Jack Bauer has quickly become everyone’s favorite action hero, giving 007 and Ethan Hunt a run for their money. But there’s more to 24 than meets the eye this is not an all-action, no-brains TV show. Challenging questions are brought up every hour about morality and how to act in certain situations. In season 5, Jack has to make an extremely difficult decision a decision not unlike the ones we face everyday. At the core of all these decisions is whether we adhere to moral relativism or moral absolutism. Would Jesus do what Jack does?
It’s 2:23 PM on FOX’s television phenomenon 24. President Logan just gave a direct order and Jack Bauer has no intention of following it. Twenty canisters of deadly syntax nerve gas are floating around the L.A. area. Jack is undercover with a group of terrorists about to release one in a populated shopping mall. The location of the other 19 canisters is unknown. President Logan orders Jack to maintain his cover in hopes that he can track down the other canisters. There’s just one catch they have to sacrifice the people in the mall. This episode of 24 presents a very important question: Should Jack save the lives of 1000 or sacrifice them for the lives of 1,000,000? This is the age-old question of principialism Vs. utilitarianism. In more popular terms: moral relativism Vs. moral absolutism. So what are these?
- Principialism = Moral absolutism. Doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Living based on absolute principles (truths) that never change, no matter what the circumstances are.
- Utilitarianism = Moral relativism. Only thinking about the future, even if it means doing the wrong thing now. Justifying bad actions by good outcomes. Thinking of people as numbers and not as individual human beings.
Jack beats President Logan, hands down: Why Principialism is better than Utilitarianism.
- We can’t predict the future. Utilitarianism claims it can predict the future, so it bases all its action on the future possibilities. President Logan thinks they can save 1,000,000 people by sacrificing 1000. Jack knows he can save the 1000 people at the mall if he blows his cover. And the best part is that saving the 1000 people at the mall does not cause the other 1,000,000 people in L.A. to die. Even though Jack blew his cover, there’s still time to catch the bad guys and save the day (which he always manages to do in 24 hours). Either way (save or sacrifice) the future of 1,000,000 L.A. citizens is uncertain, but Jack’s way, at least 1000 people definitely live.
Utilitarianism is judgmental. It judges the worth of peoples’ lives, while principialism recognizes that every life is sacred. Utilitarianism is a numbers game. It judges peoples’ worth based on how many people will benefit and how much people will benefit from a certain action. Principialism says that every life is worth fighting for.
Is it worth it to save the 1000 people in the mall? Not according to President Logan. Jack, however, does think they’re worth saving because people aren’t numbers to Jack, they’re people. Jack knows that allowing 1000 people to die when he has the chance to save them is always evil. Logan judges that the 1000 people aren’t worth the risk. If your life is on the line, who do want calling the shots, Jack Bauer or President Logan?
- Utilitarianism is conceited! We all know the conceited kid at school, the one who thinks he’s above everyone else. That’s exactly what utilitarianism is. It claims to be above the rules that have always clearly defined good and evil. Our culture tries to tell us principialism is prideful because it sees things in strict terms of good and evil. But in reality, it is humble because submits to the absolute principles that have always been in place. Logan makes up his own rules, but Jack obeys the rule that says life is sacred. Just take a look at President Logan. He thinks he can order the deaths of 1000 innocent people based on his prediction of the future and let himself off the hook.
- Acting based on an unknown future leads us into evil actions. President Logan gave into evil he ordered the death of innocent people. A popular Catholic author writes, “Utilitarianism tempts you to badness; it is a very convenient excuse for doing something bad”1 it’s kind of like lying. Utilitarianism very quickly becomes a way to justify sin.
Jack acted in accordance with principialism he recognized the sanctity of life and chose not to sacrifice 1000 innocent lives. The terrorists and the 19 canisters escaped, but Jack was able to save the majority of the people in the mall. And as we all know, Jack is unstoppable and before the 24 hours were up, the terrorists’ efforts were successfully thwarted. Jack did the right thing and caught the bad guy.
Principialism is the Christian way. As Catholics we recognize the inherent dignity of every person and the sanctity of every life. Catholicism treats people as people, not as numbers like utilitarianism does. Our Christianity calls us to live in the present moment, not in the past or future. The question is not whether sacrificing 1000 people now will save 1,000,000 in the future. The question is whether at this very moment, sacrificing 1000 people when you have the chance to save them is morally permissible. Tomorrow never excuses how I lived today.
We are called as Christians to be humble and obey the word of God, not to be God and create our own rules. Nothing can ever justify sin, which is what utilitarianism tries to do. Principialism doesn’t justify sin, instead, it gives us guidelines to help us avoid sin and do the right thing. The cross is the perfect example of this: Jesus did not come to make excuses for our sins; He came to save us from them.
Looking for a fun way to spend your Friday nights? Starting June 16th, season five of 24 will be re-broadcast 2 hours at a time every Friday night. Get together with your friends, fight terrorism with Jack Bauer and maybe even discuss some of the interesting moral questions placed before you. Just remember, Jack is human and doesn’t always make decisions based on principalism. The show does contain violence, including the use of torture as a method of retrieving information. Torture can be seen as a form utilitarianism. Jack doesn’t always respect human dignity and make the right decision; only Christ does that.
*For more information on the important difference between utilitarianism and principialism, check out chapter 12 of Peter Kreeft’s book, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings.
1. Kreeft, Peter J. The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 196.