Tom Selleck’s CBS drama “Blue Bloods,” chronicling the exploits of the Reagans, an improbable fictional New York City family that dominates NYC’s law enforcement, featured an excellent example of a necessary lie last night, in which utilitarian principles would hold that the lie, a rather serious and extensive one—many interlocking lies, really—was the most ethical option available.
The situation arose because the Chief of Police (Frank Reagan, played by Selleck) learned that his police officer son, Jamie Reagan, had rescued a child from an explosion, and the press and city were clamoring to know who the hero was. (Nobody saw the rescue, which is a contrived detail, but necessary to set up the ethical dilemma.) But Jamie was also working undercover in a serious and dangerous operation, having infiltrated an organized crime family. (Why was a uniformed cop allowed to stay on the street while leading a double life? Seems reckless to me, but Father Chief knows best.) To protect the undercover operation and his son, Frank Reagan decides on an elaborate deception, persuading his son’s partner, who was on the scene of the rescue, to take the credit and even accept a commendation in a public ceremony.
Lying to the public and the press to such an extent is almost always inexcusable, but protecting an anti-crime effort in the public interest, as well as the imperiled officer involved in it, is a rare case in which the balance tips away from the truth. The “Blue Bloods” solution was the best one available given the situation and the law enforcement priorities. But…
- Selleck, the police chief, had a serious conflict of interest, since the undercover cop involved was his son. Though the details of the undercover assignment needed to be known by as few as possible, even on the force, Selleck couldn’t ethically make the decision to devise the elaborate sham with a fake hero; he should have withdrawn from the process and had someone else in the chain of command who wasn’t a family member (if he could find one: the city’s law enforcement operation is crawling with Reagans) decide what to do.
- The public deception wouldn’t have been necessary absent the incompetent decision to let an undercover cop continue his regular duties in public. Is a lie that is the best option only because of earlier ineptitude still virtuous? Certainly not as virtuous; if the police department had taken sensible and proper precautions, no public deception would have been necessary. (And a baby might have blown up! That’s moral luck for you.)
- The episode’s script writers had fun crafting speeches for Selleck’s Chief and his son’s partner at the ceremony awarding the commendation for heroism. Both spoke eloquently and spectacularly deceitfully, never explicitly saying that the false hero was the real one. Still, anyone listening and not in on the lie wouldn’t realize this, so why bother? Being deceitful seems like it’s not really lying, but it is. The Chief of Police was creating a massive public deception, a conspiracy, in fact. Was the lie mitigated because the speakers at the fake ceremony designed to bolster the conspiracy were careful in their wording, so later they could argue that no one exactly said that the wrong cop rescued the baby? No! It’s all still a lie, and the words, however cleverly phrased, still advance it. I think it is realistic to suggest that the Chief and his son’s partner might believe otherwise, but do the writers really think that deceit makes the characters more honorable? I bet they do. As a result, they are teaching an unethical lesson that reinforces a popular misconception. Deceit is no better than any other kind of dishonesty; it just feels better.
- Once the undercover operation is over, Chief Reagan will have an ethical obligation to reveal the truth. I wonder if he will.
- Utilitarian lies can become a bad habit, especially for public officials. Before you know it, “it’s easier than telling the truth” comes to be regarded as sufficient justification.