Episode 156 – “The Bewitchin’ Pool”

This final offering from  The Twilight Zone  takes up a theme treated in at least four prior episodes, the nature of marriage, but with a difference. “Young Man’s Fancy,” “Passage on the Lady Anne,” “Spur of the Moment,” and “What’s in the Box,” were about marriages where no children are present. “The Betwitchin’ Pool” is about marriage and divorce from the perspective of children.

Sport and Jeb Sherwood, about twelve and ten years of age, respectively, learn of their parents’ plans to divorce abruptly, without warning and without emotional support. They are also informed, also coldly, and harshly, that the decision of which parent they will live with after the divorce is theirs alone. These circumstances raise a host of questions that have to do with the moral landscape of families, questions about the obligations and rights of both parents and children.

Parents incur obligations related to the care and development of their children, as the result of becoming parents, whether by being the natural parents or by adoption.  Those obligations are not nullified by divorce, though the particular ways in which those obligations carried out may change. Although the Sherwood parents don’t shirk all of their responsibilities, it is clear that Sport and Jeb are unwanted.  The children know this, and they also believe, mistakenly, of course, that they are responsible for the failure of the marriage. Shockingly, the parents endorse this false belief.

The moral dimension of the children is more complex.  We often say that children should obey their parents, yet that’s under the assumption that what the parents require of their children is appropriate in the interest of the children. When Sport and Jeb seek an escape from their abusive parents, it appears that they have violated no obligation. Perhaps the only obligations that have been violated are their parents’ obligation to them. But what are those obligations?

In thinking about these issues, we have a tendency to shift back to thinking about the parents, and their moral responsibilities. It is helpful to try to see things from the point of view of the children, and that’s what “The Bewitchin’ Pool” tries to do.  When we begin to think about the alternative possible worlds the children could occupy, we can begin to make sense what would be required of parents or other caregivers to provide for the needs of Sport and Jeb.

It’s important to note that the possible world Sport and Jeb come to occupy is one they jointly imagine. While we often think of imaginary worlds as the creation of a single imagination, a possible world can be reached through dialogue, discussion, negotiation and agreement among individuals. Among children at play, this is often how possible worlds are constructed and then employed. Sport and Jeb are well suited to the imaginative task at hand. As siblings of unloving and uncaring parents, their desires and needs are similar, and imagining a possible world much better than the actual world is an easy task. That doesn’t mean that they will immediately agree about every ingredient of the shared possible world. “The Bewitchin Pool” presents both the agreement and the conflict. The conflict takes place when only one of them, Jeb,  is represented as returning to that world alone.

Not surprisingly, the world Sport and Jeb imagine doesn’t include their parents at all. It does include other children, including children of other ethnicities, happily at play. There is also, Aunt T, an elderly matriarch, who is icing a cake, and who invites them to make the decision join her in the task, rather than to engage in a boxing match, the option to undertake, se she has also made possible. It’s a world in which children can make decisions, and sometimes make the right ones.

Pondering Sport and Jeb’s possible world doesn’t demonstrate what adults are morally obligated to do for them as children of divorced parents. We know at most that what the Sherwoods are morally required to do will not look anything like what their children have constructed in their imaginations, and would not even be permissible, given their financial and class-based circumstances.  Still, let’s not loose sight of the positive features of the destination reached by the bewitchin’ pool: choice, diversity, and love.

Further Reading:

Ariès, P, (1962) Centuries of Childhood, New York: Random House.

Brighouse, H, Smith, A., (2014) Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, Princeton University Press.

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Episode 155 – “The Fear”

Fear is a complex emotion. It is a visceral feeling which is unmistakable to the person possessing it. Yet it can be difficult to describe the feeling to others, what describe it is like to feel fear.  Is fear felt the same way by everyone? Is there a distinct feeling? When we attempt to answer these questions, we often list various concomitants of fear, such as  elevated heart and respiratory rates, and sweating. Those physiological responses may themselves be accompanied by particular sensations. Is fear just the package that includes all these things?

Fear is clearly more than a bundle of physiological and subjective responses, because it matters to what they are responses. Fear is typically a response to something that the subject perceives or senses, something frightening, that is, something which causes the perceiver to feel fear. Sometimes these responses seem unmediated and immediate; in other cases the stimulus is understood and categorized, and then feared.

Aggressors from another planet, hoping to instill fear in earthlings, would do well to understand the human psychology of fear before landing on earth. At a minimum, such beings would have to know what we universally or at least typically fear, and how we react to fear. Indeed, they would need to know much more about us. They would have to know how we recognize objects at a time and persisting objects over time, how we categorize objects into kinds, and how we make relative judgments about such things as the size of objects. To do that, they would have to know, for example, what we believe the typical size of various objects  to be, and so, using an example by Joshua Bar-Hillel, when a human says “The box is in the pen,” it’s unlikely that the pen is a writing instrument, and its likely that it is a pig pen or a play pen, since typical boxes fit easily inside the latter types of pen, and not inside a typical writing instrument. In short, our visitors would need to understand human perception and cognition, as well as human emotion, and how these information processing systems work together in the human mind.

Our quick sketch of fear and its relation to other aspects of the mind does not help us understand the variety of fear that pervades most of “The Fear,” namely the fear of the unknown. If fear, and other emotions, have what philosophers like Peter Goldie refer to as its “intentionality,” or “aboutness,” how can we have fear when we don’t know or even believe anything about the object of our fear? Does it even make sense to say that there is an object of fear in such cases?

Serling introduces this episode with the claim that the unknown is “the major ingredient of any recipe for fear.”  That may be true, though what is unknown can vary, and in some cases the ingredient of the unknown isn’t easy to identify. If a lion is charging towards you, the object you fear is not unknown. It would be odd to say that the outcome of the encounter with the lion is unknown.  In “The Fear” the object of fear is unknown. Ms. Scott and Trooper Franklin experience a series of unusual effects, from loud sounds and flashes of light to Trooper Franklin’s patrol car mysteriously moving from place to place.

Sometimes, the cure for fear is simply coming to understand the source of the fear. That’s because there are cases where our fear is unfounded, that is, where the cause of our fear is an object of which we ought not be afraid. Fear, then, has a normative dimension. There are norms governing fear, at least in some cases, and just as philosophers can attempt to discover moral and epistemic (knowledge-related) norms, we can also  search for the appropriate emotional responses to the things, creatures,  and events we encounter, in part by coming to understand the objects that cause our emotional responses.

In “The Invaders” a single earthling is subject to an invasion by a similar aggressor from outer space, and like Ms. Scott and Trooper Franklin, she’s in the dark about the object of her fear through most of the episode.  Yet the invading forces in the two episodes employ significantly different strategies of conquest. In both cases, fear is based not only on the object of fear being unknown, but by our faulty theorizing about the nature of those objects. It’s worth reflecting on why the strategy in “The Invaders” is more promising than that employed in “The Fear.”

Suggested Reading:

Bar-Hillel, J., (1953) “Some Linguistic Problems Connected with Machine Translation,” Philosophy of Science, 20, 3, 217-225.

_____, (1960) Appendix III of ‘The present status of automatic translation of languages’, Advances in Computers, vol.1, p.158-163.

Goldie, Peter, (2000) The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration, Oxford University Press.

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Episode 154 – “Come Wander with Me”

As soon as Floyd Burney stops at a broken bridge in the woods and leaves his car, he enters unfamiliar territory. It isn’t long before we know that this will be his last journey. We are primed and prepared for a story about the inevitability of death, and for our inability to prepare for it. Though the episode doesn’t disappoint our expectations, it isn’t really about death. This is a story about artistic expression of the folk, and its corruption by the forces of commerce.

Floyd Burney is a rock star, an anthropologist, and a hustler. As a rock star, he enters the rural hollow with his electric guitar and amplifier in hand. It’s  an odd circumstance for a rock star to be. There’s no stage, no audience, and no place to plug in. But Burney’s not there to play. He’s looking for fresh material for his band, new songs fresh from the folk. Burney has the instincts and tenacity of a field ethnomusicologist, but his interests are hardly scholarly.

In one sense, Floyd Burney has come to the right place. Almost immediately he hears the soft strumming of a guitar accompanying the plaintive sounds of a female voice. This is the real thing, the creative output of these isolated woods, the music of the folk. But in another sense, Floyd Burney is in the wrong place. He immediately tries to purchase the rights to the song he just heard. But the creative output of the folk is not for sale at any price.

Thinking about what Floyd Burney is hoping to achieve raises some fundamental issues about the nature of music as an art form. We can ask, for example: What is Burney trying to buy? Imagine that he saw someone smile and say “hello” to a passerby. Could he buy that? Purchasing a form of interaction such as a greeting doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps it also doesn’t make sense to purchase a folk song, if the song , like a greeting, is a natural form of self expression.

What Burney wants to buy are the rights to sing and play the song he’s just heard, “Come Wander With Me,” to perform it in public, and to record it and sell those recordings. The folk say that this isn’t possible. It looks like they just don’t want to sell their rights to their artistic creations, and that’s how Burney interprets their reluctance. He responds by attempting to bargain with them. He even suggests that they don’t own the song: It’s “PD,  public domain,” he claims. “You got no rights.” So why is Burney trying to buy something that he admits they don’t own?

What kind of thing is a musical work?  Is it a performance, a set of performances that are similar, a notational or linguistic representation of a performance of a sequence of sounds?  Is it a structure made up of sounds?  This characterization is too permissive.  There is a structured sequence of sounds coming from a cuckoo clock, but it is not a musical work.  Philosophers of music often take musical compositions from so-called classical music as the phenomenon they wish to characterize as music. Such works have authors, and notational representations which are understood as providing instructions for performances of the works by musicians.

The musical work that captivates Floyd Burney cannot be so characterized.  There is no score or written version of it. Even its authorship is undetermined. Mary performs the song, but doesn’t claim authorship or ownership. In fact, composition and claims to authorship are foreign concepts to her and the other inhabitants of these remote woods.

We can easily forget that music is as much a part of nature as our practices of hunting, gathering, and speaking. We’ve chosen to try to capture it and sell it, to own it and control it. As Burney follows the enchanting sounds of a guitar and human voice, nature is clearly an obstacle. A bird calls down to him from a tree, and so Burney tries to throw a rock at it. He stumbles along the ground cover and moves awkwardly among the trees.

Rachel won’t sell the song to Burney, because “It belongs to someone else.”  But she elaborates that it can’t be bought “that way,” that is with money.  Ownership of the song has to do with living the song. As Burney sings it, Mary is seduced by it being sung to her, and finally, Burney comes in possession of it. This variety of ownership is much deeper, and is connected to responsibility. Unfortunately, Burney doesn’t understand what he’s gotten into.

Philosophers reflect on the most fundamental aspects of human existence, including our most basic and enduring capacities. Certainly our ability to make music is among them, and it is also distinguished by the attempt of many to extend that capacity into the realm of commerce. Just as our need to eat has led to commercial farming and markets, so our capacity to sing has morphed into a business. There are still possible worlds where music is about life, where it is about the folk.

Further Reading:

Bartel, Christopher, 2017, “Rock as a Three-Value Tradition”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 75(2): 143–54.

Bruno, Franklin, 2013, “A Case for Song: Against an (Exclusively) Recording-Centered Ontology of Rock”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 71(1): 65–74.

Davies, Stephen, 2003, Themes in the Philosophy of Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levinson, Jerrold, 1980, “What a Musical Work Is”, Journal of Philosophy, 77(1): 5–28.

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Episode 153 – “The Brain Center at Whipples”

Serling describes “The Brain Center at Whipples”  as “a tale of oddness and obsolescence.” Extreme automation and the wholesale replacement of human labor by computers and robots may have seemed odd to Serling, but it is something with which we are very much at home. In the early 1960s the digital revolution was in its infancy. IBM once estimated  the worldwide market for its mainframe computers in the single digits.  Chief operating officers with the enthusiasm for computing technology were few and far between. Mr. Whipple’s enthusiasm for digital technology would indeed have been odd in the business and manufacturing world of the early 1960s.

Mr. Whipple’s embrace of digital technology might be excusable were it balanced by some concern for the possible negative effects that the new technology could have on his workers. He gleefully celebrates the chief virtue of the X109B14 computer: It eliminates 61,000 jobs!  He sees this as a positive outcome.  The new computer not only does the work of tens of thousands of employees, but it doesn’t need paid vacation, healthcare, or a salary. Whipple’s imperative is to increase profits, and that’s just what his new X109B14 does, by radically lowering costs. If Whipple Industries is a publicly traded company, then Mr. Whipple has obligations to shareholders to maximize profits.  Of course the goals of maximizing profits is constrained by many things, and it’s the job of the CEO of the company to negotiate the business terrain skillfully and legally. In replacing workers with machines, does Mr. Whipple violate any ethical norms of business practice?

Is Mr. Whipple morally blameworthy for laying off thousands of workers, or is he morally praiseworthy for that same action? It would be difficult to establish that Mr. Whipple does wrong by automating his business, though perhaps he crosses the line when he shoots and employee who is trying to disable one of the computers.  Unless we’re willing to condemn the capitalist system in which he operates, Mr. Whipple is no more or less at fault than is compatriots in industry.  However, although we may not be able to judge Whipple’s policies as morally wrong, we can reflect on the way such decisions can, in the short term, and perhaps even in the long term, negatively effect the society in which Whipple’s business operates.

To see this, it is helpful to consider the value of human labor, not from the standpoint of labor’s ability to manufacture things and to produce objects of value, but from the standpoint of the act of working itself, the value of labor to the one who is laboring. Is work in this sense valuable to the worker and her associates?

Labor provides workers with the opportunity to come together at a workplace, to socialize and form relationships that can be sustained beyond the factory floor or break room. Employment often makes it possible for workers to develop and practice skills, and to share expertise with others, and to take pride in their work. The loss of work can mean the loss of these valued features of work.

Whipple might respond that his workers are free to seek employment elsewhere. If, however, automation improves the bottom line at Whipples, it will do so elsewhere. The result will be that the kind of work that is outsourced to machines will eventually no longer be available to human workers.  “The Brain Center at Whipples” predicts that automation will swiftly move from the factory floor to the secretarial pool, up and up, to the top corporate offices.

The trajectory of automation imagined here is, of course, no longer merely in the twilight zone, but is a familiar feature of contemporary life. Economists, philosophers, and social theorists now think about whether worker displacement should be thought about it a new way. Instead of thinking how workers displaced by automation can be offered different work, they are considering whether work itself may fall by the wayside, with wages replaced by living stipends. If industry can be ever more profitable without human workers, we can appropriate those profits for the sustenance of the population, now free to engage in whatever meaningful activities that wish to pursue, other than work, as traditionally understood.

When we zoom in on Mr. Whipple’s management style, we see much to criticize. He fails to appreciate the role of work in the life of his employees, and their resentment of the instruments of their obsolescence. As his newly fired foreman puts it: “I’m a man, and that makes me better than that hunk of metal.” We shouldn’t expect Mr. Whipple to agree with this sentiment, but we should expect him to take more interest in the welfare of the people that work for him, as his father apparently did before him. Both Mr. Whipple and his foreman lack the concepts to begin to come to grips with the changes in the nature of work at the dawn of the digital age.

Further Reading:

Schaff, K., 2019, “Work, Technology and Inequality”, in Cholbi, M.,  The Future of Work, Technology and Basic Income, Routledge.

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Episode 152 – “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”

The town of Happiness, Arizona cries out for study by moral philosophers. To figure out whether it lives up to its name, perhaps we first need to settle on the nature of happiness. Or maybe we’ll know it when we see it.

The first thing we learn about Happiness, AZ, is that most of its residents, 128 people, died there in the recent past. All but one was the victim of gun violence. We also learn that until ten months ago, the town was known as “Satan’s Stage Stop” and “Dead Man’s Junction.” Maybe the town’s new name is a reflection of those unhappy events being in the past. In addition to the nominal change, the town has a new sheriff, a new jail, and firearms have been banned. The conditions which led to the widespread murder of the citizenship of this town have been eliminated. Very few are left, but peace prevails.

If the death of most of the citizens of the town was a bad thing, would the undoing of those deaths be a good thing? Mr. Garrity appears and claims to be able to bring the dead back to life. Is this something the residents of Happiness, Arizona will welcome?

Mr. Garrity has traveled to Happiness, Arizona, not because it is a special place, but because it is like every other place. In every place, people die and those who remain mourn their passing. What Mr. Garrity banks on is not that people will wish to avail themselves of his services to restore their loved ones to life, but rather that they will pay hard cash for him to refrain from restoring the dead to life. What Mr. Garrity knows is that as much as people claim to miss their dear, departed relatives and friends, few, if any, would wish to have those relatives and friends restored to life.

If Mr. Garrity is right, this is a puzzle. If something bad befalls you, isn’t it a good thing if the misfortune can be reversed? If your cat is lost, isn’t it good when someone finds it and returns it to you? Isn’t it the same for someone who dies? Granted, most of us don’t believe that the dead can be restored to life. But in the possible world where they can be restored, wouldn’t this be a good thing?

Mr. Garrity has built a profession based on his conviction that most people would prefer that their deceased relatives and friends remain dead, and that they will pay handsomely to make sure that the dead remain dead, were they to believe that someone could restore the dead to life. Is Mr. Garrity right? What grounds does he have for his belief?

A difference between losing a pet and losing a family member or friend is that the losing of a pet often doesn’t fundamentally alter one’s life, (though sometimes it does) while the loss through death of a loved human usually does change one’s life, and it is hard to imagine adjusting to a life with the human loved one restored after all that one has gone through to adjust to life without the loved one.  Yet it might seem like making that adjustment, as difficult as it might be, would be a small price to pay if one could actually have the deceased restored to life.

How one’s happiness would be affected by the resurrection of a loved one is an individual affair, which will vary as relationships vary under more normal circumstances. So perhaps the right question to ask is not whether any particular individual would benefit from the restoration of a loved one to them, but whether the possibility of such restorations would make things better or worse for humanity as a whole. This is a strange question, but it is one that arises naturally from the possibility of a Mr. Garrity, whether or not Mr. Garrity can deliver the goods (or bads) he promises.

Our question is not whether resurrection would be good for the person who is resurrected. The answer to that question isn’t obvious, and it too would vary from person to person. It would also depend on the conditions resurrected individuals would find themselves in. For example, if one died from a painful terminal illness, being restored to a late state of that illness is would not be wished for.

The availability of resurrection would, for many, fundamentally change their conception of death as the final, and irreversible stage of life, and with it the conception of life. We would have to think of death not as the final end, but as a possible stage, or gap, in one’s existence. If we thought that we might be resurrected, we could anticipate and even try to plan for, such future states of ourselves,  just as we plan for vacations. Others, too, would have to consider their possible relationships to newly resurrected loved ones, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, and plan accordingly.  Would the possibility of resurrection make life happier, overall?

“Mr. Garrity and the Graves” suggests that it would not, just as “Escape Clause” suggests that the possibility of an immortal existence might not be preferred to a finite life, even if we lament the inevitability of our death. Some have argued that what we lament is the loss of opportunities that we would have, if we live longer than we do in fact live.  Those opportunities, however, will only bring happiness, if the conditions exist under which we are resurrected include our being welcomed back to the fold by those are alive. As this episode makes clear, that’s not something we can take for granted.

Further  Reading:

Nagel, T., (1970) “Death,” Nous IV, no. 1.

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