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