An ancient compass made of painted floor tiles
(featured image: eltio_lewis CC BY 2.0)

Drama in ethics, ethics in drama

Good drama is about the vivid, compelling depiction of the characters’ decisions, and the ethical challenges that confront the dramatis personae are an essential ingredient.

rama is truly compelling when it exposes the raw, painful trade-offs its characters face”, I wrote in Good drama = good economics. Good drama does not just entertain you, but makes you think. Why do these characters behave the way they do? What motivates their choices and decisions? Perhaps even, what would I do if I were this or that character? Classic plays by Shakespeare, or even 2000 years earlier, by Sophocles or Aristophanes are masterful in their observation and depiction of human behaviour and the moral dilemmas that characterize it. But modern TV drama can do so, too. A recent episode of the Italian TV series Il Commissario Montalbano contained no less than three separate story lines, each one set around ethical challenges, and with a particular moral dilemma facing the protagonist.

The womanizing deputy

A Swedish film crew has descended on Vigata, the mid-sized Sicilian town where inspector Montalbano runs the police station, assisted by his deputy, inspector Augello. Augello, who in this episode is in charge of escorting the movie people, has one major weakness: women (despite being relatively happily married).

On the first day of the shoot, the leading actress disappears, and is later found to have spent some time on a boat — with Augello. The director (who is also the actress’s boyfriend) is furious. Despite the protestations of the duo that they were just enjoying the sea on a short boat trip, it is everyone’s impression that they were, in fact, enjoying each other. The next day, during an agitated meeting with Montalbano, the director demands that Augello is removed from his duties.

Screenshot from the programme, showing the director’s joy at Montalbano’s decision
Screenshot from the programme, showing the director’s joy at Montalbano’s decision
The director’s relief is genuine, and not being acted (photo: screenshot of Il Commissario Montalbano)

Montalbano responds that “everyone’s impression” is not sufficient ground for him to take such disciplinary action. But at that precise moment (it is drama), the phone rings. It is Augello, asking that someone else takes over his role leading the police escort. It appears his wife had heard of the boat trip, and his face is still, literally, bearing the scars of the altercation that followed when he got home the night before. Thus, a timely opportunity lands in Montalbano’s lap to be economical with the truth, and pretend to meet the director’s demand.

When, shortly after, Augello arrive at the station, he assures Montalbano that, really, nothing happened between him and the director’s girlfriend: all they did was talk. However, he feels guilty about the falling-out between the director and the actress and asks his boss to try and put things right. That evening, Montalbano invites the director and the set manager (who is an old acquaintance) for a meal, ostensibly to apologize for the problems with his deputy the night before. Yet, before the starters arrive, his phone rings. His face becomes solemn: apparently Augello has attempted to commit suicide. Montalbano explains to his companions that, following an accident a year earlier, Augello has “lost his virility”. All treatment has proved ineffective, and earlier that day, he learned that his last hope has turned out to be idle too.

As Montalbano excuses himself for having to leave, the viewers realize that this was all a set-up, of course. Now we’re really talking ethics — yet, there is still a final twist to the storyline to come. When the actress herself later thanks him for his intervention, especially for lying, Montalbano says, “We sometimes have to twist the truth a little — but I felt it was the right thing to do, given the fact that all you did was talk. “ The reaction of the actress to this, however, leaves no doubt that Augello too has been rather economical with the truth: they had been rocking the boat during that trip.

A veritable club sandwich of ethical challenges, which shows Montalbano torn between being truthful and being loyal to his friend and colleague, who betrayed him. But he is no moral superbeing, beyond a touch of revenge: he wants payback for Augello’s lies — and he gets it: that night, he sends his deputy on a bogus mission (after which they agree they’re even).

The bullying of the nerd

In the second story, two armed activists from a group calling itself Nameless storm a secondary classroom and threaten anyone who doesn’t support their cause, reinforcing their message by shooting into the air twice. However, it quickly emerges that things are not what they seem.

First, Nameless deny responsibility for the attack. Then Montalbano gathers that, initially at least, one of the pupils, unlike his terrified classmates, remained remarkably composed. This boy, a computer whizz-kid named Luigino, has been the victim of bullying, and Montalbano’s spidey sense tells him there might be a link between this and the attack.

With the help of a computer-savvy colleague (Montalbano is remarkably IT-naïve), he surreptitiously sends an anonymous email to Luigino, saying that he has been found out, and threatening to report him to the police if he doesn’t do as he is told. Unorthodox methods with questionable ethics, but (predictably) they prove his hunch right. As he learns later, Luigino had poured out his heart on a computer boffin discussion forum, and two shady characters had offered to ‘protect’ him (they needed someone to help them commit computer fraud). When he receives the anonymous mail, he thinks the two protectors are about to start blackmailing him, and so he confesses all to Montalbano.

But when the kid says he now expects to go to prison and asks the inspector to look after his mum while he is locked up, Montalbano comes clean and reveals it was he who sent the anonymous email, and apologizes revealing another glimpse of his moral compass.

A suicide from the past

The actual police case in the episode concerns the death of a man, more than 40 years earlier. Emanuele Sabatello, born with a severe psychological disorder, had been inseparable from his twin brother Francesco and completely dependent on him, the only person who understood him and who was able to soothe him when he was distressed. Since they were boys, Francesco had been his loving carer, and he kept looking after his brother also after he got married and had a son, Ernesto: Emanuele lived with the family. However, tragedy had then struck: still in his thirties, Francesco died of a tumour, and some time before that, Emanuele killed himself — or at least that is how the story went.

From a close friend of Francesco, who is now in his eighties, Montalbano finds out that the original diagnosis had given Francesco just six months to live, but against all odds, he lived for another six years. He also learns more details about Emanuele’s suicide: he had apparently shot himself with his brother’s pistol, despite being terrified of firearms. Puzzled by these circumstances, he digs deeper, and manages to track down Gasparino, who worked as a gardener for Francesco at the time.

An emotional Francesco holding his blindfolded twin brother Emanuele tight
An emotional Francesco holding his blindfolded twin brother Emanuele tight
A final hug… (photo: screenshot of Il Commissario Montalbano)

On his deathbed (it definitely is drama) Gasparino confirms Montalbano’s suspicion that Emanuele’s death was not suicide. It was indeed Francesco who, upon being told he had barely six months to live, could not face the idea of abandoning his twin brother, and who saw no other option than to shoot Emanuele and make it look like suicide. Gasparino, who witnessed the scene and assisted Francesco, implores Montalbano not to reveal the truth to Ernesto, Francesco’s son (and Emanuele’s nephew).

Here we have the modern equivalent of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, in which it is profound love that compels a good person to commit a terrible act. And we have Montalbano yet again facing a moral dilemma. His duty as a policeman to uphold the rule of law and make sure justice is done is pitted against the question what good it would do to anyone to charge a dying old man and shatter the Ernesto’s memories the father he lost much too soon.

Deontological versus utilitarian ** ethics, obeying rules, or weighing up harm and good — there is no textbook answer to the dilemmas we face. Thankfully, we do have drama, ancient and modern, that can show us in an infinite number of ways how others deal with their ethical challenges, and that can help us recognize ourselves in the characters so we can shape, and reshape our moral compass.

Originally published at on November 6, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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