Wednesday, March 4, 2009

24: Free Will and Moral Responsibility

OK, so I'm no Nostradamus: Jack and Agent Freckles did not kiss in this week's episode of 24. However, they did have a tender embrace, fraught with sexual tension, and he did have his hand on her hair. That's the next best thing. I'm calling it a near-miss. The kiss probably ended up on the cutting room floor, and we'll see it on the DVD extras.

But the real topics for today's 24-related post are free will and moral responsibility. We can't avoid this subject when we're talking about 24, because the characters are constantly saying things like, "We don't have a choice" and "I wish there was another option" and my favorite, "Whatever happens [if you don't let me torture this suspect] is on you." The correct responses are, in order: yes, you do; there are; and no, it's not.

Let me explain.

Human beings are free moral agents with freedom of choice and moral responsibility for their own choices and actions. This is a debatable philosophical point of view, but we have to start somewhere, right? And I'm guessing this is not the sticking point for the Jack Bauer sympathizers who stand with him in favor of using torture in interrogations.

I submit (to my vast Green Room audience) that every time we make a decision, we have a choice. If we're not aware of making a choice--in other words, if we act by instinct, without awareness--then it can be argued that we do not have a choice. In those situations, our actions and choices are products of our subconscious, our biology, our nurture, our environment.

But if we are aware enough to claim, "I don't have a choice"--we do indeed, every time, have a choice. It might be a very difficult one, or there might be more than one option--but we can never claim, as Jack Bauer does several times per hour, that we have only one choice.

I believe what Jack is really saying is, "Every other choice is untenable, indefensible, and unacceptable." But let's look at this assumption a little closer. Take the situation where Jack had a suspect who ostensibly knew the location of the next terrorist attack. Jack was in the middle of torturing the guy to get the information out of him when the president and her chief of staff stopped him. Jack was pissed.

"He was almost talking!" Jack insisted. In other words, let me keep breaking the law and making an immoral choice so that I can prevent something bad from happening and protect innocent lives.

Preventing bad things from happening and protecting innocent lives are both good things--but is it necessary or even acceptable to condone immoral and unlawful actions in order to accomplish them? This question presumes agreement with the proposition that torture is both unlawful and immoral. Here is a transcript of a FrontLine debate on the Torture Question, and here is the key article in The Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War:

Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms ... shall in all circumstances be treated humanely...

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.

Whether or not you admit that torture is in every case immoral, it is most certainly unlawful. And getting back to the point at hand--Jack Bauer does have a choice, and so do you. The example from 24 that comes to my mind is from several seasons ago. Jack is dealing with a terrorist who has ordered him to execute his own colleague or he will unleash a deadly virus that will kill hundreds or thousands of people. Just before shooting Ryan in the head, Jack shakes his head mournfully and says, "I wish I had another choice."

OK, this STILL bugs me even though it is FICTION and a PLOT DEVICE and it was several years ago. OF COURSE he had a choice. He could choose to not comply with the terrorist's demands, not kill an innocent man. (It was a great scene, however, and the guy who played Ryan Chappelle, Paul Shulze, acted the crap out of it.) In not complying, he is taking a risk that more innocent people will die--but not by his own hand. It is also possible that the trigger mechanism will jam, or that the terrorist will get caught before releasing the gas--or any one of a hundred alternative possibilities.

In other words, you cannot justify an immoral action by saying that the result of not taking it is untenable--because you technically do not know with certainty what the result will be.

One problem with allowing ourselves to say, "I don't have a choice" is that we start to believe it. We start to believe that we are trapped by our circumstances and have only one option. We even feel trapped--but the sooner we can step outside of the circumstance in which we don't have a choice, the sooner we will see that we do have choices. This process is often known as therapy. Get some.

Another problem with the "no choice" mentality is that it makes a morally objectionable choice less objectionable. We essentially separate ourselves from our moral responsibility, and assert that the circumstances are to blame for our actions. We don't have to feel guilty about our actions if we didn't have a choice. We don't have to take the time or make the effort to try to figure out another option if we don't have a choice.

We need to take this phrase right out of our vocabulary, starting right now. And I would appreciate it if the writers of 24 would attempt to deal with the issue of moral responsibility, instead of letting my little velvet-voiced Jacko get more and more thuggish with each passing episode.

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