The ethics of Terence Fletcher’s abusive teaching style in the film Whiplash
Whiplash is a 2014 American film directed by Damien Chazelle (2014). There are two main characters in the film. The first is a young drummer called Andrew Neiman, who is a music student at Shaffer Conservatory. The other character is Terence Fletcher, Neiman’s abusive teacher. Fletcher believes the best way to motivate students is to push them to their limits. To this end, he insults them, shouts at them, slaps them and even throws chairs at them. Neiman quickly becomes Fletcher’s favorite target for abuse, eventually causing Neiman to have a nervous breakdown. Despite this, Fletcher still believes his abusive teaching style is justified because he thinks it pushes students to be the best they can be. This essay examines the ethical consideration of whether Fletcher’s teaching style is an ethical way to motivate his students. It finds that Fletcher’s teachings style was unethical, and uses three ethical theories – utilitarianism, Kantian ethics and the ethics of care – to support its claim. First, this essay uses utilitarianism to show that the consequences of Fletcher’s behavior outweigh its benefits. Then, it uses Kantian ethics and the ethics of care to further support the argument that Fletcher’s teaching style is unethical.
We can show that Fletcher’s teaching style is unethical by using utilitarianism. According to this ethical theory, moral actions maximize utility, such as happiness or pleasure (Mill 1859). In other words, the most moral actions maximize happiness. To determine if Fletcher’s bullying and abuse teaching style was ethical according to utilitarianism, we have to weigh the happiness against the suffering Fletcher caused. What happiness does Fletcher cause? Fletcher believes his abuse is justified because it motivates his students and helps them to become great musicians. A good example is Neiman, because at the end of the film, Neiman indeed becomes a great musician thanks to Fletcher. Neiman will presumably go on to create music that millions of people will enjoy, which means Neiman has helped to make millions of people happy. But despite these benefits of Fletcher’s bullying teaching style, there are also many consequences. For example, his abuses causes his students emotional harm as well as physical harm. In the film, we learn that one of Fletcher’s students killed himself because of Fletcher’s abuse. Another of his students gets into a car crash because he was rushing to a music competition. Furthermore, several of his other students may have damaged psyches for the rest of their lives.
So on the one hand, Fletcher motivates his students to greatness, but on the other hand he also harms his students. Does one hand outweigh the other? Yes, because the negative consequences of Fletcher’s abusive teaching methods outweigh the benefits. This is because Fletcher caused strong unhappiness in his students for very little payoff. Out of all Fletcher’s students, the film implies that none of them become very successful except for Neiman. There was also a strong chance that Neiman could have died or given up on music because of Fletcher. Fletcher almost destroyed Neiman, emotionally, physically and musically. Also, we do know for certain if Neiman will keep on making music for people to enjoy. Therefore, the harmful consequences of Fletcher’s bullying outweighed the benefits of Fletcher’s teaching style. This means that Fletcher’s behavior was unethical according to utilitarianism.
We can also show that Fletcher’s abuse of his students was immoral by using Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant created his categorical imperative as a way to determine if actions are ethical. His categorical imperative has three formulations, and an action has to pass all three of these formulations for it to be ethical (Kant 1875). This makes it a suitable test to determine if Fletcher’s actions were ethical. The first formulation of the categorical imperative is the principle of universal law. This principle states that moral actions can be consistently universalized. Can we consistently universalize Fletcher’s actions? To answer this question, we can phrase Fletcher’s actions as a maxim and then try to universalize it. We could use the maxim: “all teachers can abuse their pupils”. To universalize this maxim, we must imagine a world where all teachers are allowed to abuse their pupils in the same way Fletcher did. So in this world, teachers can slap pupils, throw chairs at them, and abuse them psychologically. This world could not exist because parents would not allow the abuse to happen. Parents would see the damage to their children and take them out of school. Therefore, we cannot consistently universal Fletcher’s behavior. And since we cannot consistently universal it, it means it is immoral.
We can also verify the immorality of Fletcher’s behavior with the second formulation of the categorical imperative: the principle of ends. According to this formulation, an immoral person uses other people as a means to an end. In other words, an immoral person manipulates people to obtain things that he wants. Is Fletcher an immoral person according to his formulation? Yes, because a key part of Fletcher’s teaching style is manipulating and lying to his students. Furthermore, this manipulation was for Fletcher’s own selfish goal of turning them into great musicians. This is shown when Fletcher manipulates Neiman to make him practice harder. It is also clear that Fletcher did not treat with Neiman with respect, because he ruthlessly harmed Neiman’s physical and mental health. Therefore, Fletcher’s actions also fail the second formulation of the categorical imperative. This adds to the weight of evidence proving that Fletcher’s actions were immoral.
Another way we can see that Fletcher’s abuse in Whiplash was unethical is by using ethics of care. Ethics of care is an ethical theory developed in the late twentieth century by feminists (Gilligan 1982). These feminists argued that empathy and sensitivity was more important than the cold, masculine logic of rule-based ethical theories, According to ethics of care, moral people show sympathy and care towards other people. Moral people also have trusting, caring and respectful relationships with other people. Was Fletcher’s behavior in Whiplash therefore unethical according to ethics of care? Yes, because Fletcher was not respectful or sympathetic with his students. Instead, he was exploitative and hostile. He threw chairs at people and made Neiman drum until his hands bled. A sympathetic teacher would not have abused his students like this. Perhaps the greatest example of Fletcher’s failure to care is when Neiman crashes his car and arrives at a concert covered in blood. Instead of being sympathetic and concerned like a normal person, Fletcher instead dismisses Neiman for ruining the performance. Fletcher did not seem concerned at all that Neiman had been in a car crash – instead, he was angry at Neiman for ruining the performance. This behavior demonstrates that Fletcher’s actions were immoral according to ethics of care. In Whiplash, Fletcher’s abusive teaching style – throwing chairs at pupils, slapping them, and making them play until their hands bled – was unethical. However, Fletcher believed he was doing the right thing because he thought his teaching style was the best way to motivate students. He may have been right, because by the end of the film, Neiman indeed became a great musician. However, Fletcher’s harsh teaching style also caused one student to commit suicide, and Niemen himself also suffered from a nervous breakdown. Therefore, the consequences of Fletcher’s abusive teaching style outweigh its benefits. Furthermore, Kantian ethics shows that Fletcher’s behaviour was immoral because he was manipulating his students to get them to practice harder. Moreover, we cannot universalize the maxim “all teachers can abuse their pupils” which also implies Fletcher’s behaviour was immoral. Ethics of care also shows the immorality of Fletcher’s teaching style. Given all this evidence, it seems clear that Fletcher was wrong to abuse his students in the way he did. Even though Fletcher justified his abuse as a cost of great art, in the end, his abuse was simply immoral.
Works CitedChazelle, D. (2014). Whiplash, Sony Pictures Classics: 106 minutes.Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice, Harvard University Press.Kant, I. (1875). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Yale University Press.Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. UK, Penguin.
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