This article applies the ideas in my ethics book, How to Make Good Decisions All the Time, to dilemmas faced by the fictional hero Jack Bauer. I don’t know the author of this piece, Chandler Brett, and he’s quite critical of my some of my ideas. But he’s done an impressive job in explaining those ideas through the TV thriller series 24.
24 and Philosophy
Jack Bauer and Margot Al-Harazi on “What Must Be Done”
by Chandler Brett
24: Live Another Day revives the formulas that made the first seasons of the show successful, yet the writers have placed these familiar themes in new contexts, keeping the story thrilling and thought-provoking, despite some predictability. One of the highlights of this shortened twelve-episode season has been the development of the villains, particularly Margot and Simone Al-Harazi. Although the 24 writing team has always given attention to describing the point of view of the terrorists Jack Bauer must outwit and outgun, the portrayal of Margot Al-Harazi stands out because of her consistent use of a phrase Jack Bauer, and those close to him, frequently uses to justify his actions: “what must be done.” When both sides in the conflict start repeating the same words, attentive viewers (those who don’t automatically assume Jack Bauer is right, just because he is Jack Bauer) will start to wonder what separates the logic of the villain from that of the hero. Can we still claim that Jack is the hero, or will we have to start to concede ground to Margot? Is there a way to differentiate and adjudicate between the values and actions of Jack and Margot? So who is right?
Philosophical reflection helps us to take steps toward answering whether Jack or Margot is morally right. Centuries of tradition have identified three main areas to consider in determining what a moral life is: the actions we take, the consequences that result from these actions, and the characters of the people who are engaging in the actions. To decide what to do, we can respectively either (1) apply rules or laws to judge whether our actions are moral, (2) evaluate which action achieves the best consequences, or (3) consider how our character, with its attending virtues and vices, shapes our understanding of actions and consequences. Or as many modern theories seek to do, we can try to mix these three components together into a hybrid, seeking to incorporate a little insight from each.
One recently popular source for a hybrid view in determining whether certain decisions and behaviors are morally right is Iain King’s How To Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time (2008). The title may seem overblown to many readers, particularly those on the skeptical side, and there have been many who have lampooned King’s I’ve-got-the-answers approach. Still, King’s revision of the utilitarian tradition and his modifications of additional insights from Pascal, Rawls, Kant, Aristotle, and others does hold promise. His definitions of “right and wrong” hinge on two central claims: (1) that empathy and obligation are the basic virtues of the moral life and (2) that reflection based off these virtues leads to a guiding moral principle: “Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you” (73-74, 78). If King is correct, then the presence of empathy, obligation, and something that looks like the “help principle” should assist us in identifying who the moral person is, Jack or Margot? Both are fictional characters, and the deck is more than likely stacked, but since both characters use similar logic to justify their decisions, we, at least, will benefit from sorting through their attempts to justify their violent actions.
King’s Theory of “Right and Wrong”
King begins his study of ethics by criticizing “us” for not knowing “what being good actually involves.” (Although we should be suspicious of King’s vague pronouns here and his push to make his system universal to anyone who can “rationalize” their decisions, without properly critiquing his own cultural context, we can claim his theories (published in London and New York) for our discussion of Jack and Margot, for they share the same cultural situation, at least a fictional world patterned after the real America and Great Britain.) King claims we do not have a consistent system of right and wrong because of the breakdown of the best choice for us, the Enlightenment attempt to build a scientific system for ethics: the utilitarian system of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” King effectively shows how this logic of seeking the “best consequences” in each situation often becomes a slave to the whims of the crowd, which may be moral or not (20, 29-32).
King also believes similar problems reside in the popular philosophical alternative, Immanuel Kant’s rule-based revision, that sought to ground the “best consequences” in a universal rule: what would the world be like if everyone did exactly as you were about to do? Since rules cannot cover all situations, some authority needs to judge the situations where rules apply, according to the logic of “best consequences.” Most citizens, King argues, only muddle through their choices, unclear about their priorities, often regretting what they have done (35-36). Despite this breakdown, King argues the project of building a scientific system of right and wrong can be revived by proving the “essence of right and wrong” (37).
To start this proof, King first wishes to disarm the skeptics who believe nothing has value; King seeks to counter such relativism with a secular revision of Pascal’s famous wager. King asks us, “What does it hurt to pursue value and virtue? If there is value, then we have everything to gain, but if there is none, then we haven’t lost anything.” Thus, he believes it rationally makes sense for us to pursue something of value (42-43).
Since we need other people to acquire certain things of value, the process of pursuing them also involves “seeking good relationships.” Furthermore, if those relationships are going to work, then we need guidelines for them (51, 54). King argues those guidelines, standards of right and wrong, must be able to motivate us, cannot be contradictory, and cannot deviate too much from our instincts (67). There has to be some reason for us to be moral people, a matching of our internal instincts and motivations with external ones, belonging to another person or a contract (69, 73). It is here King pushes toward altruism or selflessness as the centerpiece of morality: “Right and wrong evolve from concern for others through empathy and obligation” (74).
Since trying to foster these virtues is not enough, King seeks to establish a moral principle from them to guide our actions and help us determine the best consequences. Following in the (methodological) footsteps of John Rawls, King asks us to imagine a scenario where we have a chance to draw up a contract that will define the way our relationship will work (our code of behavior) with someone else. The contract must show an empathic awareness for the concerns of both parties and promote equal obligations to both. King believes this imaginary discussion naturally leads to the Help Principle: “Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you.” And here “help” means doing anything of value for the other person (75-79).
Once he has identified the virtues of empathy and obligation and has laid out this central principle, King devotes the rest of his lengthy study to the testing, refinement, and application of his principle, in hopes of developing a practical system for his readers to use to determine how they should behave in a myriad of situations. In the end King lays out a plan of twenty defined principles (225-227). Though we do not have the space here to offer a complete study of all these developments, the core of King’s study is enough for us to approach our evaluation of Jack and Margot. Though both might be admired for doing “what must be done,” we will fundamentally be looking for who embodies empathy and obligation by following something close to the help principle.
What Must Be Done
Both Jack Bauer and Margot Al-Harazi are committed to their causes to the point that they each make serious, violent sacrifices to achieve their goals, but their causes come into radical conflict with one another, producing the drama of Live Another Day. As they both go along breaking the rules that govern behavior in Great Britain (the season is set in London), we must ask ourselves how much difference is there between them? Is Jack living by a higher standard than Margot is, and how do we know that, particularly when they are both using similar logic to justify their actions. Both of them say they are willing to do “what must be done” to achieve their goals; there is a sense of obligation, that they have no choice but to break the rules, to resort to horrific violence, if it will be the only means to achieve their goals. Though this phrase is not enough to describe an entire ethical perspective, it suggests both Jack and Margot are seeking “best consequences,” and are willing to do “bad” things to get there.
We, of course, have a longer track record with Jack. There are many instances when Jack has had to do terrible things; from the first seasons, we have seen him wrestling through many difficult, sometimes impossible, choices for the sake of his commitment to his country. In the past Jack has worked for a counterterrorism unit in Los Angeles and for the Department of Defense; he has served the American government many years and shown much admiration for those who hold up American ideals, particularly President Palmer—and in Live Another Day, President Heller.
It is this commitment to the American people that has motivated Jack to enter a violent life of haunting choices, including killing Ryan Chappelle, torturing his own brother, and making doctors move from Audrey’s first husband Paul to save a suspect who could help CTU locate a nuclear bomb. In these terrible situations, Jack, though, sees his action as reactionary; he responds in kind. As he tells Syed Ali in Season 2, when Ali refuses to reveal the location of the nuclear bomb, “I despise you for making me do this.” Jack believes he is justified in using violence to oppose the attacks of others because the terrorists have started a war. Jack believes he is to respond in kind against those who threaten the United States (and here Great Britain), but he also believes he should set a limit. He momentarily suspends human rights in a quest ultimately to preserve them. When someone else is pointing a gun at him, Jack feels justified in shooting to kill, but if the other person is restrained and not an imminent threat, the line blurs as to how much violence Jack can employ.
As the seasons progress, Jack spends less and less time deliberating, though. In earlier seasons he has broken suspects out of jail, held up convenience stores, and invaded consulates (Chinese and Russian), while this season he has shot two protestors to start a riot, shot at U. S. soldiers (who were wearing vests) inside an embassy, and smashed Steve Navarro’s hand. Because terrorists do not play by the rules, Jack resorts to extreme tactics; he becomes “bad” to preserve the “good.” If he can pull off a ploy, like the apparent killing of Syed Ali’s son and this season’s apparent “sacrifice” of President Heller, then Jack will start there, but if he cannot outwit the terrorists, then he will move to the nightmarish sacrifices. Many around him balk at his tactics, for his breaking the rules, but Jack says he is willing to face the consequences as long as he can say he has stopped the terrorist plot and saved thousands of innocent lives.
Season Eight, however, changed the rules: Jack became “darker,” more alienated, more revenge-driven at the death of Renee Walker. Seeds were planted in earlier seasons, as in Jack’s shooting of Nina. But in Season Eight, Jack turned to violence even when he wasn’t backed into a corner. It is this jaded Jack who enters Live Another Day. Jack’s actions dance on the moral line throughout the season; he does many things that are controlled—the careful taking of hostages inside the communications room of the U. S. embassy is a prime example—but there are other moments when he steps into darker territory, throwing Margot Al-Harazi out the window and beheading Cheng Zhi. The beserker rage of the finale recalls the deconstruction of Jack’s character in his revenge over Renee’s death. Are these actions moral?
In the hour before her death, Audrey phoned Jack, asking him to kill Cheng, telling him to do “what must be done.” Yet these are the very words Margot Al-Harazi had been using most of the season to justify her actions, particularly to her daughter Simone, who seemed to get caught in the most horrific parts of her mother’s plan. Margot seems to live by a similar code.
We learn the barest of details about Margot’s life secondhand, through Chloe’s update to Jack: Margot “radicalized” when she met Mohammed Al-Harazi. At the time she was a widow with two young children (Simone and Ian). Commander Al-Harazi worked with Al-Qaeda in several attacks, including a bombing in Cairo. President Heller, three years before the day portrayed in this season, authorized a drone attack in Yemen, which killed Mohammed and severely wounded Margot, who did survive. So Margot, like Jack, is working off the premise she is responding in kind to the way her family and their cause were treated.
When Margot Al-Harazi sends her video request to President Heller, she declares her actions are based off of this drone attack, which happened also to kill the lives of some 22 innocents, including six children. When President Heller researches this accusation and discovers it is true, he ignores Mark Boudreau’s comments that there would be collateral damage in developing the drone program and declares to his advisors they have let Margot claim a “moral victory” in the eyes of the world. She has a reason for doing what she is doing, and does not look like the insane terrorist.
But what does Margot do in her quest for retributive justice? We primarily see her playing domineering mother, keeping her family in line to carry through with her plan. We see this first when Margot questions her daughter upon her return from being Yates’ lover; she seems upset that Simone allowed Jack Bauer to find her in the first place. Then, she coerces her son-in-law Naveed to accept Simone back as his wife after her “sacrifices” with Yates, citing that she herself did similar things when Mohammed sent her undercover. Margot says Naveed’s acceptance of Simone would be best for everyone–Simone, her, and him. They are fighting a war, after all; they are doing “what must be done.”
Naveed continues to be a problem for Margot: he has second thoughts about their plot to highjack the drones and shoot missiles at targets in London because he’s had nightmares of the innocents who will be killed. When Naveed refuses to pilot the drone, Margot lashes back under the logic of “what must be done” and orders her thugs to sever a finger off her daughter’s left hand. Not wanting to see his wife in pain, Naveed relents and agrees to do, as Margot prompts him, “what is necessary.”
Margot’s moral code continues to weigh on Simone. When Naveed seeks to sabotage the drone attack, Margot kills Naveed and forces Simone to watch. Then later she assigns Simone yet another extreme assignment, to check on Naveed’s sister to learn how much he told her. Margot tells her, “I trust you to do what needs to be done.” Despite Simone’s report that all is well, Margot orders her to tie up the loose ends, which now include Yasmin, Simone’s niece.
Margot would see these moments as sacrifices she is making for her cause. She is giving up her family’s happiness in the act of “holding President Heller accountable.” Her logic, though, also leads her to fire missiles that kill U. S. soldiers, CIA agents, and several British citizens who were being treated at the hospital where Simone ended up. Here is where we can start to make a distinction between her logic and Jack’s.
Empathy, Obligation, and Helping Others
Iain King asks us to locate the essence of right and wrong in the virtues of empathy and obligation and in the principle of helping others. He argues a moral life must encompass these elements. It is here we begin to see how Jack’s vision is much closer to King’s than Margot’s is. Although Margot’s includes a sense of obligation, Jack’s includes not only obligation, but also some empathy and a recurring vision of helping those who will benefit more from his actions than he will.
Some who support Margot might ask us to consider the moment Margot comes to Simone to apologize for taking her finger. In this moment Margot apologizes for not seeing Naveed’s betrayal earlier, when such extreme measures (as hurting her daughter) would not have been “necessary.” Is Margot showing empathy for her daughter? The writing and directing do not suggest this interpretation; instead, we see Margot trying to prevent her daughter from becoming too alienated. She is trying to soften the blow of the wound, so that her daughter will not go rogue.
Perhaps, there is some empathy in Margot’s defense of Simone when Ian starts questioning his sister’s loyalty; Margot will not hear of it, until Simone’s second thoughts are confirmed by their informant at the hospital where Simone ends up after being hit by a bus. Yet Margot’s reaction also seems more an issue of pride—that the daughter she trained would not betray them—than an issue of empathy.
And then there is Margot’s attempt to answer Naveed’s accusation that her plan will kill thousands of “innocent” people. She yells back, “There are no innocents! Not when they elect murderers.” These comments seem to suggest the opposite of empathy.
The only area where Margot seems to have any of King’s moral characteristics seems to be in the obligation department. Margot feels that she and her family are obligated to seek justice for her husband’s death. That is the heart of her repetition of “what must be done,” and even President Heller here concedes she has a “moral victory” in terms of who was killed in the U. S. drone attack in Yemen. Margot, like Jack Bauer, has a fierce sense of loyalty.
It is this sense of obligation that President Heller acknowledges and seeks to exploit in his private negotiation with her. He asks her if she will scrap all the drones if he hands himself over to her. Heller asks her to prove her supposed abhorrence of shedding “innocent blood” by promising to destroy all the drones if he lets her shed his blood. When she agrees, he hatches his plan to resign and travel to Wembley Stadium to hand himself over to her. There is much discussion on both sides about whether the other will keep his/her word, but Margot does. When she thinks she has killed Heller, she orders the drones to be downed. It is only when Ian discovers Jack and Chloe’s trick that Margot reneges and tries to get the last drone back into action.
Margot’s logic is lost in the past, though, as she seeks to evoke revenge for the loss of her husband and the attack on their people and cause. Jack Bauer moves in this direction, the darker he gets, but his vision includes empathy and at least starts with a desire to help others. One of the telling conversations in Live Another Day gives us a clue to this if we had not already seen it in other seasons. When Chloe apologizes to Jack for letting Simone slip by her, she says she was distracted by someone, who reminded her of Morris and Prescott. Here Chloe finally informs him of their deaths in a car wreck, which she suspects was a failed hit on her (since she knows what happened on the day Jack disappeared, at the end of Season Eight).
Jack’s words to her are revealing: he tells her they cannot bring back the ones they’ve lost, they can only try to honor their lives by helping others. He emphasizes it is the only way forward for them, to protect the innocent lives that would be lost if they abandoned their pursuit. I believe these motivations are what make Jack Bauer the noble character he is, despite the body count around him. Jack sees himself doing “what must be done” to prevent further suffering and loss.
Let’s pull in another example. At the end of Season 3, when President Palmer apologizes for putting Jack into a position where he felt compelled to execute Ryan Chappelle, Jack claims an apology is not necessary, for he did what “had” to be done. If we pause for a moment to ask why it had to be done, we remember again the scenario, the terrorist Stephen Saunders was about to release a virus which would have claimed the lives of thousands or tens of thousands.
One of the most memorable scenes in every season of 24 is the command room discussion which offers projections on how many lives could be lost if the terrorist of the season is able to deliver on the threat. Live Another Day is no different in this regard. President Heller’s advisors repeat to him what he already knows, that the drones’ missiles could kill thousands of people in London. Jack claims it is the image of these people that drives him through the horrible ticking-bomb scenarios.
In addition, Jack also seems to have deeper relationships than what we see with Margot. A central part of what has made 24 successful has been Jack’s heart-wrenching attempts to keep his family and friends safe from the violence that characterizes his life. In the first seasons of the show, Jack tries to balance commitments made to his family with ones made to his country and to his obsession with outmaneuvering the terrorists. Many story lines hinge on Jack having to make an impossible choice, such as whether to assassinate Senator Palmer or let the terrorists kill his wife and daughter in the first season. 24 has always been about family drama as well as terrorist plots. Live Another Day deviates from that some, presenting Jack as an alienated man, but friendships with Chloe, President Heller, and especially Audrey show this element is not entirely missing. Jack tells Audrey he only “surfaced” to help her father, a man he greatly respected.
Without these connections, without the conflicts and moral quandaries, 24 ceases to be what it has been—that is why Season Eight, and Jack’s unhinged violent revenge for the death of Renee Walker, was on the verge of deconstructing the show. Live Another Day has, in some ways, been the reconstruction of Jack’s character; thus, it is not surprising that, in a long talk with Kate Morgan, he admits this obsessive quest for revenge only destroyed what little he had left; it did not offer him any rest, and it didn’t bring Renee back.
Jack sacrifices his own humanity in this quest. In the premiere of Live Another Day, Jack states he has no friends. He is aware of what the bad actions have cost him, and there are a few others around him who have learned these lessons too. In Live Another Day, Jack has become a counselor for both Chloe O’Brian and Kate Morgan, telling both of them the only way to face the weight of what you’ve lost is to focus on the innocent lives you can save if you join Jack on his crusade. It is fitting that at the end he admits that Chloe has been his “best friend.” Audrey, Jack’s most enduring love (in terms of screen time), also learns the cost. In Season Four she confronts Jack over his illegal interrogation and torture of a man who could lead them to the terrorist, but in the penultimate episode of Live Another Day, Audrey asks Jack to kill Cheng and demands he do whatever is necessary. It has been a long road for Audrey, but she has lived the nightmare, having just barely survived Cheng’s torture’s herself.
There are several ways Live Another Day potentially could have ended, and the resemblance to the Chinese kidnapping of Jack at the end of Season Five may reduce the weight of this season’s ending to some viewers, but we need to note the difference this time. Jack willingly hands himself over to the Russians so that Chloe can go free. Jack has always been not only triumphant soldier, but also suffering martyr. It is also telling that Jack is smiling in this sequence. Despite the darkness surrounding Audrey’s death and Jack’s responding killing spree, he finds meaning in giving this “help” to Chloe. Here is where Jack stands out.
So Who’s Right?
In the clash of views that is Live Another Day, who comes out ahead, Jack or Margot? Some viewers may have thought this was a ludicrous question from the start, but to prevent us from blindly assuming we always support the good guy, we need to reflect on the character of those we admire and the nature of their commitments. Whether you fully agree with King or not, his emphasis on empathy, obligation, and helping others does help us to distinguish between these two characters. Jack does speak about looking toward the future and the fate of others, but Margot is obsessed with the past and does not empathize with those she is threatening or about to hurt. Even her choice only to take President Heller’s life is rooted in her sense of her reputation—how others around the world will see her and her cause. And despite any nobility in her keeping her word, Margot’s agenda always involved the possibility of killing masses of people who had no direct choice in the matter. Jack’s killings are more limited, even when they threaten to get out of hand. Jack Bauer’s hands are plenty “dirty,” but 24 constantly pushes us, claiming the larger evils could not be avoided without such utilitarian use of violence. And as we have seen, empathy and the desire to help others grounds Jack’s worldview and makes him the hero-martyr that he is. 24 excels when it truly makes us think: What is necessary? What is our duty? What truly must be done? What is a moral life, and where do we stand in the world?
Chandler Brett is a freelance writer, influenced by Richard Adams, Gene Wolfe, Tad Williams, and John Grisham. Although he often writes essays, and a blog, about popular culture, his current major project is a novel about virtual reality and wolves. You may reach him and find an episode-by-episode commentary of Live Another Day on his web site: http://www.chandlerbrett.com.