Ethos Education

American Hustle: To what extent does poverty affect whether a particular line of work is morally right or wrong?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Consideration of the concept of moral or immoral occupations.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon the relative appeal of different jobs.
  • Reflect upon the relative morality of different jobs.
  • Reflect upon the significance of poverty and lack of opportunity in leading people to lives of crime.
  • Analyse key Bible passages about work, and evaluate their significance to the discussion about moral and immoral occupations.
  • Analyse a key Bible passage about responsibility to others, and evaluate its significance to the discussion.
  • Synthesise a set of job adverts, reflecting a Christian perspective on work and social responsibility.


Ask the students to work in small groups to agree a ranking of the following jobs, on the basis of how enjoyable they would be to have. Give out the job cards and ask the students to lay them out in order of appeal:

  • Professional footballer
  • Street cleaner
  • Doctor
  • Nurse
  • Teacher
  • Arms dealer
  • Owner of a company that manufactures guns
  • Working in a factory that manufactures guns
  • Con man
  • Pop star
  • Journalist
  • Shop assistant

Once they have agreed the relative merits of the jobs, ask each group to feedback their top three jobs, and their bottom two jobs. Discuss any interesting similarities or differences between the groups, and encourage students to explain the reasons for their top and bottom choices.

Now ask the groups to repeat the exercise, this time ranking the jobs according to how morally good or bad they think each job is. This time allow them to rank jobs as being equally good (or bad) if they choose. When the groups feedback their conclusions, ask them which jobs they felt were good things to do, which were bad, and which were neither.

Explain that in this lesson you are going to be looking at the question of whether some ways of making a living should be considered as morally wrong, and looking at a Christian perspective on work and employment.


Introduce the clip from the film American Hustle (Entertainment in Video, 2013, certificate 15). Click here to buy the film online.

Explain that Irving (Christian Bale) is a con man. In this clip he explains how he took his first steps on his chosen career. Ask the students to consider whether they can understand how he came to pursue such a morally questionable line of work.

  • Start time:       0.07.03 (in chapter 1 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.07.59
  • Clip length:      56 seconds

The clip starts with Irving walking up to some lift doors. The first line is Irving (in voice over) saying, ‘If you have to find a way to survive, and you know your choices were bad.’ It ends with Irving saying, ‘…stolen or forged art’.

Ask the students whether they can understand Irving’s decision to turn to crime. What factors prompted his decision? You might want to remind them of his statement that, ‘I would rather be on the taking side than the being taken side’.

Point out that Irving believed – rightly or wrongly – that his options were limited. He implies at the start of the clip that all of his choices were bad ones, and that he is making the best of a bad situation. How much difference (if any) do the students think this should make to evaluating whether his actions are morally right or wrong?

Now introduce a second clip from American Hustle. In this clip Irving is explaining his best money-making scheme to Sydney (Amy Adams). Ask the students to pay particular attention to how he justifies his scheme.

  • Start time: 0.13.37 (in chapter 2 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.15.16
  • Clip length: 1 minute and 39 seconds

The clip begins with Sydney asking, ‘What is this place? Do you sell art here?’ It ends with Sydney leaving in disgust, with Irving calling after her. The last line is Irving saying, ‘Sydney! Please, I’m sorry.’ Please note that this clip includes some swearing. If you don’t feel this is appropriate for the class, you may want to summarise his fraudulent loan scam and move on to the discussion below.

How do the students feel about the way Irving makes his living? What is good about it? What is bad about it? How does Irving defend conning desperate people out of $5000 and giving them nothing in return?

Put the students into small groups and ask them to look at the following Bible passages, making notes as they do on what the passages suggest about Christian attitudes to work. Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ephesians 4:25-28; Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:23-25; Titus 3:14.

Draw out the conclusions that Christians believe that it is right for everyone to work, to be productive and to contribute usefully to society. Ask whether they feel that Irving’s business fulfils this criteria. Now ask the students to read Leviticus 19:9-18 and to make a note of what the passage suggests about responsibilities to other people, particularly the powerless and oppressed. How does Irving’s career match up to that expectation?


As a final activity, ask the students to write a series of adverts for different jobs. Each advert should emphasise aspects of the job which make it an appropriate response to the requirements of the various Bible passages referred to in the lesson. Taken as a whole, the selection of job adverts should reflect an understanding of the Christian perspective of work and social responsibility.


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