law, I might, having already broken the law, use law-breaking to bring justice to a man like Gekko. Though, following the law does seem like a safer course of action.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. Hazelton: Penn State University, 2001. Thoreau, Henry D. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Hazelton: Penn State University, 1998.