Sunday, April 8, 2012

24: A show about utilitarianism v. formalism

I was watching an episode of 24 recently and I realized that the one of the main conflicts of the entire show is the tug-of-war between the importance of safety (utilitarianism) and the importance individual rights (formalism). In fact, many of the situations presented in 24 are like the ethical scenarios we dealt with in class except on a grander scale.  If you are not familiar with the series (which you really should be, all the episodes are on Netflix streaming) 24 follows Special Agent Jack Bauer who is tasked in every season with taking on some threat to national security. Bauer uses threats, deception, and brutal torture to prevent attacks on the United States and innocent people.

Here's the trailer for one of the seasons which shows a little piece of the series' long running conflict between preventing terrorism and individual rights. Jack Bauer isn't afraid to do whatever it takes to get the bad guy, even if that means committing atrocities. He openly admits to torturing someone in order to prevent a bombing of a crowded bus.

The show consistently presents situations where the rights of the many are weighed against the rights of the few and the law. Here is the dilemma that I saw in an episode that prompted this post:

Ethical Dilemma:

Jack attempts to convince a member of a terrorist organization who has intelligence the government wants to not to commit suicide so he can avoid capture by Jack. This organization is planning to disperse radioactive material in Manhattan if they are not stopped which will kill over a hundred thousand people. As the terrorist is about to do himself in, Jack Bauer threatens to kill the young man's mother by personally escorting her to the site of the dirty bomb so she can die a slow, painful, death from radiation poisoning. The threat works and the terrorist relinquishes himself to the police and they gain intelligence from him. This sets them on the right path to stopping the attack.

Transcript from that exchange (couldn't find a clip):

Did Jack behave ethically? It depends on what view you are taking! I'd also like to read your opinions.

In this situation, Jack Bauer is a clear utilitarian because the rights of the many people in New York City outweigh the rights of this terrorist and his mother. The utilitarian ethic permits Jack to do what he does for "the greater good." Ethical formalism, on the other hand, doesn't permit every person to be tortured. Other characters in the show represent this formalism who attempt to hold Jack accountable for his actions and make sure people's rights are upheld. Those who represent formalism are often the antagonists of the show and are often are seen as the bad guys. For the first several seasons Jack has moral authority. He always seems to be right. In later seasons it becomes much less clear as he starts to slip further into using these brutal methods. I ask myself, was Jack behaving ethically or morally? Legally there's no question he was in the wrong but it's not that simple.

These brutal methods, while fairly ridiculous, are things people love! The Republican Party in the '08 election made several loving references to Jack Bauer's methods during debates. John McCain even made a cameo appearance on the show.

What is it about a show that so prominently features torture to protect national security that people, including politicians, love? I'm not sure I can put it into words. Society loves noble cause corruption and admires strong characters like Dirty Harry. Bauer is no exception to that.

As future members of the criminal justice system, we should ask ourselves is it ever okay to behave like Jack Bauer would? I don't think its an easy question to answer when so much is on the line in a doomsday scenario like those in the show. I don't think I condone torture under any circumstances in real life but I still love Jack Bauer's character.

Here's an older article on 24 and the ethics of urgency. It makes for an interesting read if you like the show.

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