Episode 105 – “Valley of the Shadow”

Philip Redfield misses a turn and winds up in the town of Peaceful Valley.  Serling describes Redfield’s experience as one many of us have had when we’ve made a wrong turn and find ourselves in some isolated small town, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the world. Serling notes: “You’ve seen them. Little towns, tucked away far from the main roads. You’ve seen them, but have you thought about them? Have you wondered what the people do in such places, why they stay?”  The question seems odd. Would the same question arise for someone visiting a large city? Why do people stay anywhere? Serling seems to think that there is some sort of instability in small town life, and at least as an observation about mid to late 20th century in the U.S., the observation is apt. Small town life is increasingly rare, as people flock to the big cities.

Peaceful Valley is different. It’s residents aren’t going anywhere, and Philip Redfield, having stumbled upon it, isn’t going anywhere either. What makes it different is that Peaceful Valley safeguards a powerful technology, developed by an earlier inventor and resident, and entrusted  to Peaceful Valley’s surviving residents following his death. As keepers of this powerful technology who have witnessed the harnessing of atomic energy, they are keenly aware of the potential destructive power in their possession. They have decided to keep it secret from the world at large, until such time as the world at large can be trusted to use it for good, rather than for ill.

As an outsider, when Redfield discovers what Peaceful Valley is all about, he is highly critical of the town’s decisions and policies. Is the decision to withhold potentially life-saving and life-enhancing technology morally defensible? More generally, do those of us who possess the means to alleviate pain and suffering elsewhere, have a moral obligation to do so, or is it morally permissible to keep our resources to ourselves? Even more generally, are we first residents of towns, states, and countries, and only then, citizens of the world, or are there ways in which we, as inhabitants of Earth, incur obligations to other inhabitants, regardless of where on Earth they are?

Redfield advocates passionately for cosmopolitanism, the view that we are under a moral obligation to help other human beings regardless of their location and political alliances. Part of the strength of his argument derives from the special conditions of Peaceful Valley itself. They ought to help others globally because they can. It is wrong, Redfield argues, to allow people to starve when sharing the town’s technology could alleviate suffering.  Peaceful Valley, like all technologically and economically advantaged societies, is obligated to do what it can to help others, both inside and outside their borders.

The objection Redfield raises is not just that Peaceful Valley’s is unwillingness to share; he objects to the measures they take to protect their secret. Redfield himself, because he knows too much,  has become their prisoner, and when he attempts to engage with others, he notices that their complacency is the result of engineered ignorance and an insular, comfortable lifestyle. Redfield knows what the residents do not, that they are not free. Is this limitation on freedom warranted? The leadership believes that granting individual freedom would lead to moral transgressions that would ultimately undermine their society, and perhaps all societies. And they think they can prove it.

The leaders release Redfield and he proceeds to steal their secret technology and flee Peaceful Valley, killing the leaders in the process using their technology. But the leaders  have just staged the event. They are not killed, and Redfield is recaptured. They argue that Redfield’s acts proves that they must protect their technology. It will be used for ill as soon as it is in the hands of outsiders.

Are the leaders right about this? Redfield has killed and stolen, but solely to release the technology for the benefit of the world outside of Peaceful Valley.  Redfield recognizes his act as severe one, but he defends it as morally appropriate, and says that he would do it again.  The leaders, however, have demonstrated that others will find their technology irresistible,  and there’s no guarantee that it will be used for good.

The philosophical debates surrounding cosmopolitanism encompass much more than questions about our obligation to provide aide to those less fortunate. As Appaih points out, there are also questions about how we should see ourselves and balance our local existence in our towns, states, and countries, with our participation in, and engagement with others, both when we visit or live in other cultures and societies, and when others live in ours (Appiah, 2006).  To what extent is a life of well-being furthered by embracing cosmopolitan opportunities? Although Peaceful Valley is peaceful, its peaceful state, as the title suggests, may be a kind of death. The well-being of its residents is a narrow variety of well-being, one that by its very nature, can’t participate in or contribute to the well-being of others. Indeed it can’t even understand the world outside its boundaries. What right, then does it have to claim to be the protector of that world?

Further Reading:

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
(Norton and Company, 2006)

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Episode 104 – “The Thirty Fathom Grave”

It is not uncommon for individuals who have  survived multi-casualty events, such as  wars, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, floods,  and other disasters, natural and human-induced, to struggle with their good fortune, in the midst of so much bad fortune. This phenomenon,  widely labeled “survivor’s guilt,” is the subject of “The Thirty Fathom Grave.”

Chief Bell, a petty officer on a U.S. Navy vessel, is subject to a broad range of  affective and cognitive impairments whose onset appear to coincide with the discovery that their ship is directly over the wreck a U.S. Navy submarine. The sub sank twenty years earlier, during World War II. Chief Bell was the sole survivor from the sub.  Bell’s symptoms, and his subsequent behavior, including his eventual suicide, have something to do with his belief that he is somehow to blame for the sinking of the sub, and his intense sense that he is being drawn to join his long-lost crew members.

There are several complications in the story that encourage us to think that Bell’s deceased crew members really are communicating with him and are drawing him to their “Thirty Fathom Grave.” What is philosophically interesting is not whether one can be literally haunted by the dead. Rather, what is of interest is the fact that memories, beliefs, and feelings about incidents that occurred twenty years in the past or longer, can have a powerful effect on one’s beliefs, feelings and well-being in the present. If anyone suffers from intense survivor’s guilt, Bell certainly does.

What exactly is survivor’s guilt? First, it’s important to be clear about the fact that there is a difference between having guilt and being guilty. Having guilt is a psychological state, or a cluster of psychological states. It is typically taken to be a feeling, but it’s clearly more than just a feeling. It is a feeling associated with an assessment of one’s responsibility for the existence of some problematic state of affairs.  For example, suppose I invite some friends over for dinner, but I fail to plan the menu properly, and there isn’t enough food to satisfy my guests. I may feel guilty that they leave hungry. I am responsible and  can only blame myself for the situation. I feel guilty and I am guilty. In this case being guilty need not be a moral or legal assessment, though we most frequently speak of being guilty in moral and legal contexts.  Changing the example slightly, suppose that I’m not in charge of the dinner, but that my housemate is, and she invites me to the dinner for her friends. Suppose now that the failure to have enough food on hand is hers, and the guests leave hungry. In this case I may feel guilty for the sorry situation, though I am not guilty. I’m may not responsible for the unfortunate state of affairs, even if I believe that I am and even if it is true that I could have intervened in such a way as to change the outcome.

A person experiences survivor’s guilt when they have survived an event in which others have not survived, and where the surviving individual believes that they bear some or all the responsibility for the death of some or all those who didn’t survive. Here too, feeling guilty does not require being guilty. In fact, usually those with survivor’s guilt are not responsible for the tragedy that has occurred. Thus, survivor’s guilt is often due to false belief, or lack of insight, on the part of the survivor about the survivor herself or himself.

An individual with survivor’s guilt often has a false belief about himself or herself. So is the survivor self-deceived?  As philosophers have traditionally understood it, a person is self-deceived when they believe something that they already believe to be false. If Ignat is trying to lose weight, and, offered a doughnut, thinks, “Oh, one little doughnut can’t hurt,” it’s plausible to say that he is deceiving himself.  [So self-deception isn’t just having a false belief about oneself – it also seems to involve having a conflicting true belief that is being supressed.]

“The Thirty Fathom Grave” brings out the complexity of the survivor’s condition.  Officer Bell’s feelings of guilt and associated beliefs about his responsibility are triggered by the his proximity to the sunken submarine where his crew-mates perished. While there is no rational basis for the beliefs and feelings that torture Bell and lead to his own tragic end, we are well-positioned to understand the causal factors at work that lead to that end. Unfortunately, those entrusted with his well being are not so positioned. It can be difficult enough to understand a person’s motives for action, but the difficulty is even greater when the person’s motivation depends on false interpretations of their past actions and their role in past events.

Further Reading:

de Sosa, R., 1978, “Self-Deceptive Emotions,” Journal of Philosophy, 75: 684–697.

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Episode 103 – “In His Image”

Alan Talbot checks his watch, murders a religious fanatic in the subway, and arrives late to an appointment with his girlfriend. Just another day in New York, or is something unusual happening? The next thing we see is Alan Talbot visiting his significant other, with no hint that he just committed a murder. Alan has a problem with memory and with time. He seems to have lost track of it. Perhaps this is a hint that we’re already dealing with the issue of personal identity.

Alan asks his significant other whether she knows enough about him to be in a serious relationship with him. She rattles off his life history. One almost gets the idea that she knows more about him than he does. They set off to explore his past, visiting his town and family. But things are not as Alan remembers it to be. Some things are right, but much isn’t. Many of Alan’s beliefs appear to be temporally misplaced. Things go from bad to worse. Alan’s web of beliefs seems radically unconnected the the actual world. Some hypotheses about what’s gone wrong are advanced. None of them are remotely plausible. What’s going on?

A solution to puzzle begins to appear when we literally get under Alan’s skin. Like Alecia, he’s not a flesh and blood human being, at least not entirely. He has a non-biological arm. Is he all machine, or is it just a prosthetic arm? We already knew that he seemed to be controlled by voices he heard. We get more evidence: Alan puts a flame to his hand, and he feels no pain. If Alan is a robot, his circumstances are very different from those of Alecia in “The Lonely” or Grandma in “I Sing the Body Electric.” He is situated as a human being, taken to be one, by almost everyone around him, everyone except Walter.

Walter is Alan’s twin, his Doppleganger. When they meet, Alan’s first questions are “Are you real?” Alan asks: “Who am I?” and Walter says “You are nobody.” Walter elaborates: “You are a machine. I built you.” So Alan is an artificial Walter, a duplicate, qualitatively similar, but clearly a separate individual who came to “life” in Walter’s basement a week ago. Once animated, Alan attacked his maker and took off.

Is this a case of fission? In fission cases we have two individuals who have the same causal continuity to past stages of themselves. At the moment of fission they are in the same cognitive state, but over time, due to differences in their bodily position and perceptual circumstances, they diverge. If Alan started out as a duplicate of Walter, he has certainly emerged as his “own person” when he meets his maker. How successful is Walter at convincing Alan that he isn’t a person? Is Walter right, or Alan? Put yourself in Walter’s shoes: If you created a robotic version of yourself, how would you convince it that it was not you? Answering this question can take you a long way toward understanding the problem of personal identity.

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Episode 102 – “The Changing of the Guard”

If philosophy is the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia), it is also  about the acquisition of wisdom through education.  If the goal of education is the acquisition of wisdom, or knowledge, how can we best achieve that goal, and what is value of achieving it?  These are questions in epistemology and moral theory, respectively, and they are raised from the perspective of  Professor Ellis Fowler, an educator,  in “The Changing of the Guard.”

Professor Ellis finds himself at the end of a long career of teaching literature to impressionable young men at the Rock Spring School for Boys, a private preparatory school nestled in rural Vermont. His classes have been small, and intimate.  We catch a glimpse of his teaching style and manner. He is both stern and kind, demanding, and understanding. He reads a poem by A.E. Houseman, the subject of which is the attempt to impart wisdom to someone “of one and twenty,” which mirrors what Professor Ellis is attempting to do, to impart wisdom to his nine pupils.   Those same nine pupils struggle to concentrate on the lesson, and bolt for the door as soon as Professor Ellis dismisses them.

This is not just the end of a class, or a term, but, as Ellis soon learns, the end of his teaching career. The headmaster informs him that his contract will not be renewed, that after fifty years, it’s time for him to retire, that “youth must be served” and that its appropriate that there be a “changing of the guard.” This sudden and unexpected change in his life,  his removal from the classroom, causes Ellis to undertake serious reflection on his career. What is the purpose and value of his life without teaching, and what, if anything was the purpose and value of his career? He concludes: “I gave them nothing… I left no imprint on anybody.”

Professor Ellis isn’t thinking clearly. He is surrounded by the haze of disappointment, loss, and lack of purpose. What is the value of introducing students to poetry, fiction, and the humanities more generally? What impact has his teaching had? What difference did it make?  He reads the inscription below the statue of Horace Mann, who wrote: ” Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Ellis is ashamed, because he believes that he hasn’t made a difference.

Professor Ellis has made a difference, as he learns when searching his memory; he imagines encounters with many of his former students, students who have won victories for humanity, and who credit Professor Ellis for helping them acquire the wisdom required for achieving those victories. It may be difficult to know when education has imparted wisdom, and when that wisdom has been deployed to win some victory for humanity. The value of education is in cultivating individuals who can make a difference in the lives of others.

Making a difference doesn’t necessarily make things better. Hitler made a difference. So there’s much more to be said about the content of education, about what is taught and how it is taught. In “The Changing of the Guard” that content is represented in Professor Ellis himself, by the texts he chooses for his students, by his love of learning and his compassion for his students, for his love of music and art, and by his devotion to the well-being of the members of the intellectual community of Rock Spring School.


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Episode 101 – “Cavender is Coming”

How should one lead a life? What makes a life a good life? What does it take to live well, to to achieve well-being, both for some interval in one’s life, or better yet, for the duration of one’s life? At this level of generality, we would expect answers to this question to also be quite general and abstract, and philosophers have  provided us with such answers. But “Cavender is Coming” approaches the problem from the bottom up, by raising the question in the form of a task for Cavender, an angel trying to earn his wings: Take a particular life that is being led, and make it better.

This episode bears a striking resemblance to “Mr. Bevis,”  in which a guardian angel was dispatched to improve the lot one Mr. Bevis. Now the subject is Agnes Grep, and the angel is Cavender. Both Bevis and Grep are quirky, off-beat characters, subject to frequent job changes and unusual interests. Neither is fast-tracked on career or social ladders, but both appear to be closely connected to their neighbors and to individuals who work in the neighborhood. Both guardian angels are mature males, with conventional values and expectations for others.

The two episodes introduce questions about well-being and about what constitutes a good life. Against the standards of middle class America in the 1960s, Bevis and Grep, from the perspective of their angelic handlers, appear ripe for improvement.  Their handlers’ strategy is simply to elevate the social and economic rank of their charge. Grep finds herself hobnobbing with the rich at the Morgan Mansion.  But she finds herself in such settings without context and without preparation, and more significantly, without any connection to the people with whom she now intermingles.

The efforts of the guardian angels fail to achieve the goal of elevating the happiness of their charges, in large measure because, drawing on a distinction made by Shelly Kagan, they can make changes to someone’s life, but they can’t change who the person is. Grep’s life is changed when Cavender alters her social connections, but that doesn’t alter Grep’s likes and dislikes, proclivities and values. The interests and values of her new associates don’t resonate with her, and she can’t take an interest in their interest, and she doesn’t see how she can help them or participate in their lives the way she could in her prior setting.

Both “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender is Coming” demonstrate the pitfalls of attempting to assess happiness and the quality of life from the outside. Both angels fail to “get” their charges. Their conventional conceptions of the good life simply do not apply to the mortals they are trying to help, who are really early hippies.  The fact that the angels can perform miracles, and do,  doesn’t make their jobs any easier.

With that said, it would be a mistake to take these episodes as arguing for hedonism, or other views that take well-being to be based on self-satisfaction.  Rather, they make the case that the two mortals, Mr. Bevis and Ms. Grep, are models of individuals who have already achieved well-being before their guardian angels appear to try to help them.  Bevis and Grep are not self-promoters. They are, however, tuned into the needs and cares of the children, care-givers, and modest merchants in their modest neighborhoods and dwellings.  Both struggle with managing their own finances and jobs, but that’s not because they are incompetent, but rather because it is not their focus. Instead, they derive pleasure from the interaction with and support they provide others, regardless of their social status. They treat others as ends in themselves, to use Kant’s famous phrase.


Further Reading:

Feldman, Fred, What is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Kagan, Shelly, “Me and My Life,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 94 (1994), pp. 309-324.

Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, H. J. Paton, trans., (Harper, 1964).

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