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Defining Dilemmas Down: The Case of 24

1 January 2002


One of the most important concepts in the field of political ethics is the idea of a moral dilemma – understood as a situation in which an agent’s public responsibilities and moral imperatives conflict in such a way that no matter what the agent does she will in some way be committing a moral wrong. In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, the notion of a moral dilemma has undergone a profound reconceptualization in American political discourse, and there has perhaps been no more important cultural forum for that conceptual revision than the quintessential post-9/11 melodrama, FOX Television’s 24. This paper first describes and then critically evaluates America’s new model moral dilemma as portrayed on 24. Focusing specifically on 24’s Season Five (the year the show won the Emmy for Best Dramatic Series), the paper shows how 24’s creators have substituted in the public mind almost a parody of the standard philosophical account of a moral dilemma in place of the traditional notion. Their methods for this conceptual revision have included both an extravagant, even baroque portrayal of the grand dilemmas which confront Jack Bauer and his fellow patriots, on the one hand, and on the other, a subtle de-valuing of the moral stakes in the more pedestrian variety of moral conflicts Bauer and company must overcome in their quest to keep America safe whatever the cost.


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