The movie “High Noon” has interesting comparisons to the philosophies and views of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. It would be easy to analyze the lead character Kane as mirroring the philosophical views of Kant. This paper will analyze the somewhat contradictory actions of other characters which, to me, represent a quintessential truth about personal beliefs – that they are changed according to situation. I will be commenting on two characters in the movie which show a change in the views of the characters in relation to situational factors.
We will be looking at Amy Kane and Mayor Jonas Henderson. Amy is Kane’s new wife. She is a religious woman, a pacifist Quaker, who chose this lifestyle in response to having witnessed her father and brother killed by gunmen. Her current views on guns, violence and personal involvement in the two reflect an emotional bias which completely differs from the Kantian view, that ethics should be based on a person’s rational and universal duty both to one’s self and to others (Sommers & Sommers, 2010).
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Kant would disapprove of the fact that she focuses on consequences.
She does not see the act of killing simply for its act and the defensive purpose. She thinks about who could and will die and not enough about why they would risk their lives to perform such an action. Kant would argue that she does not see the duty in the individual’s action and rather is heavily focused on consequence. Amy exhibits more of the philosophy of John Stuart Mill who believed the foundation for ethical and moral action should be based on the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number of people (Sommers & Sommers, 2010).
In the last scene of the movie, Amy takes a drastic turn from Mill’s views towards Kant’s philosophy. She is able to set aside emotional reaction for rational thought, and by doing so realizes the duty she has of protecting her husband and his duty to protect her and the townspeople. She is willing to change her views on killing to save her husband, though she does not break with her morals. What she does is justified; logical, moral act which Kant would promote for the simple fact that it follows the Ethics of Duty. Amy is a very dynamic character in the movie.
She stays moral and true to her beliefs, but how she defines this or how her actions define her is what changes. Amy boards the noon train, bound to leave Kane behind, due to her beliefs, but rushes off the train when she hears the sound of gunfire. Amy chooses her husband’s life over her religious beliefs, shooting Pierce from behind. Though she does not lose her emotional viewpoint on killing, she is able to put emotion aside and not let it interfere with what she ultimately realizes as a rational duty to herself and her husband.
Another example of a change in the views of the characters in relation to situational factors would be Mayor Jonas Henderson. Jonas is shown as being one of Kane’s closest friends by the fact that he served as the best man at Kane and Amy’s wedding, as well as his own statement of the fact (Krammer & Zinnemann, 1952). When Jonas first learns that Frank Miller has been pardoned and will be coming into town in a little over an hour, his concern for his friend is evident. He tells Kane to get out of town “right now” and with his hand on his shoulder, directs him to the door.
His obvious concerns are for Kane if he is in town when Miller arrives. His actions of trying to get Kane to leave town in that moment were driven by a duty to a close friend. The actions of Jonas in this moment were an instinctual, emotional mix of Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Duty based ethics. Jonas felt a duty to protect his friend and an obligation to provide the greatest happiness to Kane and his new wife. Kane says “I think I should stay”. Jonas replies, “Are you crazy? Think of Amy”. Kane reluctantly leaves, but leaves quickly.
As Kane rides off with his horses at a gallop, Jonas is shown with a proud look on his face, his duty accomplished. As I said in the introduction, Kane’s belief system mirrors the philosophical views of Kant. Running was never an option. Not too far down the road, Kane’s sense of duty turns him around and heads him back into town and back into danger. In Kane’s attempt to recruit deputies he is forced to interrupt Sunday church services asking for help. Jonas is in attendance. After much debate, Jonas takes the floor and begins to speak.
Jonas’ speech is totally void of any partiality, it is a very rational explanation of what he feels needs to be done. He states that what the town owes Kane, it could never pay back and that Kane is the best Marshall they ever had and maybe will ever have but the town is growing and cannot afford for there to be killing in the streets if they are to enjoy any prosperity. Jonas states that Kane did not have to return and that he wishes he had not. It is possible that with Kane gone, Miller will do nothing.
Jonas then asks a second time for Kane to leave town but this time Jonas’ decision was not a mixture but pure Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism asks us to maximize the good and minimize the bad, and it is impartial. Moral conflicts should be solved from an impartial standpoint where no person is singled out and given more weight than another (Bykvist, K. 2009). This standpoint does not have to be a standpoint of personal detachment since it can also be viewed as generalized self-concern.
There are several examples in the movie that show personal beliefs, which are based in solid theory, can be challenged and altered in the light of changing circumstances. High Noon shows us a ninety minute glimpse into the shaping and changing of personal beliefs based on variable determining factors. It also shows us that some people will hold to their beliefs as absolute and unchanging. Our example of this is Kane himself. After winning the gunfight the townspeople all gather around him.
This was not to be a joyous celebration for all. Kane looks at the townspeople with disgust and contemptuously drops his badge to the ground and rides away. He was unwilling to see the townspeople’s philosophy of the greater good and felt betrayed by their changes in belief. I ask this simple question in conclusion; if it is true that we can relate to the characters and the decisions that they made, than it must be true that we also can see these challenges and changes in our own lives.
If we can see these changes in our own lives and the lives of others, how can we subscribe to any one moral philosophy as absolute? I do not believe we can.