Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Andy Griffith Show: "Runaway Kid," and Moral Questions

I’ve been watching The Andy Griffith Show during my lunch time.  A couple days ago, I watched an episode that I found a bit puzzling.  It’s from Season 1, and it’s entitled “Runaway Kid.”

The episode starts with Opie and his friends playing cowboy in town.  Sheriff Andy Taylor (Opie’s father) sees them, and Opie pretends like he is shooting his Dad.  Andy plays along, then goes into the Sheriff’s office to get some work done.

Opie’s friends decide to play a trick on Sheriff Taylor.  Their plan is to move Andy’s car in front of a fire hydrant.  That way, the Sheriff, who is supposed to uphold the law, looks pretty dopey because he inadvertently disobeyed the law himself.  Opie goes along with their plan, and they make Opie promise not to tell the Sheriff that they were the ones who moved the Sheriff’s car.  Opie promises.
Well, Deputy Barney Fife notices that the Sheriff’s car is parked in front of a fire hydrant, and he decides to arrest Andy.  Andy asks to plead his case, and Andy asks Barney if Barney has ever known him to do anything illegal.  Barney says no.

Andy goes outside, and Opie comes up to him, confessing that he and his friends were the ones who moved Andy’s car in front of the fire hydrant.  Opie tells Andy that Opie promised his friends not to reveal this information, but thought that he should do so.  Regarding the prank, Andy laughed it off and said that there was no harm done.  But Andy did not think that it was right for Opie to break his promise to his friends.  Andy told Opie that he admired his character, but that Opie should remember the importance of keeping a promise.

Well, Andy’s words there bite him later in the episode.  Opie brings home a boy who has run away from home to be a cowboy.  Opie promised this boy not to tell the boy’s parents where he is.  Opie was holding Andy to that promise, too.  Andy tries to find some way around this promise, and his solution is to convince the boy to go back home to his parents, which the boy agrees to do.  Andy then calls the boy’s parents and tells them where the boy is.

Opie is outraged.  He thinks that his father gave him a rule that he then went on to break himself.  Andy then gives Opie a little lecture on situational ethics.  Suppose there is a sign by a pond saying that no swimming is allowed.  Suppose that Opie saw a boy drowning in that lake.  Would Opie obey the sign, or would Opie break the rule and dive into the pond to save the drowning boy?  Andy then said that rules are good, but that there are cases in which, to help somebody, one may have to bend the rules a little.  Opie agrees with his father.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  It took me a little aback to see Opie pretending to shoot his father, and his father having no problem with that.  But those are games that many kids play.  While one can say that this desensitizes kids to disregard the sanctity of life, many would respond that it is just pretend.  The same questions arise today, in discussions about violent video games.

2.  I was surprised that Andy was not disappointed with Opie and his friends for moving his car in front of a fire hydrant.  I just don’t care for those sorts of pranks.  Maybe it’s because I like for there to be order in my little world, and I would hate to have to pay a fine for something that I did not do.  I find that sort of prank to be inconsiderate towards other people, and I am disappointed that Andy did not gently rebuke Opie for that, and have a talk with the kids’ parents.

3.  I also do not see keeping promises as important as Andy did—-or at least I do not elevate keeping promises above avoiding or apologizing for pranks.  Let me be clear: I do try to keep my word.  But concealing people’s misdeeds on account of a promise that I was coaxed into making?  I just don’t find that to be particularly virtuous.  A “Who cares if we did wrong—-you have to be a loyal team player and not tell on us” attitude has been abused so often, in my opinion.

4.  I do not understand why Opie was upset with his father for calling the runaway boy’s parents.  What’s more, I do not understand why Andy was agreeing with Opie’s assessment that Andy broke his promise to the runaway boy.  For one, Andy himself did not make the promise; Opie did.  Second, even if Andy was bound by the promise, Andy did not break it, I don’t think.  Andy simply persuaded the runaway boy to return home.  If the runaway boy was not holding Andy or Opie to the promise, then the promise becomes null-and-void, in my opinion.

5.  The situational ethics scenario that Andy was presenting to Opie was excellent.  It showed Opie that there are times when higher values may necessitate a breaking of the rules.  Andy called it bending the rules, but let’s be honest: swimming into the lake in violation of a rule to save a boy is breaking the rule, not bending it.  Of course, Andy’s point could be fleshed out some more.  So we should bend rules to help somebody.  How far can we take that?  Can a person rob the bank to feed his starving family?  Well, in that case, he should probably seek out alternatives that would help his family, yet not entail him breaking the law.  Andy’s principle can be fleshed out, or perhaps re-articulated: one can bend a rule when failure to do so will result in clear harm to somebody else.  Maybe even that re-articulation needs to be fleshed out, itself!

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