Ethics & Monsters, Inc.

What happens when you read 50 pages in your graduate-level Business Ethics book and then watch Monsters, Inc. with your son? Well, you inadvertently begin viewing the movie through an entirely different lens. 

Image Credit: Disney

Some Ethical Context – 

According to Ye Old Business Ethic’s textbook (Managing Business Ethics, 7th Edition by Linda K. Trevino and Katherine A. Nelson), people move through three steps which make up the continuum of Ethical Awareness–> Ethical Judgement–>Ethical Action

Step 1: Ethical Awareness: People are more likely to be ethically aware when:

  • “…they believe that their peers will consider it to be ethically problematic.”
  • “…ethical language is used to present the situation to the decision-maker.”
  • “…the decision is seen as having the potential to produce serious harm to others” 

Step 2: Ethical Judgement: Several individual differences influence a person’s ethical judgment, such as Cognitive Moral Development, Locus of Control, Machiavellianism, and Moral Disengagement. 

Step 3: Ethical Action: The action(s) taken to address an ethical issue. 

How does this process work in practical application? Surprisingly, Monsters, Inc. provides multiple examples of the overarching framework as well as several differences of ethical judgment. This article will follow the film’s two primary characters, Mike and Sully, through the ethical framework and conclude with a brief analysis of Monsters Inc’s CEO. Evaluations of ethical judgment will focus on character reactions relating to moral disengagement.  


Image Credit: Disney

When Sully first realizes the human child is stuck in the Monster World, he tries to return her and hide evidence of her existence. At no point does Sully consider reporting the human child’s existence to the company or the Child Detection Agency (CDA). His initial reaction to her presence indicated a thought process along the lines of – “If I put the child back, everything will be fine”. However, when he is unable to return her home, Sully flees the building to seek assistance from his best friend, Mike. This thought process aligns with the Conventional level of the Cognitive Moral Development (CMD) continuum, where individuals look to others for ethical guidance. More information of the CMD can be found here.

Sully crashes Mike’s date and quickly recounts the chain of events and resulting situation. As the CDA storms the scene, Sully and Mike flee to their apartment. Their reactions to the situation are primarily self-serving, with their immediate desire being to protect themselves, as well as protect the company from scandal. 

Sully’s ethical awareness regarding the child is gradually triggered as he spends more time with her. Sully gives her the nickname ‘Boo’ and learns that her assigned scarer is Randel. After several exchanges with Boo, Sully tells Mike that he doesn’t think she is dangerous and commits to returning her to the human world. 

Image Credit: Disney

The second time Sully’s ethical awareness is triggered is during the scare demonstration scene. For the first time in the movie, Boo sees Sully as a monster and runs away crying, afraid to go near him. As Sully looks at the monitor footage, it becomes evident that his views on scaring children as a means to collect energy are shifting. 

Image Credit: Disney

Later in the film, Sully’s ethical awareness is further heightened by the realization that Randel is not only after Boo but wishes to do her harm. Sully takes aggressive action to protect and return Boo home, going as far as whistleblowing Randel’s actions straight to the company’s CEO. When his whistleblowing actions backfire, Sully and Mike are banished from the Monster World. However, this setback does not prevent Sully from returning and ultimately rescuing Boo.   

After his experiences with Boo, it is unlikely that Sully would feel comfortable scaring children in the future as a profession. Fortunately, he makes the connection between energy surges and Boo’s laughter, leading to the realization that laughter can serve as an efficient replacement for scream energy. 


Image Credit: Disney

From Mike’s perspective, the situation with Boo is not an ethical dilemma defined by ensuring her safety but rather a problem in need of quick resolution. Mike’s actions stem from a desire to protect his coworker and the company. Within this context, Mike exhibits repeated moral disengagement while never seeing his ethical awareness triggered in response to concerns over Boo’s safety. 

Individual differences can prevent a person or, in this case, a monster from experiencing ethical awareness. Within the Monster World humans are perceived as dangerous, toxic, and deadly, creating the belief that they are inferior and of lesser value than monsters. With this view, Mike is less concerned about potential harm to Boo as he is to the potential consequences stemming from her presence. Under the step of Ethical Judgement and subset of moral disengagement, this is referred to as dehumanization – “Those who would be harmed are thought of as less worthy of ethical consideration” (Trevino & Nelson, 2017). Mike consistently uses dehumanizing language in reference to Boo, often referring to her as ‘it’ or ‘thing’, while admonishing Sully for nick-naming her ‘Boo’ in the first place. Initially, he only helps Sully with returning Boo out of concern for himself as her presence disrupts the company’s operations, preventing Mike and Sully from breaking the scream record, which Mike cares about deeply. At one point in the film Boo goes missing in the company building, to which Mike simply replies that the problem is now solved, seeming to give no thought to the child’s safety. The repeated use of dehumanizing language, as well a sole focus on adverse consequences to himself, work to prevent Mike from developing ethical awareness towards Boo’s plight. 

Image Credit: Disney

Eventually Mike does follow Sully back to the Monster World after their banishment and assists him in returning Boo home. However, Mike’s actions are not driven from the same ethical perspective as his friend Sully.

Henry J. Waternoose III 

The CEO of Monsters Inc., Henry Waternoose, is driven by a desire to do what’s best for the company. This leads him to create a machine which forcibly removes screams from children in an effort to solve the energy shortage the company is facing. He also states that in pursuit of solving this energy shortage he is willing to kidnap children and remove anyone who gets in his way. At the end of the movie, he claims that the energy crisis will only worsen now that his plot has been discovered. Waternoose’s actions are undoubtedly unethical, but his ethical awareness is not triggered for multiple reasons, most notably that of moral justification – “unethical behavior is okay because it contributes to some socially valued outcome” (Trevino & Nelson, 2017). Monsters Inc. provide a vital source of energy for the Monster World through their collection of scream energy. Since human children are getting harder to scare, and there is already an existing energy crisis, Waternoose takes drastic action in an effort to sustain the Monster World way of life. Waternoose is operating under the moral understanding that his actions are ethically justified as they are in service to a societal ‘greater good.’ 

Image Credit: Disney

Final Thoughts

Although this post focuses more on Boo and actions taken by others that interact with her, the larger ethical dilemma of “Is scaring children to supply our world with power the right thing to do?” also serves as a prompt for further analysis. The movie only lightly touches on this concept during the scare demonstration scene though Sully’s self-realization of the true consequences of scaring children. As a result of Sully’s efforts driven by his ethical awareness, an entire energy industry is turned upside virtually overnight when the Monster World transitions to laughter energy. From Sully’s perspective it was the right and obvious course of action. However, if the Monster World is anything like our world, the transition likely faced resistance even after laughter energy was proven to be more powerful. Unfortunately in many industries, real or fictional, “what is right” often comes second to “what is most cost-effective.” Regardless, I’m not sure I’ll ever view Monsters, Inc. the same way after writing this post. Ethics can be a touchy subject in any organization and ethics programs or training likely causes some level of apprehension or skepticism in the participants. Monsters, Inc is one of many pop culture depictions of a benign yet still layered example of ethical reasoning that can be used to not only prompt discussions about ethics, but also create an environment where the subject matter is inviting to expressions of opinion. This avoids the barriers inherent to “real world” ethical scenarios which may prevent the voicing of critiques or dissenting points-of-view. 

Image Credit: Disney

Works Cited:

Docter, P. (Director). (2001). Monsters, Inc. [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios.

Treviño, L. K., & Nelson, K. A. (2017). Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right (Seventh ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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