Episode 90 – “The Fugitive”

A fugitive is a person on the run, someone escaping conditions in their own culture or country uncomfortable enough to make the effort to uproot and adjust to an unfamiliar, and often unfriendly, place worth the often considerable risks.  The fugitive is not just a refugee, but a refugee whose home culture or government has an interest in their return. Very often, though not always, a fugitive is at the margins of both the society left behind, and the society entered.  A fugitive’s success depends on not being noticed, on fitting into the new turf. That can be difficult when the adopted culture is not diverse, and the fugitive looks, acts, or speaks differently from others.

There is diversity in every society, even in the America of the 1960s as it is represented in The Twilight Zone. The fugitive in “The Fugitive” appears as a white older adult male, Ben,  playing softball with a group of white children. Among the children, only one, Jenny,  is female, and she is also the only who is clearly physically other-abled. She wears a brace on her right leg. Like Ben, Jenny is trying to fit in, in spite of being the only girl, and in spite of the physical challenges and discrimination she faces.  The others may take for granted  what Ben and Jenny deeply appreciate, that they are exactly where they want to be.

Ben appears to be a human, but he’s really a being from another planet, the king or chief executive of that planet. Ben grew tired of ruling, and escaped to Earth.  So he is the fugitive, tailed by two human-looking underlings who wish to return him to his throne, not because he is bad, but because he is so good! But how do we judge his goodness, and as a being from another planet,  what is it morally permissible for Ben to do? What should he do, here on earth, in light of the demands placed on him by both earthlings and members of his home planet?  Do our moral judgments extend to the possible acts of alien creatures such as Ben, or are they localized to our patch of the galaxy? Is morality truly universal, or is it relative?

Philosophers approach the question of the relativity of morals by comparing incompatible moral codes found in different human cultures. If what is moral is what one ought to do, rather than just what one does, then morality should provide guidance, particularly to fugitives, as they travel between cultures, which suggests that morality isn’t relative, that there a standard outside of the moral practices and codes of individual cultures to guide the actions of fugitives, refugees, and even tourists. If changing cultures ever requires changing one’s moral prescriptions, then morality is relative.

“The Fugitive” is an exercise in cross-planetary morality, suggesting that even where one visits not merely another culture, but another world, there are moral principles that apply both to where one has been and where one arrives. After playing softball with Jenny and the neighborhood boys, everyone has to settle on a new game. In picking roles for the “Find the Martian” game they agree to play, Ben looks out for Jenny, and helps make sure that she is included, in spite of the fact that the others want to exclude her because she is “a dame with a brace.” Later, Jenny, who knows Ben has special powers, asks him to cure her leg. He hesitates: “Oh, Jenny, I mustn’t do it.” We don’t know why he can’t. It turns out not to be a moral “can’t” but a prudential “can’t.” When circumstances change, Ben can, and he does.  Ben juggles his obligations across planets, using moral principles that apply to both.

The actions of Ben and his followers are ultimately morally praiseworthy by norms we share with them, in contrast with the behavior of the Kanamits, in “To Serve Man.”  We are appalled at the Kanamit’s treatment of us, even though, it may be that their behavior is consistent with our treatment of other creatures. It may well be that there are surprising consequences for the cross-planetary application of our moral principles. Happily, there are no such surprises in “The Fugitive.”  The only surprise is the metaphysical solution to Jenny’s goal of traveling to Ben’s planet with him, involving the problem of fission in personal identity, a problem explored in “In His Image.”

Further Reading:

Appiah, Anthony, 2003, Thinking it Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy,  Oxford University Pres, Chapter 5, Section 7, “Dealing with Relativism”: 201-204.

Brandt, R.B., 1984, “Relativism Refuted?,” The Monist, 67: 297–307.

Williams, B., 1972, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, New York: Harper & Row.

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