The morality of 24

I should really have named this post “The things I love and hate about 24” but this post is really a philosophical analysis of the show.

*CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I think 24 was a victim of many TV shows whose success blooms from humble beginnings (e.g. Friends, Scrubs.)  Its best stories were in its early seasons, after which it always seemed to be chasing its glory days and plagiarising itself.  From about season 4 onwards the plot is almost formulaic.  The starkest example of this is how season 6 is just a shameless copy of season 2.  The first time around was stunning (season 2 was 24 at its best), the second time around was dull.

The things I love about 24 are: Keifier Sutherland, a tremendous actor.  In fact, 24 has a litany of superb actors as heroes and villains.  I love the way the plot is often so entangled and complicated you can’t relax for a moment.  I love how the story genuinely keeps you going every minute, and as soon as the episode is over you have to watch the next one.  I love how 24 isn’t afraid to “commit itself” even for a fictional world, to having incredible events happen instead of the “reset button” mentality.  In 24 the good guys don’t always stop the bomb before it goes off.  I love how 24 concretises the very real threat that terrorists are, and shows them to be truly evil.  I love how, in its early seasons, there was no regard given to the “rights” of terrorists, and how they were treated like things to be garnered for information, and how any necessary steps were taken to ruthlessly stop them.  I love how the heroes in 24 are not dumb commandos going around with machine guns like some 80s Hollywood cheese-fest, but are intelligent rational people using their brains to deduce a solution, and then bravely taking the steps to implement it.  I love how cutting-edge technology is used to solve problems.  I love how 24 in its early seasons didn’t shy away from showing real horror and gore on screen, as artistic tools to further the story.

These are the things that made 24 a world class show.

Gimmicks

Many negative attributes that grew in the show ironically came from these strengths.  For example, the CTU offices and technology that were used in the background to further the story became gimmicky.  The CTU set design became more and more elaborate as the seasons went on, to the point of looking like an Apple commercial or gadget showroom.  The amount of nonsense technical jargon that began to fill the show could rival Star Trek TNG, and pretty but random irrelevant GUI animations made 24 more like a James Bond film, or what a 1930s sci-fi writer might suppose the future would look like: hundreds of colourful screens everywhere with numbers and images swirling about.  No office in the world looks like this, least of all the headquarters of a federal organisation.  By making the technology and sets more and more unrealistic, 24 disconnected the audience from any sense of reality the show truly possessed in seasons 1-3.  If the audience can’t believe what they’re seeing is real, or COULD be real, they won’t invest any emotion in the story.  You only have to compare season 1 to season 8 to see this contrast.

Repetition

One of the most over-used plotlines in 24 is the use of torture.  When Jack is truly tortured for the first time in season 2, he is viciously hurt to the point that his heart stops.  You feel angry and worried for Jack; our hero is violated by wicked people and we want them to die!  When Jack manages to escape and kill his captives we think “yes!”  For the rest of season 2 Jack struggles with a heart problem as a result of his torture.  But after eight seasons of seeing Jack beaten up the impact is just lost.  Eventually he almost becomes a robot that can take anything and stand up again; real people don’t do this no matter how brave they are.

The use of torture against enemies has also become stale.  Worse still, it is debated endlessly by the supposed heroes of the story, who have no idea what they’re talking about.

There are other recurring themes throughout the show.  See how many of things you can think of:

  • The emotionally-damaged woman “losing it” and messing up a sting operation;
  • The mid-season “reset” where, with the danger apparently over, a new chase to recover [insert critical item here] begins;
  • Using a loved one as a hostage for blackmail;
  • Jack being on the run from his own government;
  • The traitorous “mole”;
  • The under-pressure boss who makes things difficult for our heroes;
  • A conspiracy that only Jack and one or two others ever seem to believe in;
  • CTU itself being attacked.

But all of the above are just examples of exhausted writing, and/or perhaps playing too much on previous highs.  Despite all that, the show is very enjoyable, even in its dodgy seasons.  The biggest problem with 24 is none of these things.

Pass the razor blades

Throughout 24, especially the latter seasons, the message being portrayed is one of constant misery, destruction, sacrifice, and death; the show continuously offers up its heroes, the good people on the altar of entertainment, and slaughters them – not in a message of positivity: that one’s selfish love of life makes some things worth fighting and dying for – but one of negativity.  24 glorifies sacrifice, simply for its own sake.  The hero, Jack Bauer, is a man who sacrifices his values time and time again for his belief in a greater good.  He is a man who on the face of it uses his mind, his body, and his bravery, to fight the forces of evil wherever they may be.  He is a man who doesn’t compromise on his moral code, and looks evil in the eye.  In reality, he is a man who sees himself as a sacrificial animal to the needs of others; as a man with a duty to give up whatever it takes to serve “the needs of the many”.  He is even prepared to arbitrarily violate the rights of others if the ends justify the means.

The problem at the root of this is that the writers of 24 are as much in the dark about their philosophy as society in general is today.  A perfect demonstration of this is the trial of Jack in season 7 episode 1, where Jack is being vilified for his treatment of terrorists in the past; for human rights “violations”.  Jack justifies his actions because he “gets results”, a fact the prosecuting senator affirms by saying “in other words…the ends justify the means.”  The writers make no attempt to resolve the situation or the morality involved because they can’t; because they have no objective grounding on which to do so.  They think torture can only be justified by “ends justify the means” thinking which is a morality they cannot justify.  They are right, it can’t be justified.  But there is another justification for torture that comes down the issue of individual rights; a concept lost on today’s intellectuals.  They miss the point that criminals and terrorists have no rights, and torture is perfectly moral if used against those who initiate force in order to protect the actual rights of innocents.  Justice demands as much, if one’s moral standard is rational life.

As a result of this, most of Jack’s deeds are themselves the right course of action even if his justification for them is false.  The reason he is effective is because reality doesn’t tolerate contradictions, and Jack’s actions are practical and necessary.  This supposed conflict between the practical and the moral becomes more pronounced as the seasons go on, as the show’s producers attempt to inject more left-wing liberal morality and modern “human rights” concepts into the show.  As a result, the show’s heroes find themselves constantly encountering contradictions being doing the effective practical thing to resolve a crisis, and the “moral” thing that appears to prevent them.  In other words, they find themselves having to choose between “moral” self-sacrifice or “immoral” selfishness.  Because there is no moral justification or common sense for a human being to  sacrifice a higher value for a lesser or non-value, our heroes struggle to make moral choices, either simple or complex ones.  This is because the morality of sacrifice is impossible to justify in principle or practice, because it is at odds with reality itself, and if consistently applied it will only lead to your own destruction, forcing you to either accept destruction (which many of 24’s characters do), or force you to reverse course and act against your moral code and do the “practical” thing.  However, a moral code that is impossible to practice is totally useless as a moral code; since a moral code should tell you the best way to live, not the best way to die.  That is why the moral is the practical, a concept so radically removed from the cesspit of altruism we are drowning in today.

Further demonstrating the contradiction of altruism is the behaviour of many of the characters.  For example, whilst President Alyson Taylor has the moral integrity to pass her own daughter over for arrest rather than take the easy option and cover up a murder (the demonstration of a real selfish virtue: honesty), she thinks nothing of sacrificing hundreds of her own citizens’ lives for the “noble” purpose of intervening in the political affairs of another country, simply to try and make it a better place.  (An action incidentally that totally betrays the entire principle of good government; it is in fact an act of high treason.)  She essentially says that just because America is a powerful capable nation, they have a moral obligation to serve others.  Once again we see the morality of altruism exalted; the belief that one man’s need must turn other men into means for his end.  Or to put it in the words of David Cameron: “that those that can should, and those who can’t we will always help.”

The writers themselves ultimately sacrifice quality storytelling for short-term “wow” moments.  They did have a chance to end 24 on a positive message, and say that in the end the good always wins; that evil and irrationalism are self-destructive; that good men stand up and say no to evil; and eventually the moral will triumph.  But they didn’t.  Not content with having our hero suffer misery after misery, and loss after loss, they once again kill off someone close to him in Renee Walker for no good storytelling reason, other than to push Jack to a place of rage and determination.  Renee’s death was tragic because she was a likeable character…but I count this as the sixth woman Jack has lost in one way or another (seven if you count Audrey Raines twice).  At what point is Jack is a man plagued with suffering struggling to live his life, and at what point is he simply a plot device for the audience to revel in his pain?  I think the writers lost their way and just kept thinking “what can we put Jack through next?”

You see, Jack losing his wife in the circumstances which it happened was heartbreaking, terrible, and provided a pain the audience could genuinely feel.  It left a bitter taste in our mouths, but it made us feel what Jack felt, and set up his character for the season to come, where he can go out in a blaze of glory and end it all, but he doesn’t.  He decides to get his life back together and move on.  But the subsequent seasons made this entire plot line and his wife’s death pointless as he never gets his life back; in fact things just keep getting worse for him.  You see, suffering is necessary in a story when it is contrasted with the happiness of a life well-lived, to see the difference between values being achieved and values being taken away.  But when suffering becomes the status quo, not only does it lose its meaning in the story and become dull and repetitive, but our character’s lives become meaningless, which means we can’t empathise or relate to them.

And yet, there is a certain logic to all this:  Jack is an altruist.  His character is the perfect representation of what happens to someone who consistently follows the course of altruism: he loses everything.  He tries to do what he believes is the right thing, yet everyone he has ever loved has died or gone away.  He has no home, no family, and no future.  He sacrificed everything and he reaped the results: nothing.  In a roundabout way, the writers did accurately present the nihilism of sacrifice, they just didn’t know they did it, and they did it under the guise of a tortured hero.  They glorified his desolation; they made him a hero because of his sacrifice.  They missed the point.  Heroes aren’t heroes because they give everything up; they are heroes precisely because the things they value in life are worth fighting and sometimes dying for; but Jack gives up everything of value in his life, which makes one wonder why he cares about anything in the first place.

By making Jack lose everything, they sent a message that being a hero is about torture, pain, a constant struggle against insurmountable odds, against a world of evil, and that you can never be happy.  Such is the negativity that 24 became all about.  It was sadly appropriate that it ended this way.

2 Responses to “The morality of 24”

  1. The Vicar Says:

    They miss the point that criminals and terrorists have no rights, and torture is perfectly moral if used against those who initiate force in order to protect the actual rights of innocents. Justice demands as much, if one’s moral standard is rational life.

    Ideally, this would be true, but in practice this perspective simply doesn’t work. Partially because humans are fallible but primarily because law enforcement officials are not honest. That’s not just a theoretical denial — your statement has been tried as a guiding principal for law, and it was a terrible failure.

    Britain used to have a much harsher penal code a few centuries back; perhaps not all the way to the standard implied by this statement, but certainly to the point of “steal a loaf of bread and die”. It was justified by its defenders on more or less the same lines which you use. So what happened?

    First there sprang up a broad community of liars-for-hire who would swear people’s lives away whenever there was a reward. And it turned out that police who thought they knew people were criminals were making up evidence in order to have those people executed (or sometimes merely imprisoned). Oh, and did I mention that politicians would make up false accusations to stifle dissent, and use their connections to make sure they got carried through?

    You may consider that it is worth sacrificing the liberties of a relatively small number of innocent people in order to preserve a draconian policy of punishment, but there is a secondary consideration: when someone is falsely accused and punished, it not only abrogates their rights, but it also allows the actual criminal to go free, because someone else has substituted for them. It doesn’t matter how many people you hang for Jack the Ripper’s crimes if you haven’t stopped Jack the Ripper.

    And, of course, even when everyone claims to be acting in reasonably good faith, they make mistakes, or get caught up in the excitement of the moment and make wrong decisions. The Innocence Project has shown conclusively, for example, that over 250 people who were put on death row using DNA evidence were wrongfully convicted, and Northwestern University has an ongoing project to examine capital cases, and have produced evidence clearing goodness-only-knows how many wrongfully convicted people. (A disproportionate number of those wrongfully convicted are, of course, poor — because contrary to what TV would have you believe, the lawyers appointed to defend those who can’t afford to defend themselves are often unenthusiastic, usually young and inexperienced, and have been known to do things like lose paperwork or skip court dates.) Heck, there’s even a very small but nonetheless extant segment of the population which will deliberately confess to crimes which they have not committed because they want to be punished.

    “But,” I hear you cry, “you are taking things to too much of an absolute! I only meant that murderers and terrorists should have no rights, not small-time thieves and other rabble! This is not a valid counterargument!”

    To which the reply is: who gets to decide what constitutes a crime so serious you lose all rights on a mere accusation? Who gets to determine what constitutes evidence strong enough to convict? You? I certainly don’t trust you to do that; this post shows that you’re not a very good thinker and a little too willing to go for your own convenience over the rights of others. You probably don’t trust me. After all — I’m just a random Internet commenter, and I might view your habit of running red lights at night as a dangerous hazard worthy of a crackdown. Any authority which can be named, in fact, will be untrustworthy on some level or other. There is no all-knowing, totally evenhanded, and utterly uncorruptable judge anywhere.

    (It’s sort of related to the way so many Republicans wanted to give the President more powers when Bush was in office, and then went into shock when Obama got elected, or the way that so many Democrats are now giving Obama a pass on his further stockpiling of presidential power — including the right to have American citizens assassinated outright! — but would be horrified if (say) Sarah Palin had that authority. The only way to avoid having someone untrustworthy have some privilege is not to allow anyone to have that privilege. But that’s an aside.)

    The only solution to the problem is to do as most western legal traditions have come to recommend: presume people are innocent until proven guilty, treat them with a certain minimum of respect, and spend a lot of time and thought before doing anything to them which can’t be undone — such as torture or the death penalty — if you can’t avoid doing such a thing completely.

  2. evanescent Says:

    Partially because humans are fallible

    Which is why objective law must be established.

    but primarily because law enforcement officials are not honest.

    I wouldn’t make such a sweeping statement like that. I am not saying that one officer on the ground necessarily has the power to make such executive decisions, but where possible that decision should be made by a responsible person with the necessary authority.

    There is precedence for such a decision actually being made on the ground: the London subway bombings of 7/7; at least one terrorist was shot as he ran on the premise he could not be allowed to set off his bombs.

    Britain used to have a much harsher penal code a few centuries back; perhaps not all the way to the standard implied by this statement, but certainly to the point of “steal a loaf of bread and die”. It was justified by its defenders on more or less the same lines which you use. So what happened?

    Torture would only be used to gain information in conditions where it is the most likely method to succeed. The degree to which a criminal is punished depends on the degree on their crime. This is a field that properly belongs to philosophers of law.

    The Innocence Project has shown conclusively, for example, that over 250 people who were put on death row using DNA evidence were wrongfully convicted, and Northwestern University has an ongoing project to examine capital cases, and have produced evidence clearing goodness-only-knows how many wrongfully convicted people.

    Whilst I am in favour of execution in principle, if there is even a chance an innocent man could be killed then it’s not worth the risk. In a free society under objective law I think capital punishment would exist for only a minority of crimes and then only under the strictest standards of evidence – but it’s not likely.

    To which the reply is: who gets to decide what constitutes a crime so serious you lose all rights on a mere accusation? Who gets to determine what constitutes evidence strong enough to convict? You? I certainly don’t trust you to do that; this post shows that you’re not a very good thinker and a little too willing to go for your own convenience over the rights of others.

    It’s interesting that you accuse me of not being a very good thinker when most of your post is not relevant to the arguments I made. The very fact that you would accuse me of “convenience” and say that I would sacrifice the rights of others shows that you haven’t understood what I wrote. The rights of innocent people are my primary concern. Nowhere in anything I’ve written do I suggest an accusation alone is enough to convict someone. I would never sanction or approve the death of one innocent person no matter how many lives it saved.

    You also seemed to miss my point that in most of the examples provided by 24, the terrorists’ guilt is without any question, and STILL there is refusal to do what is necessary because of the alleged “rights” they have; this is the moral flaw I am denouncing. Yet I also explain why the characters/writers make this error: because the concept of rights is so distorted today.

    The law should be based on objective principles and clearly defined rules; the task of drawing this up doesn’t belong to me; I am operating from broad guiding principles and demonstrating what should and shouldn’t be allowed. I can’t specify every single crime and every single punishment; that is not the issue.

    Also, I fail to see the purpose in your question: “Who gets to determine what constitutes evidence strong enough to convict? You?” What does this have to do with the fact that when Rights are clearly defined, those who violate the Rights of others cannot claim any for themselves, and are therefore subject to the law of the land in retaliation? I am not discussing the standard of evidence in criminal cases; that is another matter. The entire principle of justice presupposes we have the ability to differentiate the good from the evil people. If you wish to debate that, that’s another discussion.

    As stated above, I am discussing circumstances when the guilt of the terrorist is without doubt. For example, if a terrorist is apprehended on the morning of 9/11 and is suspected of having information about an attack. The trail of evidence has already been established to connect this person to an attack in the first place, hence the officers apprehending him in the first place. Time is running out. We need information to stop an attack. This terrorist has already demonstrated violation of Rights up to and including attempted murder. If torture is deemed the most efficient way to extract information to protect innocent people, the terrorist should be tortured.

    There is no all-knowing, totally evenhanded, and utterly uncorruptable judge anywhere.

    You’re right, but to go from that to never treating criminals and terrorists the way it might be necessary to treat them is a non-sequitor.

    Under a free society, i.e.: one which isn’t fascist and statist, (good luck trying to find one of them today), the government (and only the government) uses force only against those who initiate its use. To degree to which it uses that force is objectively outlined beforehand.

    All citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty. I am taking about instances where guilt has been established and the most extreme levels of force are necessary.

    Finally:

    Any authority which can be named, in fact, will be untrustworthy on some level or other.

    I disagree as a rule. Whilst this is certainly and sadly the case today, it is so because all authorities are invested with far too much power; the power to do what they are supposed to stop criminals from doing: violating the rights of their citizens. In fact, society is so accustomed to having the government violate their rights on a daily basis, it has become the norm, expected, even encouraged.

    In a constitutionally-limited republic where a government of checks and balances is invested with the power to protect rights and NOTHING ELSE, I would have no problem trusting such a government.


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