Brian Carney says that the anti-terrorism TV show “24” illustrates the difficulty of making moral decisions in the midst crises in which lives are on the line.
In a variety of forms, the sticky situation with which the series began has formed the heart of the show ever since: Terrorist threats place American civilians and government officials in a position in which they must choose between conflicting loyalties. It is the show’s genius, and the key to its enduring appeal, that its writers almost never lapse into thinking that these choices are simple. This is not to say that there are no right and wrong answers. But right and wrong are often only clear—especially to the characters, but even to the viewer—in retrospect.
It’s not that everything the character Jack Bauer does is right or that the end justifies the means, but that it’s important to recognize that in the heat of the moment when faced with choices of life or death it can be difficult to discern the correct path. This is why thinking about such things in advance is so important.
Similarly, astronauts spend about 90 percent of the training for spaceflight preparing for every kind of emergency that can be imagined and some that are just so improbable as to be nearly fantasy. And they train for them over and over and over so that if—when—the situation presents itself they can rely on trained reflexes and to get bogged down in emotion and paralytic fear.
And so it’s important for the moral person to prepare himself for those moral emergencies that might present themselves. Like in “24”, if a terrorist were to kidnap your family and ordered you to help him in a plot that would take thousands of lives, what would you do? Like on the real United 93, if terrorists were to take over the airplane you’re on and were planning to crash it into a building, what would you do? Or more plausibly, if a colleague were to ask you to do something illegal or someone tempted you to commit adultery or so on and so forth, what would you do?
I have a friend who works in law enforcement training, who said that the most important skill they teach their trainees is to visualize success. He said that in a life or death struggle—and after all what is sin, but a life or death struggle for your soul?—it is the person who imagines themselves succeeding and cannot imagine failure who will have the edge.
Back in Carney’s article, I get the feeling that he ends up making a utilitarian argument or makes the end justify the means, which is something I cannot endorse. But the larger issue of examining your moral philosophy before it’s put to the test is one I can get behind wholeheartedly.