In the current season of the show “24,” the President of the United States is about to uncharacteristically agree to cover up a murder for the sake of a peace treaty. When Jack Bauer, the show’s hero, confronts the president, she admits she doesn’t like to do this but in this particular instance the end justifies the means. Bauer disagrees and is now working against the American government to expose the murder.
It’s a thrilling story and I have to admit I’m hooked on this season of 24. It’s interesting to note that Jack Bauer in pursuit of justice is not averse to torturing suspected enemies to get information that will help him prevent harm to others or protect America. His justification, like the president’s, is that the end justifies the means.
The story in this season’s 24 also happens to be relevant to a series of presentations, articles and a book I’m working on about character values and how they impact the performance of individuals and organizations, including employee engagement, strategic alignment, productivity and innovation. In June, Jason Pankau and I will be speaking about this at NASA’s Johnson Space Center where during the Apollo 13 mission Gene Krantz uttered the line “failure is not an option” that was made famous in Ron Howard’s spectacular movie Apollo 13. Was Krantz right? Are there indeed times when anything and everything is acceptable to achieve success? If not, when is failure acceptable?
The question “when does a virtuous end justify less than virtuous means?” arises frequently in life. Have you ever asked yourself, is it ok to lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Is it ok to look the other way when a star employee is regularly uncivil to other employees who contribute less economic value and have less power and influence in the organization? Is it ok to “manage” quarterly corporate earnings to meet Wall Street’s expectations? Is it ok to stretch the truth a bit when advertising a good product or service? Is it ok to fudge on research results to get FDA approval of a drug you are certain that it will help thousands of people including your own child? It is ok to support our governmental leaders who allow torture of alleged enemy combatants to get information that may protect innocent lives and our country?
I’m also interested in how an individual’s identity affects decision-making when the issues to be decided upon have an ethical aspect. Does a devout Christian or Jew decide differently than an atheist and how often do the devout compartmentalize their lives so that ethics really only apply outside of work i.e. work is a game or battlefield where morality doesn’t really work and is therefore not pragmatic. ( Note: I just read an enthralling and inspiring book I highly recommend entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — A Righteous Gentile Versus the Third Reich that explains how the German theologian Detriech Bonhoeffer thought about this issue when he decided to become involved in an plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.)
I would be grateful to hear from you about this. Are you interested in these issues? How have you been influenced in this area? Please feel free to post here or, if you prefer, email me at mstallard [at] epluribuspartners [dot] com.