Although it takes place a billion miles from earth, “On Thursday We Leave for Home” is decidedly about about problems that one need not travel one mile from the surface of the earth to discover. It is about how an assemblage of individuals ought to govern themselves, and about the rights that individuals retain, even when they’ve agreed to constraints on that freedom as members of a group.
On view is a small community (approximately 150 members) which, thirty years earlier, found living among the other inhabitants of earth unacceptable, and they undertook to free themselves and resettle on a distant planet. Their main objection to life on earth was the continual existence of war. They decided that the best way to live in peace was to set off on their own.
The episode provides us with a rich thought experiment for considering the nature of justice and the conditions under which it can arise. Were a small group of individuals to emigrate to a place where they would not be bothered by other people, how would they organize themselves? What form of government should they adopt, and can their society maintain their governing principles, or should it change, as circumstances change?
While the group has escaped war on earth, they find themselves on a barely inhabitable planet, with scorching heat from twin suns that never set, and a barren, desert surface. They survive for thirty years, but only with the hope of returning to earth. They cooperate and share the meager resources, but they do not thrive. The group is organized as an autocracy. A single leader, “Captain Bentine,” seems like a benevolent dictator, and also appears to have been chosen, at least informally by the community. As their leader, Bentine maintains order, and responds to challenges to his authority, and the rules of the society, by administering punishment, but also by engaging with his charges, and providing arguments in response to their challenges.
Conditions are so bleak that many residents have chosen death over life. We witness the burial of the ninth resident to take their own life in six months. Suicide is clearly a transgression of the laws of this society, as it is of many on earth. One resident, “young Mr. Bains,” challenges the prohibition against suicide by arguing that in light of the conditions of extreme scarcity, individuals should not be subject to any rules, including prohibitions against ending their own suffering. His argument echoes that made by David Hume, who held that a system of justice is only possible in circumstances between extreme scarcity and over-abundance of resources. In the circumstances of this group, there aren’t enough resources for anyone to achieve a minimally comfortable existence, and so no one can make a claim on the possession of any other person, and so rules constraining their behavior don’t make sense. Bains doesn’t argue that there should be a free-for-all, but he does argue that there are no grounds for preventing anyone from freely choosing suicide.
Bentine argues that granting freedom to the members of this community would reduce them to the status of savages, where “the strong take away from the weak” and “the young steal from the old.” He doesn’t say so, but perhaps Bentine is suggesting that circumstances are not so dire that there is no benefit from maintaining a system of justice, which protects the young, the weak and the old, and so protects the society as a whole. However, it isn’t clear that Bains was arguing for a complete dismantling of their society, but rather for a more limited range of freedom for individuals to make decisions about their own lives.
Any exercise of individual freedom is a potential threat to the stability and survival of the group. An individual who takes her or his own life is no longer able to carry water, sit watch in the radar tower, or carry out other chores. Every suicide is a blow to the moral of the whole. The decision to take one’s own life in this context is very different from that of Williams in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Williams’ exit will be missed by no one, and he knows it. Hume thought that suicide was wrong if it violated an obligation to God, to society, or to oneself. He thought that there were cases where none of these obligations would be violated, and suicide would be permissible in such cases.
The group is put to another test when a rescue party arrives to take the group back to earth. While everyone wants to go home, Bentine is worried about a future embedded in a world they had abandoned. He is committed to keeping their group together on earth, and to retaining his role as their leader. Here we see the limitations of autocracies. While his singular command may have been instrumental in their survival in their isolation from others, the other members of the community envision their existence back on earth within the larger society, and they see no need to stay within their narrow circle. In the end, Serling notes, William Bentine, once a god, [is] now a population of one.”
Thomas Hobbes is credited with the idea of a social contract, where subjects agree to invest complete power in a supreme ruler who will protect them as members of the state. For Hobbes, and for other philosophers who have developed related ideas about how a just state can be formed, this is not a description of the formation of any actual state, but a description of the conditions under which we could rationally agree to form a just state. A key complication, illustrated in this episode, is how such a state can deal with change, both change in the material circumstances of its members, and in the interaction with members of other states.
Freeman, Samuel, (2007), Rawls, London: Routledge.
Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan
Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 3, Part 2, Section 2.
Hume, David, 1748 , ‘Of the Original Contract,’ and ‘On Suicide’ in his Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, 1777; reprinted Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985.