In the history of modern popular culture, there have been few American satires as influential and successful as the animated television show, The Simpsons. With Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and baby Maggie living in the everytown of Springfield, U.S.A., they find themselves in many situations common to most Americans, including being under the rule of ruthless corporate raiders like Charles Montgomery Burns.
As owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Mr. Burns displays all the characteristics of a classic egoist, though his satirical portrayal takes many of the attributes and accentuates them to the point of ridiculousness. Mr. Burns shows absolutely no charitable tendencies, is concerned solely with money and power, and cares little for anyone other than himself, which makes him anything but a relativist or utilitarian, but seems to make him more of an ethical egoist.
Mr. Burns is a corporate raider, characterized on the show as being over a century old, putting him amongst the original robber barons. The character himself is actually based on an amalgam of media magnate William Randolph Hearst and his fictional counterpart Charles Foster Kane, both characters that focused solely on their power and how to use and enhance it. In The Simpsons, almost every story concerning Mr. Burns includes his blatant disregard for anyone else other than himself and his own interests.
One of the most obvious depictions of Burns’ ethics comes in the two-part episode called “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” In the episode, oil is discovered beneath Springfield Elementary School, and the school seems poised to get a windfall of money from the discovery. This will allow the terribly dilapidated and underfunded school to make many improvements in every aspect of the curriculum. However, Mr. Burns discovers the oil and creates a slant drilling company that will draw the oil up from an angle, in the process destroying the Springfield Retirement Home and making the popular Moe’s Tavern uninhabitable for humans. In addition to alienating the school, destroying the retirement home, and putting Moe’s out of business, Mr. Burns also fails to remember the name of his decade-long employee, Homer Simpson.
His selfishness and self-absorption have managed to anger just about everyone in town, though he is only concerned with making more money and becoming even more powerful. He finally reveals his grand scheme to his loyal assistant Waylon Smithers, which is to build a giant device that will block out the sun in Springfield and require all the citizens in town to use electricity from his plant twenty-four hours a day. He even feels so good that he wants to steal candy from a baby.
When his loyal assistant objects, Burns quickly fires him, never realizing that Smithers’ life desire was merely to work for Mr. Burns. Burns is blind to everything and everyone, and he finally succeeds at blocking out the sun, incurring the anger of everyone in town. It is when he celebrates his victory he is shot by an unknown assailant, who after a cliffhanger, is revealed to be baby Maggie Simpson as he attempts to steal her candy and subsequently shot by his own gun (“Who Shot Mr. Burns?”).
While the over three-hundred episodes of The Simpsons have many instances of Mr. Burns making ethically questionable decisions in the name of money and power, this episode remains one of the most famous and obvious examples of his selfishness. To Burns, nothing is as important as his business success, and this is the single factor dictating his ethics and his actions. Burns’ morality bleeds into every aspect of his life outside of business, though to him there are no other concerns than business.
Morality and ethics are important to every aspect of human life, including in business, and many ethical theorists have sought to understand the extent of morality and the duty that individuals and organizations have to other individuals and organizations. Though no laws of morality or ethics have been established, there are four core concepts presented by ethical theorists: ethical relativism, which espouses that ethics is a question of individual choice and preference; impartiality, which suggests that humans should treat each other as equals where none count more than others; sympathy, which is the imaginative ability to put oneself in another’s shoes; and moral sufficiency, which seeks to answer just how much moral decency is reasonably possible (Gibson 62-63).
In business matters, these issues and the questions they pose are even greater, as businesses have the potential to create great benefit for others, or do them great harm, all the while trying to maximize profit and retain success. Mr. Burns is far from an ethical relativist, for he shows no concern for the benefit of others. In fact, he takes joy out of creating misery for others, as long as their misery is profitable to him. He assumes responsibility for his actions without shame, and feels no remorse if anyone is hurt. After all, one of his greatest desires was to take candy from a baby, for no other reason than he could.
In the essay, “Thinking Ethically,” the authors attempt to apply various ethical approaches to moral issues in business, which could apply to Mr. Burns’ actions. One of the first and most widely known approaches is the utilitarian approach, which seeks to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals. The way to analyze the utilitarian approach is to identify the various course of action available, ask who will be affected by each action and what benefits and harms will come from them, and choose the action that will produce the greatest benefits and least harm (Velasquez 64).
Mr. Burns, if anything, purposefully contradicts this mode of action, as he derives pleasure in the misery of those he vanquishes in the name of greater profit and power, even if these people are innocent. Another ethical approach is the Rights Approach, which espouses that an action is moral as long as it falls within the moral rights of an individual, while the Fairness or Justice Approach which states that favoritism and discrimination are wrong.
The Common Good Approach focuses on ensuring that social policies, social systems, institutions, and environments on which we depend are beneficial to all; the Virtue Approach assumes that there are certain ideals towards which humans should strive, which provide for the full development of humanity (66). By approaching situations of ethical ambiguity with these theories, one has a better chance of choosing the correct mode of action. For Burns, all of these ethical approaches are not applicable, for he fails to ever consider how his actions may affect anyone else negatively.
Or, when he does think about it, he gets pleasure in being able to impose his power to the point where he can bring misery to others through his actions, as in his celebration after blotting out the sun despite the protests of everyone in the entire town, including his closest supporter Smithers.
In Donelson Forsyth’s article, “Judging the Morality of Business Practices: The Influence of Personal Moral Philosophies,” he examines the ways business leaders approach ethical relativism and how it does not need to necessarily defeat the moral enterprise. However, to someone like Mr. Burns, ethics are nothing more than an afterthought, while the bottom line is the only thing that matters.
While studies have suggested the impact of relativism and idealism on moral judgment and behavior depends on the nature of the social institution, individual differences in personal moral philosophy suggests that humans will most likely never reach the ideal of complete agreement, but can aim for a fuller understanding of one’s own and others’ reactions to various types of business practices (Forsyth 75). In the case of Burns, he only agrees and appreciates with those that share his views on profiteering and power, even though he remains skeptical and suspicious of every threat; and he considers virtually everybody a threat to his wealth and power.
This is why, despite having more money than anyone in town and never being able to spend it all, all the instances when Mr. Burns is asked to contribute even a little of his money to help someone else, he vehemently rejects the request. This has been seen many times in the show, from Homer asking for help with a sick dog to a girl scout trying to sell Mr. Burns cookies only to have him “release the hounds” on her.
Mr. Burns greed and complete lack of charity display his true nature as an ethical egoist. In Peter Singer’s article, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” the author proposes that if people in affluent countries like the United States donated a small portion of their money that would normally be spent on luxury items, then the money can be used to help out poverty stricken peoples around the world.
He uses examples of how this can be done, by citing the costs incurred by someone who buys a new television merely to upgrade from an older one. He claims that if this money was donated to such charities as Unicef or Oxfam America that it would do a greater deal of good for the most possible people, thereby having the greatest utility value. By choosing to buy the television and not donate the money, Singer feels that a person is making a questionable moral decision, even though few in the situation actually feel this way.
Singer uses a more provocative hypothetical example of a man named Bob, who has an uninsurable classic car that he will sell to insure that he has money for his retirement. In the situation, Bob is forced to make a decision as a train bears down on his car and a little boy; Bob has a choice whether to save the boy or the car, but not both, and Bob chooses the car and lets the boy die. While this dramatic example seems to highlight the undesirable attributes of self-interest, Singer claims that the “difference between Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don’t is that only Bob can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organization” (Singer).
By Singer’s logic, those that are not donating to these organizations are committing an act similar to the one performed by Bob. Mr. Burns would not only laugh at such a concept, but would relish the fact that anyone asking for help would be suffering. If in the same situation, he would most certainly save the car, and most likely praise Bob for saving his car, before figuring out a way to get the car from Bob for himself.
Mr. Burns utilizes his power to inflict his will upon others, and only respects those who do the same. As, all humans are born with free will, the decision to be charitable or uncharitable rests within that freedom. The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant contributed much to the Western discussion of ethics and free will, and his conception of freedom and virtue are reasoned by “the critical distinction of the two modes of representation (the sensible and the intellectual) and the consequent limitation of the conceptions of the pure understanding and of the principles which flow from them” (Kant).
Kant attempts to distinguish between the empirical and rational conceptions of free will and how it influences virtue, questioning whether freedom is the independent choices of free will or merely the practical reaction to circumstance and causality. To this end, Kantianism is highly dependent upon reason to figure out the proper decision concerning virtue, and his ethics rely on obligation to reason more than emotions or goals. Thus, the Kantian approach to donation and charity would be the duty of those that have the means to donate. Burns would patently disagree. Most certainly, Mr. Burns is an ethical egoist.
Ethical egoism is a philosophical practice that encourages individuals to pursue their own self-interests. While it is idealistic to think of helping unknown masses with one’s own hard earned money, it is also naïve to think that people should feel obligated to do so. A person who works hard to make money to buy fine things is entitled to those things. Just because a person is successful and can afford luxury items does not mean that they are obligated to help strangers because it serves some sort of utilitarian purpose. If anything, much of this altruism merely perpetuates a cycle in which those who are poor become accustomed to the aid of those who are not. If they pursued their own self-interests, they would be better able to rise above their own struggles and create a successful world for themselves.
Ethical egoism is not entirely without the concept of helping others, however it focuses not on people that an individual will never meet, but the people in his or her life and those that the person loves and touches personally. If one’s family is in trouble and one possesses the ability to give assistance, this is in the individual’s best interest, as it will lead to happiness. However, for an extreme example like Mr. Burns, there is no one that he wishes to help, save for the occasional cute pet or his old stuffed teddy bear. Mr. Burns is a classic example of an ethical egoist, and no one should expect him to do anything for anyone other than himself. And, in the twenty years that The Simpsons have been on television, he has done nothing but loyally follow his ethical egoist values.
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Gibson, Kevin. “The Theoretical Backdrop of Business Ethics.” Business Ethics: People, Profits,
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Velasquez, Manuel, ; Claire Andre, Tomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. “Thinking
Ethically: A Framework for Moral Decision Making.” Business Ethics: People, Profits, and the Planet. Ed. Kevin Gibson. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities, 2005. 64-67.
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1999; pp. 60-63. Utilitarian Philosophers. 4 Apr 2008. ;http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/19990905.htm;
“Who Shot Mr. Burns?” The Simpsons. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. 20th Century Fox. 21