The Elements of Leadership: Immoral, Moral and Immorally Moral Pragmatism

The dramatic introduction in the very first scene to Frank Underwood, the protagonist in the Netflix Original Series House of Cards is worthy of an analysis for this post. The scene I am referring to can be found below. There is no doubt a reason why this is the viewers introduction to the shows main character as this embodies a fundamental characteristic not only of Frank Underwood himself but one inherent to leadership in general. As to not spoil the show I recommend you to stop reading here if you have not watched the first three seasons of House of Cards.

“Moments like this require someone who will act, [someone who will] do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing… There, no more suffering”

This ability to act, to do the unthinkable when it is necessary is the embodiment of pragmatism. By ‘pragmatism’ I do not mean it in the philosophical sense of the word but rather the ability to realize what is necessary and logical in a given situation and the ability to do it. Pragmatism is of course necessary for any leader to have. When governing a large number of people you have to be willing to sacrifice the few for the many without a moment’s hesitation. However as you may very well know Frank Underwood is not your typical pragmatic acting only when it is right but he is immorally pragmatic. We see this in the fact that he acts in such a way when it threatens his political career and not merely the status and security of the sovereign. Was it pragmatic to kill Zoe Barnes or Peter Russo? It was necessary only insofar as to protect Frank’s political career. In this sense such actions were not justified by any external element or purpose higher than himself but rather solely by his thirst for power. Such selfish pragmatism I shall refer to immoral or absolute pragmatism.

Moral pragmatism on the other hand is the use of pragmatism only when it is moral. In this sense of the word many actions a leader or even a normal person in day-to-day life can be an expression of moral pragmatism. However sometimes the most moral act is inherently immoral. This is the kind of situation leaders are faced with everyday. For an example of this moral dilemma I shall refer to a film (that can be found on Netflix) called Unthinkable.

The general synopsis of the film is that there is a terrorist who sets 3 nuclear weapons in unknown cities across the United States. He makes a film and releases it to the public threatening they will go off in X days and then intentionally gets arrested. He promises to reveal the location of the three bombs if they (the various intelligence agencies interrogating him) meet his demands, which are that the US stop funding puppet dictators and withdraw all troops from Muslim countries. But his demands here are irrelevant. What is relevant is the moral dilemma that the movie poses. Of course I recommend going and seeing this film for yourself, it is a very good film but it is not necessary.

What we have in this movie is essentially the use of torture that gets increasingly brutal and morally unacceptable in order to compel him (the terrorist) to reveal the locations of the bombs. The question comes down to whether there is a limit of justifiable injustice you can inflict on 1, 2 or 10 people to save millions. Towards the end of the movie, the torture ‘specialist’ named H decides to take things to the next level and gets the terrorists children into the interrogation room to kill them in front of him. The shows protagonist, (an FBI agent on the case) argues from the moralistic side that we must take the moral high ground and not torture, and that we must not resort to such brutality. Now I am assuming the obvious here, that torture under specific circumstances and when applied correctly works. But the question of if torture works generally will not be addressed here.

While H drags the children into the room various members of other intelligence agencies are arguing for its immorality, trying to shut it down, etc. The CIA however, of which H is a part of, threatens to use force on anyone who stops H from acting and potentially killing these innocent children. I will not spoil the film but the question remains, is it moral? Is it just?

Can what is inherently unjust be just under certain circumstances? The CIA director in the film, along with H seems to argue that it can absolutely be just. They argue that it is immoral of course, however it is necessary to torture/ kill 2 innocent children in order to prevent the deaths of millions of innocent children. Because of this necessity it truly becomes the lesser of the two evils. By taking the ‘moral high ground’ and refusing to hurt two innocent children you are in fact acting immorally because you are essentially responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent children by not acting. For it is truly the only way to uncover the locations of the two bombs.

I argue that it is the moral obligation of H to go through with the horrific act. H is in a predicament where he must act. By not acting H would be making a conscious decision to let some 6 million people die in a nuclear inferno. Are you not therefore responsible for this then? Yes and no. Whoever planted the bombs in the first place (the antagonist) is of course directly responsible and most of the blame falls on him. However, you have it in your power to prevent this enormous injustice that he plans to orchestrate and therefore by not doing everything in your power, even the unthinkable, you are responsible to an undeniably significant degree.

Thus to not act you are committing an ever graver crime than by acting. By refusing to get your hands dirty and do the unthinkable you are willing to stand by and allow millions to die because your conscience prevents you from acting. Should the conscience be ignored in this act? Not at all! The conscience should be the part of you urging you to do the unthinkable act. It should be the driving force in the recognition that by doing nothing you are doing something, a something that will lead to the deaths of millions. What you are left with is the compulsion to ultimate lesser evil.

By doing nothing at all it may appear that you are taking the moral high ground, by not sinking to their level. But this is a mistake; by being in that situation you have to choose between one or the other. It comes down to a simple question: do you want 2 innocent children to die (even by your own hands) or millions of innocent children? The moral high ground in this situation is precisely putting your own morals and values aside and committing the unthinkable act. You have to sacrifice the children for the greater good, but also your own moral dignity, your own values and likely your mental health as well. The heroic thing becomes not the refusal to act due to the horrific nature of the act itself but the ability to do so regardless.

This is the kind of pragmatism we are referring to, it is moral pragmatism because it is morally justifiable even if the act itself is inherently immoral. However it is not merely moral pragmatism, it is immorally moral pragmatism. Decisions like this are made on a daily basis by leaders trying to do what is best for their people. But sometimes they act with immoral pragmatism, disregarding the well being of the people for their own personal gain (i.e. to stay in power, to gain material wealth, etc.) Frank Underwood is a perfect example of immoral pragmatism.

Frank takes things to the absolute extreme and thereby transcends moral pragmatism. This is the double-sided coin of absolute or immoral pragmatism. Pragmatism is a necessary trait in a leader, but too much pragmatism is not a good thing at all. Absolute or immoral pragmatism is the ability to completely disregard morality in order to do what is necessary. This is not what we are referring to here. The pragmatism we are referring to is precisely the ability to use moral reasoning to quickly judge what is the lesser evil and to act without hesitation and not to disregard morality entirely. Absolute pragmatism disregards this.

In the situation in Unthinkable, both the moral pragmatism and the absolute pragmatism lead us to the same conclusion that two people have to die so that millions can live. But the absolute pragmatic does not do so out of moral conviction to do what is just or what is right. For them it is merely cold reasoning, they have no concern for the well being of one or of millions. Their concern is their own self-interest. The element of conscience is absent entirely in their logical formulation of what is necessary. This kind of pragmatism is the most dangerous form as it takes an illogical and immoral attribute in many situations. To kill 5 people to stay in power or stay out of jail ceases to be an issue even if the lives of 5 good people are worth more than 1 bad one.

The moral (the immorally moral) pragmatic is the most heroic in the situation of doing the unthinkable. Not only are they using moral reasoning to decide what to do but also they are sacrificing their own well-being, their own innocence for the greater good. The absolute or immoral pragmatic loses nothing from committing this act; they have no conscience that prevents them from casually doing so without reason. To know that it is an injustice on a relatively small scale, even when it is extremely disturbing to the perpetrator, and to do it anyways is arguably the most heroic thing a person can do in this situation. Thus the moral pragmatic embodies moral immorality while the absolute pragmatic embodies only immorality.

The best kind of leader is one that recognizes that the well being of the many is worth more than the well being of the few, even if that means doing the unnecessary, often horrible act with their own hands to prevent something even worse from happening. The best kind of leader formulates moral reasoning into the analysis that leads them to such actions as a necessary prerequisite to the action itself. To use moral justification and not merely cold, emotionless reasoning is absolutely crucial. Only can such a leader genuinely care about his/her subjects and not merely their position of power.

This kind of leader has a conscience but uses it constructively in this moral reasoning process. They use it to justify their actions even if they are immoral insofar as they prevent an even worse injustice, and thus the action becomes moral (or immorally moral). This kind of leader is logical but not cold in his reasoning. They feel the pain of those they hurt but they also know the pain of those that would have been hurt by their non-action (which itself is an action). Empathy is crucial to responsible leadership however it must be understood that sometimes a small injustice is necessary to prevent an even greater one. The best leader is morally, even immorally morally pragmatic while the worst leader is merely immorally or absolutely pragmatic.

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