Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

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“Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right.”—Ben Gates, National Treasure (2004)

In preparation for this article, I sent that quote to 16 willing participants along with a question. Do you agree with the idea of doing something wrong to do what’s right? Why or why not? They probably thought this review was about the history-loving hero who steals the Declaration of Independence to protect it from greedy treasure hunters. Nope. It’s about a recently-divorced father who dresses up as a nanny to spend more time with his kids. Mrs. Doubtfire.

But really, are the two movies that different? Ben Gates steals something for what he believes is a greater good: protecting it. Daniel Hillard lies to his wife for what he believes is a greater good: watching his children grow up. In this article we’re focusing on Daniel, played by the hilarious Robin Williams. So now…let’s dive into the ethics of doing what’s wrong in order to do what’s right.

Like any study, it’s important to start off with some definitions. Savannah nailed those. “The idea of utilitarianism is that the moral thing to do is whatever will result in the greatest good for the greatest amount of people…Contrastingly, deontologists believe that the morality is based on the action itself, not the consequence.” In the context of Mrs. Doubtfire, a utilitarian would say that Daniel did the right thing because his decision resulted in more time with family, his wife had a nanny to help out around the house, and the kids (whether they knew it or not) got to go on fun outings with their father. However, a deontologist would say Daniel did the wrong thing because he lied.

I get the sense that most people tend to lean on the side of utilitarianism. Philippa, for example, said, “If people were harmed in the process of doing wrong to do right, then no, I don’t agree.” She used the example of all the murders that are happening right now in the Middle East in order to find “someone bad.” Chelsey also had a great example: “I picture it in a basic form as when, as a young person, you promise a friend to never tell their secrets. Yet they tell you something they are doing that you know is terrible for them so you decide to tell their parents. Sometimes in life we face decisions like this but on a much larger scale, where the repercussions are more serious…”

Utilitarianism makes sense, but the problem with extreme utilitarianism (or extreme anything, for that matter) is that it’s not practical. My buddy Luke used the season 4 finale of Sherlock as an example. “[It] involves the villain putting the heroes through a series of morality tests. The first one involves shooting a man or else his family will die. It would be easy to say kill the man to save the family. But with my finger on the trigger, I just don’t think I could pull it.” I don’t know if I could, either.

Tommy immediately asked me, “Are you referring to doing things that are wrong in society’s eyes or doing things that are objectively wrong according to Scripture?” And Kim said, “I think the question is: considered wrong by whom?” These are important questions that should pop into our minds right away, and our answers depend on our background, according to Keleigh. “What defines wrong or right?” she asked. “Religion? Politics? Laws? Culture? I believe that it all depends on what your personal beliefs on wrong or right is; these terms are defined differently for everyone based on how they grew up, experiences they have had, family, etc.”

In the opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel walks out on a voiceover gig because doesn’t like how the animated cartoon portrays smoking cigarettes in a positive light. The financially smart decision in that situation, of course, would have been to stick to the script and make the producers happy so he could keep his job. But his conscience won’t allow him to do this, so he ends up sputtering “P-p-p-piss off, Lou” in a spot-on Porky Pig voice as he heads out the door.

The idea of conscience—or a moral compass—playing a role in our understanding of right and wrong was a common trend among the responses. Jonathan said, “If I know what I’m doing is without a doubt the right thing, then I’m going to do it, even if people do not agree with it.” Missy said, “It would be more of a punishment to go against my conscience than man’s consequence that I may have to serve. I’ll go with my conscience.” Noah said, “As unsatisfactory as it is, my answer is conditional. We must know what is truly right.”

The above statements suggest that even in unimaginably difficult circumstances, deep down we have a moral compass within us that tells us the difference between right and wrong. “I do not think that doing wrong to do right is the correct thing to do. Who you are in those tough times, I believe, shows your true character,” said Tal. Christians would call this inner motivation and guidance the voice of the Holy Spirit. Les (a pastor who happens to be my father) explained, “Followers of Jesus know what is right and the kind of behavior that honors the Lord.” Whether or not individuals choose to act on such convictions is another matter. Sometimes we listen, many times we do not.

The struggle is that, like Daniel Hillard and Euphegenia Doubtfire, right and wrong are often closely intertwined; they can seem like two sides of the same coin. “The whole concept of ‘right’ is perception,” said Ryan. “Society has a wonderful way of being right and wrong at the same time. For instance, vegans vs. non-vegans, or conservatives vs. liberals. Both come from a perception that vehemently tells them that they are doing the right thing, and both think the other are absolutely insane for thinking the way they do.” For example, Miranda Hillard had very different opinion about Daniel’s cross-dressing than her children did. She saw it as deceit, they saw it as a way to hang out with Dad. Mikaela put it this way: “What one person considers wrong isn’t necessarily what another person would consider wrong. So it’s subjective.”

Kacey and Amy, two professional writing graduates from my alma mater, bring us full circle to Ben Gates and the American Revolution. They said pretty much the same thing, proving once and for all that great minds think alike…

Kacey: Doing wrong is not the same as doing what is considered by the majority to be wrong. It’s not synonymous with doing what’s illegal, either. In the case of the Founding Fathers, they chose to do what may have been legally wrong—rebelling against a ruler—in order to accomplish something morally right: freeing their colonies from economic and societal tyranny. Just because it was called wrong doesn’t mean it was wrong in a moral sense.

Amy: I’d say no, it’s not okay to do something that’s wrong in order to accomplish a good goal…but often the more complicated question is: are we right in our assumptions that an action in a specific situation is wrong? 

Let’s use Ben’s example…The toast was referring to Washington and Co.’s “high treason” of declaring independence from Britain. Illegal? Yes. Foolish? Maybe. Unethical? They’d attempted to make peace in more diplomatic ways (though sure, they could have tried harder), so I’d say no. If they believed the laws of England were unjust, then trying to overthrow the world’s greatest superpower wasn’t ethically wrong. 

I love those two quotes because they remind us that there are many, many factors in understanding what it means for something to be wrong or right. They provide a wrong-or-right litmus test we can apply to many situations, including the plot of Mrs. Doubtfire. Was Daniel Hillard’s nanny stunt illegal? Well, he was breaking the judicial perimeters of when he could see his kids, so yes. Foolish? This is Robin Williams we’re talking about here, so I vote no on this one. The plan makes perfect sense. Unethical? Daniel did not try to make peace in more diplomatic ways. At all. For that and other reasons, my final verdict is yes: the creation of Mrs. Doubtfire is unethical.

But it’s really gosh darn funny…and maybe that’s all that matters.