Jack Bauer is in a tough situation. If he doesn’t act quickly, thousands of innocent people will die. With little time to sort through the implications of his actions, Jack decides that the best thing to do is torture someone. It seems the most expedient way to provide the greatest good to the greatest number. Such is life every Monday night on Fox’s intense drama, “24.”
Meanwhile, on another television network — ABC — the survivors of a downed commercial airliner find themselves on a tropical island full of intrigue and danger. The program, “Lost,” features a con man named Sawyer who often does what needs to be done out of self interest, a sentiment that is echoed in his words, “every man for himself.”
Ethics and Popular Culture
Popular culture sometimes mirrors the sentiments of culture in general. Both “24” and “Lost” are no exceptions. In the examples above, “24” presents a particular theory of ethics, while “Lost” presents another. While many watch television uncritically, simply for entertainment value, it is important to understand the underpinnings of entertainment when it comes to worldview questions such as ethics.
As a branch of philosophy addressing questions of right and wrong, ethics plays a crucial and regular role in our lives. By seeking to understand the ethical theories promoted on television and in other forms of popular culture, we can gain better insights into our own ethical systems and determine whether or not they can hold up under real life conditions.
Utilitarianism: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
Utilitarianism is exemplified in the opening words of this article through the actions of Jack Bauer. It seems that just about every other week Jack has to torture someone in order to save the day. Utilitarianism seeks to determine right or wrong on the basis of whether it is harmful or beneficial to the greatest number of people. A particular act is not viewed as inherently right or wrong. Instead, the focus is the outcome.
According to J.P. Moreland and William Craig, “The essence of utilitarianism can be stated in this way: the rightness or wrongness of an act or moral rule is solely a matter of the nonmoral good produced directly or individually in the consequences of that act or rule.” 1
An act utilitarian is not concerned with moral rules, but instead seeks to follow general guidelines that are apparently present in society and have stood the test of time. A rule utilitarian, however, believes that if a generally accepted rule has been deemed good, such a rule should not be violated.
Utilitarianism has several shortcomings. Who decides what is beneficial or harmful to the most people in the long term? On what basis is something deemed “beneficial” or “harmful”? Based on our limited understanding, it is conceivable to choose what may appear to be the greatest good at a particular time, but what of the future? A utilitarian decision may seem justified at the time, only to end up causing problems in the future. Utilitarianism may also be used to justify immoral actions such as slavery. After all, according to the principles of utilitarianism, the enslavement of a minority is a small price to pay for the benefit of a majority.
Ethical Egoism: It’s All About You
The focus of ethical egoism is self-interest, exemplified most consistently in “Lost” by the character Sawyer, noted above. For ethical egoists, the best ethical decision in a given situation must be decided based on the positive and/or negative outcomes as they apply to the self.
Those who adhere to ethical egoism seek solutions to moral dilemmas on the basis of the amount of good or bad that will result from a decision. The ideal is to make an ethical decision that results in the greatest long-term good for the self.
Ethical egoism breaks down because it offers no suitable means of settling ethical disputes. What happens when egos with opposite self-interests collide? What source can be called upon to settle conflict? Without appealing to guidance from another worldview or ethical system, egoism cannot survive as a self-contained ethical system. At some point it must appeal to some other source or authority to settle disagreements. And what if everyone at all times lived as an ethical egoist? Could such a society based solely on self-interest survive? As ethicist Scott Rae observes, “ethical egoism ultimately collapses into anarchy.” 2
Relativism: Nothing is Really Good or Bad
Ethical relativists reject absolute standards of morality that apply to all people at all times in all cultures. Instead, ethical relativism is subjective. Morality, then, is variable depending on an individual or culture. Cultural relativism asserts that cultures manufacture their own values and, consequently, they are not based on objective standards.
There are many problems with ethical relativism. First, it does not logically allow for the condemnation of behavior generally viewed as wrong, such as genocide. Second, ethical relativism cannot praise what might be termed cultural reformers. To be a cultural reformer is to go against the predominate view of the time, which ethical relativists would say is culturally determined. As a result, people like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr. would be going against the mandates of cultural relativism even though what they are standing against is clearly wrong. Third, ethical relativism is self-contradictory in that it simultaneously states that absolutes do not exist, but proposes that ethical relativism is presumably absolute.
Christian Ethics: Divine Commands and Matters of Virtue
The predominant influence on Christian ethics is found in divine command and virtue ethics. God reveals Himself and His wishes to us via special revelation, such as through the Bible. God is not arbitrary in His commands. Rather, they are rooted in His good nature. The New Testament stresses aspects of virtue ethics, which emphasizes the development of character. Christ often noted the importance of one’s internal condition and motivations.
Some Christians also emphasize what is known as natural law. Unlike special revelation, natural law may be found in general revelation, such as in creation or, with regard to ethics, it is something that is inherently known at least to some degree. These are moral laws written on our hearts, as Paul wrote in Romans 2:14-15.
In contrast to relativism, Christianity believes that moral absolutes are rooted in God’s nature. Unlike the self-centeredness of ethical egoism, Christ taught His followers to love God and place Him in a position of supremacy and to love others. While followers of utilitarianism seek the greatest good for the greatest number, the system has no foundation for calling anything “good” or “bad.” The Bible calls us to do what is right in God’s eyes, not what seems prudent simply because of how we may think it will benefit the most number of people in the long run or how it might benefit ourselves.
Of course, most people don’t go through life analyzing all their actions and determining whether or not they fit into a particular ethical system. In many instances, we just react without really thinking through the worldview implications of our moral choices. However, given the significance of our ethical decisions, it’s important to understand the ramifications of our behavior and how our choices fit into larger issues.
Shows like “24” and “Lost” communicate ethical messages that everyone should be prepared to evaluate, especially in light of what corresponds to the reality of God’s truth when it comes to right and wrong.