Mohandas Ghandi said, “Morality is contraband in war,” but Saving Private Ryan shows viewers that war has a moral component to it. In Saving Private Ryan, an elderly veteran remembers his experience in World War II, starting with the beginning of the Normandy Invasion in France. Tom Hanks’s character, Captain John H. Miller, is one of the men who survived. Back in the U.S., General George C. Marshal discovers that 3 of the 4 Ryan brothers were killed in combat within days of each other and their mother will receive the notices on the same day.
Captain Miller gets orders to find the final living Ryan son, James Francis Ryan. With his team of 7, they journey toward the rally point of Ryan’s regiment. On the way, they lose 2 men before they find Ryan. They think they almost find Ryan, but it turns out to be a James Frederick Ryan instead of James Francis Ryan. While they try to take an abandoned radar station, they run into a German patrol. Only one German survives, and Reiben wants to kill him, while Upham befriends him. Upham reminds the others that the German surrendered and urges them adhere to the rules. When faced with the choice to execute him, Miller lets him go.
Once they find the right Ryan, they join Ryan and his unit defending a bridge against a German attack. In the battle, nearly all of Miller’s original men die. At the end of the attack, before the German tank reaches the bridge, American planes destroy the train. Miller is fatally shot, and his last words to Ryan are “earn it, earn this.” The movie shifts back to the present and Ryan, an old man, reflects on whether he has lived his life as a “good man.”
Buried among the dead corpses, final orders, and artillery shells are moral principles from John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Jesus.
Mills, using his theory of Utilitarianism to examine the mission to rescue Ryan, would potentially decide the mission was immoral. Promoting the most happiness is the ultimate goal of morality, according to Mills, and he unknowingly attaches a value to each human life. Looking at the human cost, 5 men died to save one man. Mills would argue that the pain inflicted on the 5 men who died and their families outweighs the happiness achieved by Ryan and his mother, and therefore, the mission was immoral.
However, the problems with Utilitarianism, namely unforeseeability, are evident in the last few minutes of the movie. As Captain Miller is dying, he urges Ryan to “earn this” and to make the men’s sacrifice worthwhile. At the end of the movie, Ryan’s wife assures him that he has been a “good man,” and he earned the sacrifice of his comrades. The people that Ryan would encounter in the future were still unknown at the time of the mission, so what seemed like an immoral mission to Mills may have created much more happiness for more people that Ryan influenced.
From Rawls’s view of social justice, the mission to save Private Ryan could be moral. Rawls’s philosophy focuses on two principles: first, everyone has a right to maximum liberty, and second, inequality is acceptable if it benefits the greater good. Inequality surfaces when Ryan gets to go home and sees that the others do not. “What about the rest? They fought just as hard as I did,” Ryan says. Arguably, the mission to save Ryan satisfies Rawls’s second principle. While initially inflicting pain and inequality, the mission could improve the greater good in the long term. Viewing the mission from this perspective, however, expresses the similar problem of unforeseeability as Mills’s Utilitarianism.
In the care-based perspective of Jesus, the mission to save Ryan could also be moral. One must ask, “What would Jesus do?” Other than using his divine influence, Jesus would go back and rescue Ryan, because Jesus preached a doctrine of moral reciprocity, or the Golden Rule. Jesus taught his followers to do unto others as they would have the others do unto them. This principle backfires when the soldiers capture an enemy German soldier and have the opportunity to murder him. Led by the Golden Rule’s sway toward mercy, Captain Miller allows the German to go free. Later, this soldier returns with the German force at the bridge and shoots Captain Miller.
Unlike those who proclaim all actions in war are immoral, some form of morality is present. Watching this movie and learning about the development of morality over time made me think about how any action can be considered moral or immoral. Regardless, I do not think you can assign any action as moral or immoral with certainty unless you consider the consequences and outcome of your decision over time. There were certain ethical decisions in life I made where the initial consequences were unfavorable. As time went on, I realized that the decision I made was truly for the best. For example, a reporter can decide to write an incriminating story that harms its subjects and harms himself if he is fired, but two months later, that same story can springboard national awareness of whatever issue and land him another job at a much better paper. In my life, I can consider the intent and consequences of any action, but I think whether an action is moral or immoral is ultimately determined after time has passed.