ACM 460: Ethics and Film


Fall 2012 – T 1:30-4:15                   George 214                  Office:  CR 204

Prof. (Tom) Brislin, Ph.D.                                                             Hours:  MTRF 10-11:30; or by appt.

E-Mail:                                                  Phone:  956-3788


This course satisfies the W-Focus and E-Focus requirements for General Education


TEXT:    The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics (7th edition) by Nina Rosenstand

                    (McGraw-Hill: 2009)


Š       “Film and Ethics,” in Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures by Noel Carroll and Jinhee Choi (Blackwell: 2006). ACM Library

Š       The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success by Stanley Williams (Michael Wiese: 2006). ACM Library

Š       More Than a Movie: Ethics in Entertainment by F. Miguel Valenti (Westview Press: 2000). Hamilton Library: PN1995.5 .V25 2000

Š       Living Ethics Across Media Platforms by Michael Bugeja (Oxford: 2008). ACM Library

Š       Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and Television (Oxford: 1991 and Image Ethics in the Digital Age (Univ. of Minnesota: 2003) by Larry Gross, John Katz & Jay Ruby. Hamilton Library: KF1263.U5 I45 1988; and TR820.I42 2003.

Š       Ethics Across Cultures, by Michael Brannigan (McGraw-Hill: 2005). ACM Library

Š       Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media (2nd ed.) by Paul Lester and Susan Ross (Praeger: 2003). Hamilton Library: P96.S74 I45 2003.

Š       Journalism Ethics Goes to the Movies by Howard Good. (Rowman & Littlefield: 2008). Hamilton Library: PN1995.9.J6 J575 2008.

Š       Cyberethics: Morality and Law in Cyberspace (3rd ed) by Richard Spinello  (Jones & Bartlett: 2006). Hamilton Library: TK5108.875.I57. S68 2006.

Š       The Journal of Mass Media Ethics. Hamilton Library


INTRODUCTION: Aloha. Welcome to the study of Ethics and Film through a critical analysis of the “moral center” of a film – how it reflects dilemmas and resolutions through principle–based decision-making. This is a valuable tool not only in film analysis, but also in the conception and scriptwriting of a film. In this class, we will use the media to study the media. We will watch films and videos, and read academic and literary texts as the basis for class discussions, tests and writings on how ethical issues and philosophies are presented, as well as the ethical issues faced in the production of contemporary media. We will then see how these philosophies and principles are applied to other contemporary ethical issues, which can become the “moral center” of a future film.


STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES: The Academy for Creative Media embraces Student Learning Outcomes in the areas of Critical Thinking, Writing, History & Aesthetics, Professional Skills & Creativity, and Ethics & Responsibility. At the conclusion of this course, students will be able to:


1. Constructively critique their own and other's intellectual and creative work.

2. Write a critical piece that applies theoretical principles.

3. Conduct and communicate original research findings.

4. Understand and articulate the role and rights of a responsible artist.

5. Articulate the underlying ethical theories and guiding principles that apply to mass communication.

6. Identify and analyze contemporary ethical issues.

7. Apply ethical standards to professional situations.





READ THIS TWICE: Attendance and Participation are required.

Critical Note: ONLY ONE unexcused absence is allowed. With a second unexcused absence and/or a pattern of late arrivals, points are deducted from the final score that can reduce your grade by an entire level.  Obviously one can’t participate if one is excessively absent, or regularly late for class, so that portion of the grade will fall as well. The rule is: "Below Average" performance in attendance and on-time arrival will result in a "Below Average" Grade.


Writing: As a W-focus course, we'll be doing a healthy bit of original writing. (See pages 4-5 describing Writing Assignments and note their due dates in the weekly schedule.) They’ll take the form of analyses of contemporary film and mass media portrayals; case studies; and personal, reflective pieces.  A key part of ethical decision-making is the ability to publicly articulate our reasoning. Writing helps. A lot.


Testing: There will be regular tests during most classes covering the required reading for that week. There will be 7 chapter tests. They are noted in the Course Calendar. There is a sample test for the first two chapters on the course website (see below), to familiarize you with the type and flavor of test questions for the course.


Online Discussion: In addition to in-class discussions, we will be conducting weekly online discussions via Laulima <>. I’ll send out some supplementary thoughts after each class, including some discussion questions or calls for reactions. You will be expected to post at least one comment or reaction in each of the discussion topics on the course Laulima site. This way we can continue thinking about what we’re learning outside of the classroom. As a bonus, the weekly postings will also include some hints of what to look for in the upcoming chapter reading, and now and then some of the test questions you’ll face. The Participation portion of your final score will reflect the level of your participation in both class and online discussions. No discussions, no points.


Course Grading:

Chapter Tests                                                               70 Points (7 @ 10 points each)

Short Essays                                                                 20 Points

In-Class Reflections                                                     15 Points

Commentaries                                                             60 Points (2 @ 15 points; 1 @ 30 points)

Attendance                                                                           20 Points

Participation – In Class and Online Discussions          15 Points

                                               Total Possible:             200 Points

A:  186-200 Points        B: 166-185 Points        C: 140-165 Points         D: 120-139  F: Below 120


Website Resources: A special web page has been created with numerous resources to help you understand the underlying philosophical principles of this course, to help you find ideas and reference materials for commentaries, and to connect you with online sources for film, journalism and professional communications. You'll find it at:


 The "Open Door Policy:" In addition to office hours, I will be happy to meet with you individually to discuss readings, commentaries, other assignments, or any class matter. Feel free to call me at my office, 956-3788, or e-mail me at If it’s urgent, you may call me at home, 487-7625, up to 10 pm.


Academic Honesty: All work in ACM 460 is to be original. That is, it reflects your original thinking.  Cheating and Plagiarism are not tolerated, and result in a grade of “F” for the course. A more detailed discussion of these topics is on Page 6.



Course Calendar: (Subject to revision to accommodate current events and extended discussions)

Week                 Date Topics/Textbook Readings/Assignments

 1       8/21   Introduction; Read Ch 1

                            Write and Due Friday Noon, Two Separate Papers. Hard Copy only (for privacy):

                            1. Biographical Sketch – What’s Your Story? (3 pp)

                            2. Personal Ethical Dilemma (3 pp)


2        8/28   Everyday Ethics

                            Read Ch 2; Test on Ch 1 & 2

                            Due Friday Noon: Survey of the “Media Landscape” (3 pp). You can upload to Laulima           


3        9/4              Ethical Triumvirate (Virtue, Duty, Consequence); Read, and Test on Ch 3


4        9/11            Self & Social Responsibility: Film and Discussion, “Return to Paradise”

                            Research the film and filmmaker: Google film title and director Joseph Ruben for background

                            Also use Movie Review Query Engine <>     


5        9/18            Ethical Theories & Contemporary Issues: Egoism and Altruism; Read, and Test on, Ch 4

                            In-class writing: self-reflections


6        9/25            Self & Social Mores: Film and Discussion, “Million Dollar Baby”

                            Research the film and  filmmaker. Google film title and director Clint Eastwood for

                            background. Also use Movie Review Query Engine <>                                


7        10/2            Ethical Theories & Contemporary Issues:  Utilitarianism; Read, and Test on, Ch 5

                            In-class writing: self-reflections

                            Due Friday Noon: Commentary #1. Upload to Laulima


8        10/9            Self, Obligation & Duty: Film and Discussion, “High Noon”

                            Research the film and  filmmaker. Google film title and director Fred Zinnemann for

                            background. Also use Movie Review Query Engine <>                    


9        10/16           Ethical Theories & Contemporary Issues: Deontology; Read, and Test on, Ch 6

                            In-class writing: self-reflections


10      10/23           Justice, Rights and Diversity: Film and Discussion, “Smoke Signals” 

                            Research the film and  filmmaker. Google film title, screenwriter Sherman Alexie, and director

                            Chris Eyre for background. Also use Movie Review Query Engine <>

11      10/30           Ethical Theories & Contemporary Issues: Social Justice; Read, and Test on, Ch 7

                            In-class writing: self-reflections


12      11/6            NO CLASSES – ELECTION DAY – VOTE!


13      11/13          Fault Lines and Breaking Stereotypes: Film and Discussion, “Better Luck Tomorrow”

                            Research the film and  filmmaker. Google film title and director Justin Lin for

                            background. Also use Movie Review Query Engine <>


14      11/20           Ethical Theories & Contemporary Issues: Existentialism & Feminism; Read, and Test on,

                            Ch 10 & 12. In-class writing: self-reflections

                            Due Friday Noon: Commentary #2. Upload to Laulima

15      11/27          Discussion of your findings in Commentary #2

16      11/4            Wrapup & Final Commentary (#3) assignment                  



 ACM 460 – Writing Assignments/Commentaries


Format: 12pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around. Papers with excessive errors in spelling, grammar & usage will be returned ungraded. NOTE: No assignments by email or attachments. Hard copy for 1st assignment. Deliver to CR 210 (ACM Main Office); or CR 204 (My Office). All other assignments can be uploaded to your dropbox on the course Laulima site.


Short Essays. 20 points. Min. Length 3 pages each


1. Biographical Sketch – What’s Your Story?  Due Week #1 (5 points)

2. Personal Ethical Dilemma  Due Week #1 (5 points)


3. Survey the Media Landscape - Newspapers, Magazines, TV News, TV Shows, Films - for stories with ethical themes, or that raise or deal with ethical issues (look for values in conflict). Be specific on what you surveyed (cite stories, programs, films) and what you found. The focus is not on “general observations” of media, but on specific findings from specific media examples. Due Week #2 (10 points)


Commentary #1.  15 points. Min. length 4 pages


Watch “Brokedown Palace” (1999; Dir: Jonathan Kaplan; DVD 0955 in Sinclair Library); OR “A Simple Plan 1998; Dir: Sam Raimi).  Compare and contrast with “Return to Paradise,” screened in class. How are the stories, characters, dilemmas, and resolutions similar and different? What do these films say about friendship, loyalty, responsibility, and selfishness vs altruism? What insights do we get when we apply the “Ethical Triumvirate” of Virtue, Duty, and Consequences to the behavior of the characters? How do they fare when we apply the “Three Tests” of Universality, Reversibility, and Transparency?


Don’t spend a lot of time recounting the plots of the films. We already know what happened. Focus instead on the analytical points outlined above. Don’t think of this as a film review. Think of it as an opportunity to apply what you have learned so far in class to analyzing the ethical issues presented in the films, and to analyzing how ethical principles and tests would either justify or condemn the actions of the characters.


Commentary #2.  30 points. Min. length 6 pages. Minimum sources (excluding textbook, Wikipedia & dictionaries): Five. Two must be non-internet sources.


How to proceed:

1. Select a contemporary ethical issue, or a filmmaker who explores ethical issues, or a film genre that explores ethical issues


2. Analyze two films (excluding films screened in class or for Commentary #1) that deal with this issue, or two films of your selected filmmaker or genre.


3. In your paper:

a. Explain the issue – and why it constitutes an ethical issue

b. Explain how the films illustrate or present the issue and its resolution.  Use all the tools you’ve learned. Is it an issue of virtue, duty, or consequences?  Use the ethical theories/principles as a “lens” to analyze the issue: Does it represent a utilitarian perspective? Deontological? Social Justice?

c. How does, or would, the resolution of the issue face the three tests: universality, reversibility, transparency?

d. Explain how the issue forms a “moral center” of the films that helps define characters as well as narrative (plot).

e. What does research about the films and filmmaker(s) reveal? Is this film a “standalone” or does it reflect a recurring theme of the filmmaker or genre?

f. Suggest (briefly) another story that might make a film utilizing this issue. What would be the major philosophic approach in terms of ethical theory/principles? What would the audience learn or take away from it?


Explanation: You’re doing for yourself what was set up for you in Commentary #1.


Examples (These are only suggestions):


You can do a filmmaker study, such as ethical issues raised in the films of Clint Eastwood, or Gus Van Zant, or Oliver Stone.


You can do a genre study, such as ethical issues raised in War films, or Science Fiction films.


You can do a thematic study, such as representations of Asians and Asian Americans, or GLBT representations in contemporary film. What makes such representations an ethical issue?


By this point you should be able to clearly identify ethical issues and the choices and implications they produce; discuss the issues within a framework of ethical principles; analyze how they impact character and narrative; make judgments that reflect principled reasoning and show how it applies to the creative process. Those are the standards on which you will be graded.


Commentary #3. 15 points. Will be written in class. Your opportunity to integrate your knowledge of ethical theory and to apply decision-making strategies to a real-world dilemma.





ACM 460 – Academic Integrity

(from the UHM Catalog, pp 565-566)


The integrity of a university depends upon academic honesty, which consists of independent learning and research. Academic dishonesty includes cheating and plagiarism. The following are examples of violations of the Student Conduct Code that may result in suspension or expulsion from UH :


Cheating: Cheating includes, but is not limited to, giving unauthorized help during an examination, obtaining unauthorized information about an examination before it is administered, using inappropriate sources of information during an examination, altering the record of any grade, altering an answer after an examination has been submitted, falsifying any official UH record, and misrepresenting the facts in order to obtain exemptions from course requirements.” Any incident of cheating will result in an “F” for this course.



“Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, submitting, to satisfy an academic requirement, any document that has been copied in whole or in part from another individual’s work without identifying that individual; neglecting to identify as a quotation a documented idea that has not been assimilated into the student’s language and style; paraphrasing a passage so closely that the reader is misled as to the source; submitting the same written or oral material in more than one course without obtaining authorization from the instructors involved; and “dry labbing,” which includes obtaining and using experimental data from other students without the express consent of the instructor, utilizing experimental data and laboratory write-ups from other sections of the course or from pervious terms, and fabricating data to fit the expected results.”


Plagiarism and the internet:  You may use the internet along with the library for research purposes. The definition of plagiarism (above) includes “cutting and pasting” from internet sources, just as it includes copying another author’s words and ideas from a written article.  You must credit all sources from which you are absorbing ideas. Changing a word or two, or rewriting another author’s sentence is not an exemption from plagiarism. You are still “stealing” someone else’s ideas. 

Plagiarism is a serious offense that will result in a grade of “F” for this course, and could also result in a recommendation that additional disciplinary action be taken by the university.  




Help @ UHM

Learning Assistance Center:

Student Success Center:

Help for scholarly writing:



What Does a Grade Mean in Ethics and Film?


ACM instructors never “give” grades. Students earn grades, according to standards set in each course. ACM grades are “additive,” not “subtractive.” That means each student earns and accumulates points or credits throughout the semester that add up to the final grade.

ACM curriculum is “incremental.” Each assignment or lesson is a foundation for the next one, just as each introductory course is a foundation for the intermediate courses, which are in turn foundations for the advanced courses. In that respect, students should expect to receive a final grade based on the consistency of their performance throughout the semester. One shouldn’t expect to miss assignments, deadlines, or otherwise under perform in the first part of the semester and attempt to overcome it in a flurry of activity at the end.

Students should also keep in mind that we are graded not on what we already know, but on what we learn. Even the most accomplished filmmaker or scholar can’t expect an A or B without a consistent and continual growth and improvement in knowledge, skills, and critical thinking.

Here are how grades in ACM are defined:

C   The grade of C signifies the level of performance or accomplishment expected of a university student in the state’s premier and nationally ranked institution of higher learning. A grade of C recognizes that the student met the expectations of the course: regular attendance, completion of all assignments, tests and exams, meeting all deadlines, and participation in all class activities. A grade of C rewards the academic behavior and performance expected of a UHM student. The student earning a C has grasped the basic concepts of the course and can apply them with adequate skill to assignments and/or projects. The student is able to accept feedback in the direction and correction of her/his work and incorporate it in her/his learning to demonstrate improvement. In courses involving group projects, the student offered solid and adequate support and contributions to the group’s outcome. A course where the common grade is C carries no negative reflection on either the students or the instructor. It is not a penalty grade – it is the norm. A grade of C (NOT C-) in a pre-requisite course is required to continue in the higher-level course(s).

B   The grade of B signifies an increased level of effort AND performance by the student. The student earning a B has not only met expectations of student performance (attendance, assignments, etc.), but has exceeded many in significant, measurable ways. The student has consistently improved throughout the semester as demonstrated by increased quality and quantity of work reflected in assignments, projects, tests, exams, participation, etc. The student’s work requires some direction and correction, but she/he can then exercise independence in taking it to higher levels and improved outcomes. In courses requiring group projects, the student was able to assume full responsibility, often assuming multiple roles and duties, to making significant contributions to the group’s success. There is no “B for effort” alone. It is not a reward for simply “trying hard.”  The grade of B is NOT “the new C.”

A  The grade of A signifies the highest level of performance and accomplishment, exceeding ALL expected course outcomes. The student earning an A has taken responsibility for her/his learning, independently accumulating knowledge and improving skills beyond the classroom. The A student’s work requires minimal direction and correction and results in outcomes that can serve as a model of student achievement for the course. In courses requiring group projects, the student has exercised leadership, often assisting others in realizing their full potential to contribute to the group’s success.    

D   The student has performed below the expectations of the course. Many factors can contribute to this minimal passing grade including poor attendance, poor performance in assignments, projects, tests and exams, lack of participation and cooperation with others. Any behavior that interferes with the learning of others, including frequent lateness, class disruptions, and lack of contributions to group projects, can result in a grade of D regardless of other levels of individual performance.

F  The student has not completed a sufficient level of quantity or quality of work to earn a passing grade. The student earning an F has not met a significant number of course expectations. Any incident of academic dishonesty, including cheating and plagiarism, will result in an automatic F.

+/- Individual instructors may utilize the plus and minus system to further define or elaborate on these standards.