Tony Soprano’s Ethical Reasoning


When thinking about BGS themes in pop culture, I immediately thought of HBO’s hit series The Sopranos. For those who aren’t familiar, the show centers around Tony Soprano, an Italian-American mobster, and the problems he encounters while heading a criminal organization. While the mafia generally caries a serious negative connotation, the show looks at the notorious crime family from a different angle. Many theories we have looked at concerning business ethics can be applied to Tony’s less than ethical profession.

The Sopranos is a critically acclaimed show that ran from 1999-2007. The show has won 21 Emmy Awards throughout its six seasons. The show does a tremendous job of portraying mafia life and looking at the ethical reasoning of those involved in the family.

While a lot of the show details the life of a seemingly normal New Jersey family, the show also deals with the effects Tony’s career choice has on his wife, kids, and own morality. The main theme of the show is Tony’s ethical dilemma and the suppressed guilt he feels for his life choices and the crimes that he commits. Characters in the show deal with the stresses of mafia life in different ways. Some gamble, some abuse alcohol and drugs, and others turn to adultery. While Tony dables in all of these vices, he doesn’t have a particular escape. Instead, he is subject to sudden onset panic attacks, which cause him to pass out (often times in dangerous situations). This medical condition prompts him to pursue therapy.

A lot of the show is dedicated to the relationship between Tony and his therapist, Dr. Melfi. Treating a known felon creates some additional ethical issues for Dr. Melfi, yet she insists on helping Tony with the goal of uncovering the roots of his panic attacks, and understanding the stress that caused Tony to develop his unique medical condition. Dr. Melfi looks closely at his upbringing, but spends a lot of time looking at how Tony, a man who loves his family above all else, is capable of extortion, assault, and even murder.

Throughout the series, it is interesting to see how Tony copes with his immoral actions, and the rationale he creates to ease his mind. For most of the series, he stands by the mentality that what he does is simply business, and “the business of business is business”. This mentality is very similar to Friedman’s shareholder theory. In Tony’s eyes, his job is to make a living for his family, and he shouldn’t be concerned with the ethics of his profession. I believe that there are white collar criminals who believe in a similar idea.

In this clip Dr. Melfi discovers that Tony’s rationale for his actions, is mainly rooted in his Italian-American heritage. He argues that as immigrants, Italian-Americans were subject to prejudice and without access to education and a fair chance had to earn money any way they could. This lifestyle has been passed down generation to generation as a source of pride. Tony also believes that the actions committed by the crime families are no worse than actions of “legal” businessmen, who are just as corrupt.

(Video contains expletives)

The Sopranos is a fantastic series that is both entertaining and thought provoking. While in some ways the show is an action packed gangster thriller, the show really makes the audience think about what motivations are important in life and shows the extremes some people go to in search of the “good life”. If you haven’t seen the show before, I highly recommend you try watching it. You won’t be disappointed.

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10 thoughts on “Tony Soprano’s Ethical Reasoning

  1. Really interesting post Rog. I have wondered myself (when watching the movie Goodfellas) how the violent and ethically corrupt culture that exists in the mafia can be rooted in family bonds. To go against the family is an ultimate betrayal that usually results in someone getting “whacked.”

    • Interesting point Meg. I think that this idea of being “whacked” could be related to corporate America. We have learned a lot about employees who have pushed their morals and ethics aside for the benefit of the company. A lot of this is out of fear of loosing their job. In corporate America, if you aren’t able to do what your boss tells you to do, you are essentially going to be “whacked”, or fired.

    • I think it’s interesting to look at the term “family” in regard to Tony Soprano. As Roger said his primary concern is providing security and stability for his actual family. However, he also has a responsibility for the individuals comprising his mafia “family.” In business we see that there are layers of stakeholders with different levels of importance and an executive makes decisions based on the impact felt by the most pertinent ones. In this case for Tony, Family > “The Family.”

  2. Fascinating analysis.

    I think that the fascination with the “Mafia” story in American culture is centered on the challenges of being successful in a hard scrabble society. If you focus purely on the relationships and challenges and “blot out” the business lines of the Mafia (gambling, drugs, extortion) then you see many ways to be a leader, especially a leader who is a “man.”

  3. Roger, I think this might be the push I needed to start The Sopranos. I knew at some point I would and now is the time. I really enjoy shows like this that don’t necesarily downplay what you think would be the main focus, but use it as a backdrop. I like that Tony’s moral dilemnas and family issues are centered in the show as it shows that all people, criminals or not, are human. We all have good days and bad days, and we all care about our loved ones.

    His ethical issues are obviously of a more extreme nature, but that does not mean that they aren’t similar to the stuff we deal with on a daily basis, just on a different scale.

  4. I think this also can relate to the TV Show Revenge which is currently being discussed in another blog. The idea of unethical businesses in families is something that is definitely an issue in current society. Another example I can think of is in the recent movie Horrible Bosses when the business is passed from father to son even though the son is a coke head slob. This aspect of business as well corrupt leaders trying to protect their families like in the Sopranos are very interesting ways to look at ethics. If you are protecting your family (ethical) but in an unethical way, how far should one go?

  5. Although I have never seen The Sopranos, Avon Barksdale is all real. He is a gangster through and through and his soldiers (Bird, Wee-Bay, Slim Charles) never ever hesitate to pull the trigger in his defense. His gang is certainly not as organized as The Sopranos so if it was a strategy war, Tony would think of something to win. But if it was guerilla warfare in the streets similar to the Barksdale-Marlo Stanfield war in Season 3, it wouldn’t be a fight.

    • Wald, I think your forgetting about the scale and professionalism of Tony’s New Jersey Family. With three underbosses and five captains, by the time something breaks out, the order has already been sent down the chain of command to one of the capo’s soldiers, who will carry out the hit when the victim is least suspecting it. Or, if Tony could outsource the hit to his connections in the Russian mafia, leaving zero trace.

      However, if this an actual cage fight, I think its pretty clear that Tony’s weight problem and lack of athleticism would be a serious handicap.

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