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Jack Bauer, the Philosopher

Updated on December 30, 2017

Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Philosophy is thought by many to be a boring academic subject, beyond the reach of ordinary minds.  In reality, philosophy is the framework for how we get out of bed in the morning, live our lives, make decisions, and handle personal relationships.  You have a philosophy, even if you don't know it!

Serious philosophers who are also serious fans of 24 explain philosophical topics using situations from the television series.  There are plenty of philosophical problems to be solved in any episode of 24, so the writers have a wealth of material with which to work.  For example, when is a war a just war?  How does former President Palmer's approach to the Chinese embassy situation stack up against Thomas Aquinas' criteria for just war? Under what situations is self-sacrifice obligatory? Is torture ever justified, and if so, how many lives must be at stake? 

Utilitarianism, far from being an abstract concept appreciated only by John Stuart Mill and the like, is looked at in the context of real situations.  Can we reduce life to simple equations such as: 1 life taken for 20 lives saved is a net good? Are there absolutes that can never be violated, no matter how many lives in the balance?  These are questions we all struggle with on one level or another.  In the television series, however, when time is incredibly short, we see people's underlying philosophies more clearly.  There is no time to change philosophies, so people reveal who they really are inside.

I especially liked the chapter on Jack Bauer as the anti-Eichmann.  Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi who thought his meticulous following of orders absolved him of guilt for the atrocities he committed and authorized in Nazi Germany.  As the anti-Eichmann, Jack is just as likely to ignore orders he considers flawed, unjust, or unwise.

I have more interest in philosophy than ever before because of this fun and thoughtful book.  Yes, thinking is fun!

Lessons I Learned from Jack Bauer

1. Have Trustworthy Friends

In later seasons, Jack's go-to person is usually Chloe--his colleague, friend, and all-around computer genius. She does not hesitate to talk back to Jack--something he needs! It is her competence and dependability that make her Jack's most trusted friend.

Like Jack, I appreciate friends who give me straight answers. I know who will be there when I am in a jam and who has the skills to help me through a crisis. I also want to be that friend for somebody else.

2. Demand the Best from Yourself and Others

During the 24 hours of each season, Jack has no margin for error. He trusts his training, his instincts, and his colleagues at CTU. Jack can be very demanding--just ask Chloe! However, he never asks more of his team than he is willing to ask of himself. Jack usually takes the point position in an operation, putting himself at the greatest risk and leading by his example. People will generally rise to meet the expectations of their leaders.

3. Put First Things First

One season featured terrorists releasing nerve gas into public places. Jack desperately tried to disarm a container at a shopping mall, but gas escaped before he could seal off the ventilation system. As he ran through the mall in a gas mask, warning people to evacuate, he stopped to pick up a little girl. He gave her his gas mask and ran outside, handing her off to CTU medics before resuming his pursuit of the terrorists.

It helps to pause sometimes and remember why we are doing our work. Stay human!

4. Accept Risk

Sometimes dangerous things need to be done by somebody. Jack is trained to assess risks and determine what risks are acceptable. He is willing to be the person who risks his life to save others from catastrophe.

5. Never, Ever Give Up

If you are still breathing, it's not over yet! Jack has been tied hand and foot by communists--and used his teeth to kill his guard and escape. He has been shot, blown up, drugged, and gassed, but never let that stop him. While real life is not as forgiving as television can be, there is still a lesson here: things can always change, as long as you are not dead yet.

24: Season 1
24: Season 1

This is the season that started this whole train rolling!


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