House of Cards - Character and Profession

I've just finished binge watching House of Cards Season 2. It is such a great character and political drama. If you haven't seen it, it is essentially about the rise of a politician named Francis Underwood who schemes, forms strategies, lies, and manipulates in his quest to become president of the United States.

What we see on the surface is that is just how most of the politicians on the show are. Just some more than others. They all play the game. Here's some good quotes from the show that concerns his character.

Season 2, Episode 9-Do you think I’m a hypocrite? Well you should. I wouldn’t disagree with you. The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties. Never regret.
Season 2, Episode 9-I won't leave one of my own bleeding on the field
Season 2, Episode 13-The power. The prestige.
Those things have a strong
pull on someone like me,
who came from a small South Carolina
town with nothing.
But since you assumed office,
my only aim has been to fight,
for you and alongside you.

What you find is that he a ruthless pragamtist. He can be very loyal. But he can also use people as tools. But one thing is clear to me, if he wasn't a ruthless pragmatist trying to get his way, it would simply be another one of ruthless schemers who do and there are plenty of others in the show. It is in this aspect that I ponder morality as it is portrayed in the show.

How surely can we judge a character like Francis Underwood without being in such a position. If rising to the top of power means playing such games, then how do we chastise such a person knowing that if we were in such a position, we'd likely be corrupted as well?

No, I am not saying we cannot question or judge unless we've been in the position. Francis Underwood coldly kills people who cannot be silenced or controlled on matters that would ruin him. I don't think I could do that. I'd face the music and admit my defeat. Yet, I think it is good to ponder the effects that the kind of works affects how people act in the system.

The Used Car Salesman

Let's ponder the stereotyped used car salesman. It is often used as being synonymous with dishonestly and scheming.

Here's a guy who has to sell used cars to earn his living. If he doesn't sell enough cars, he doesn't get paid. He has to support himself and his family. What would you do in such a situation? Would you not use pressure sales tactics and a bit of dishonesty to support your family? Indeed, I think most of us would.

Now imagine a world where the sales of used cars is regulated by the government and used car sales persons are government employees paid by salary and a pension. Do you think their behavior would change? Would the average used car salesman now lie and scheme? I don't think they would. Most would spend the time trying to find you the best possible car within your budget.

And so, we see in this simple example how the conditions of employment are a huge determinant in the morality of those in the job.

Police Officers

 The other common example that would demonstrate this is police officers. This is a career that demands the utmost morality as you literally have the power to kill people, ruin their lives, arrest them... Yet, ask anyone who lives in a developing country (India, Pakistan, anywhere in Africa) and they will tell you horror stories about the police. The average police officer, demands bribes, use extortion, abuses their power...

The degree of corruption in say Canada is much less and most police officers behave honorably in serious situations. Here police officers are well paid and it is a stable middle class career. Yet, even here, many police officers are involved in insurance scams and other abuses of power.

Again, the conditions of employment are a huge determinant in the morality of those in the job.

My Experience with Private Healthcare

Living in Canada, we have universal healthcare, which tends to shield much of the medical profession from financial reality. They simply get paid and don't care where the money comes from. For the most part, we get to experience pretty quality professionals. Sure, I've been to doctors who appear uncaring on too busy. Yet, for the most part, you never doubt their intention to help you as a patient. They tend to exemplify the idea of a caring profession.

Yet, that changed one day. I was having trouble sleeping in my teens and asked to be referred to a sleep clinic. So I went, expecting the usual Canadian helpful healthcare I had always expected. It turned out the closest place to me was actually a private medical facility, yet paid for by the public insurance. It was a rude awakening. The doctor basically threw advertisements for CPAP machines in my face like a salesman. After the test, he used high pressure sales techniques and even threats to try and get me to buy the machines. They can apparently take away your drivers license if they think you have sleep apnea.

Now, I had insurance, so it's not like I couldn't afford the CPAP machine, but I tell you, the prime motivation of this doctor was clearly to sell CPAP machines; paper advertisements and all. He resembled much more of a used car salesman than anything I associated with a doctor. Talking to other people, many others had similar experiences with such clinics.

I think this is true for all jobs.
Would teachers be such a highly regarded position if they were not paid by the government? Would they take bribes to give rich students better grades? (Yes, just look at any 3rd world country). Would doctors scheme to maximize their pay to the detriment of patients? (Yes, just look at any for-profit kind of healthcare).

Personalities Attracted to Some Jobs

However, there is perhaps another side to this coin. That is some jobs attract people of a certain personality. Or perhaps some personality types are highly successful at certain jobs. This leads to a valid stereotype that people in those jobs are in fact different in personality than other people.

Yes, politicians are more likely than people in the general population to be sociopaths. I think you would find no expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder who would dispute this... That a small minority of human beings literally have no conscience was and is a bitter pill for our society to swallow -- but it does explain a great many things, shamelessly deceitful political behavior being one.

That can be done on the 'bad side', but also the good side. Perhaps more caring people are actually attracted to nursing or other such professions.

But again, we need to ask ourselves how much we can fully judge politicians.


I think we can all agree that some jobs need to be done. For example, we might all hate and not trust leaders, but most of us would agree that we need government/leadership of some kind. So there is clearly a role for a politician like person.

If historically and maybe even currently, that leadership role is best acheived by someone who lies, decieves, schemes, is ruthless... then it is not unthinkable that some humans have evolved those traits and those traits might even be essential to human society.

Again, this doesn't mean we don't get to criticize them for lying and scheming or when they go too far. It is just a means of reflecting on it.

Surely there have been times when more moral people have risen into power and that is something we should celebrate.

Why Hasn't It Been Done

Yet, I think there definitely is something to be said for why hasn't it been done.
I'm a software developer by profession and a pretty decent one at that with all kinds of ideas on how to do things well. Most of the time, my managers have taken my advice very seriously and done what they can to improve things. I tend to be well respect in the places I work.

Yet,  why haven't I risen to be a CEO or the like? This is an empirical question that most software developers must ask. I accepted a while ago, that I like to have a good layer of management above me to let me do my job. I wonder if I could really run it better. The dealings with other business units. The power struggles with other teams. The rising egos and personalities as you rise up. The fiefdom building. The ability to get resources. The fighting over good projects. The being responsible for the jobs of many people underneath. The ability to raise money and pay people and motivate them to do work they might not want to do. The fighting for new projects to keep getting funding...

I think somewhere in there, I'd lose much of what makes me think I'd do the job much better.
I'm rather grateful on the average day to be shielded from the world of power and just being able to productively contribute to something.

Again, none of this is meant to be taken in the extreme. People do rise up. People do change. People do implement new systems and better ways of doing things. It is just a reminder to check yourself when critisizing people in higher positions or in positions of power.


There's not much of a conclusion here, just a reminder to reflect. Certain jobs demand qualities that might be undesirable to get done. This doesn't mean we can't change some of the conditions of the jobs to ensure better behavior or to attract or fend away certain kinds of personalities. We should always check ourselves before we praise certain professions (teaching, nursing, policing...) or demonize other professions (bankers, CEOs, politicians...). We should always look at the conditions of the job and what it takes to be successful at such a job.


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