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Apr 16, 2018

Close Encounters with Utilitarianism and Nationalism

Anthony Yetzer

Upon giving it some reflection, I can distinctly recall the first serious encounter I had with a philosophical idea. It was through a medium that generally leads to them, namely pop culture. If culture is the photo, then philosophy is the caption. In my case, the culture came in the form of a popular television series during the 2000s, 24. The show was an espionage thriller about protagonist Jack Bauer’s exploits to protect the United States from terrorist attacks. Jack was a counter-terrorist agent, a no-nonsense killing machine who would shoot first and ask questions later, doing things that no one else was willing to do to keep his country safe. Simply put, the show was riveting and perfect for a red-blooded American audience in the post 9/11 world, premiering less than two months after the attacks.

Personally, it is rare that I hear the perspective of someone who was a child on September 11, 2001. Instead, I hear the terrible and heroic stories of adults who were there that day. I marvel that many who are just a few years younger than me have no recollection of the attacks, because that day proved to be hugely formative on my young life. While I was too young to go off and join the Marines on September 12, nevertheless, the events of that day left an indelible influence upon the formation of my moral imagination or, as Russell Kirk so elegantly put it, “the enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.”  

As my five-year-old eyes watched the Twin Towers come down, I realized something for the first time. I realized that there was good and evil in the world. Further, I realized that I wished to align myself on the side of good. Thus began my insatiable love for all things military with a particular attraction to the Second World War. I lived, ate, and played army. The Americans were always the good guys, with help from some British (insert ally here) friends, and the Germans and Iraqis were the enemies. The world was Middle Earth for me. Us and them. The philosophy of a child warrior.

I mention this because, when I was first introduced to 24 at the age of ten, the story presented further fueled the bent of my moral imagination. Jack Bauer became a hero of mine and I went from desperately wanting to join the army to wanting to follow in the footsteps of my favorite fictional spy. Jack most certainly lived the active, rather than the contemplative life. However, upon occasion, he was known to wax philosophically about his exploits. Towards the end of Season 7, he commented to his love interest:

“I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. I will do whatever it takes to save them, and I mean whatever it takes. … Laws were written by much smarter men than me. And in the end, these laws have to be more important than the fifteen people on the bus. I know that’s right. In my mind, I know that’s right. I just don’t think my heart could ever have lived with it.”

A situation commonly presented in the show was one in which Jack would have to choose between the immediate and the greater good. In other words, he had to choose between his conscience and an evil act where the end seemed to justify the means. As the heartfelt quotation above reveals, he invariably chose the greater good over the immediate because it felt right. However, we are not supposed to judge right and wrong by our feelings as Jack seems to suggest. Right and wrong are discerned via the intellect. To do otherwise results in bad philosophy, just as we see in this case.

The division between means and ends is utilitarianism. It is in blatant contradiction to Christian ethics. St. Paul remarked in Romans 3:8:

“And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”

In my zeal for goodness, I believed this lie of utilitarianism. My formative mind had embraced bad philosophy through the all-powerful medium of story. The potential consequences of this are life and death for the soul. Since I had identified American interests with goodness, I believed that all means might be pursued for the promotion of those interests. My utilitarianism was linked with a passionate nationalism. What would have happened to me if someone had not exposed me to the idea that utilitarianism is a lie and given me tools to see why in a compelling way? There are many who do not get that chance. They end up living their lives as passionate defenders of lies.

The real world is not like Middle Earth. It is much more like Westeros. Good and evil are not always clearly defined. As Boethius explains in The Consolation of Philosophy, “For the desire of the true good is naturally implanted in the minds of men; only error leads them aside out of the way in pursuit of the false.” Philosophy is the tool by which we can sort out competing claims of goodness and make our choice.

For us Christians, it is absolutely crucial that we recognize the gift of our intellects and employ them constantly, or we will perish. As humans, we are molded to an incredible extent by our experiences. The trouble is our perception of things is very often wrong. As Plato observed in Phaedo, “Whenever (the soul) attempts to examine anything with the body, it is clearly deceived by it.”  

We learn from Aquinas in the Summa that, while conscience binds in all cases, to maintain a poorly formed conscience is sinful. This requires the cultivation of our intellect, making it in agreement with God’s truth. To quote St. Thomas More in his final work, De Tristitia Christi, “In man, reason ought to reign like a king, and it does truly reign when it makes itself loyally subject to faith and serves God.”    

For me, all it took was for someone to point out the utilitarianism latent in Jack Bauer’s school of thought. Once the lie was identified, the antidote was not far behind. I went from nationalism to Calvinism and from Calvinism to the Catholic Church. These days, I am still fiercely on the side of good against evil. I am still fond of soldiers, though not at all of war, unless the defeat of evil requires it.  And, unlike my old hero, Jack Bauer, now I ask questions first before I shoot, rather than later.

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