Episode 144 – “What’s in the Box?”

Joe and Phyllis Britt are not a happily married couple. Joe comes home from driving a cab tired and irritable. Phyllis is not sympathetic, and worse, she’s suspicious that Joe is cheating on her. Their interactions consist of one verbal assault after another. If there ever was concern and tenderness, it appears to be lost and forgotten. The opening scene provides support for Don Moller, who in “An Argument against Marriage,” claims that given the likelihood that any marriage will eventually devolve into the kind of hate fest we witness here, marriage is not a viable institution.

Is it possible to turn the tide of a bad marriage and make amends? Can entrenched enmity give way to reconciliation and trust, or are Joe and Phyllis doomed to either remaining in a toxic relationship, splitting up, or worse? Planning in the Britt household appears to be a rare thing, though planning is what is needed in order to engineer a fundamental change in a relationship. To formulate a plan of action, one typically considers various possible futures, and then chooses those actions which will bring about, or is most likely to bring about, the most suitable of those possible futures. Successful planning, then depends on imagining relevant and appropriate possible future states, and appropriate reasoning about actions that are likely to bring them about. Rational planning also involves thinking about possible future states to be avoided, and about the steps to be taken to prevent those possible future states from becoming actual.

Joe Britt finds himself forced to confront a possible future state that he would like to avoid, namely the escalation of the tension between himself and his wife. Whether this results from an television set that has been altered by a repairman from the twilight zone, or is simply the product of his own imagination doesn’t matter. What matters is the realization that he must act to prevent the sequence of events that will lead to a tragic outcome.

Joe’s decision is to come clean and admit to his wife that he’s been having an affair. He tries to explain his vulnerability and his culpability, and his remorse, all at the same time. Although Phyllis has shown some kindness to Joe, for example, after she found him unconscious on their living room floor, at this moment she explodes in anger. Joe’s strategy backfired, and led to the very outcome he acted to avoid.

We can consider what would have been the prudent thing for Joe to do in the circumstances, and we can also consider what would be the morally correct thing to do, recognizing that these might not be the same thing. What moral principles should guide Joe’s decisions? For a start, one ought to be honest with one’s spouse. So Joe did the right thing. He came clean, as they say, but doing so had terrible consequences for both of them. He could have stuck with the status quo, but he was motivated to confess to Phyllis based on the vivid representation of a future terrible fight between them. This suggests that under there circumstances, there was nothing Joe could have done differently.

The same goes for Phyllis. Like Joe, she attempts to treat him with compassion and concern, but that doesn’t last. Her efforts aren’t rewarded. He lashes out at her, and when he reveals his infidelity, she lashes out at him. In the emotion-fueled brawl that follows, neither Joe nor Phyllis are making decisions. They are acting, but acting without reason,without deliberation, and certainly they are not acting out of self-interest.

It’s tempting to diagnose toxic relationships like the Britt’s as loveless relationships. Do Joe and Phyllis not love one another? It’s unclear. A more accurate assessment may be that what is missing is sustained sympathy. Joe and Phyllis have moments of sympathy, but their default style of interaction is completely devoid of sympathy. Joe remarks about this as Phyllis taunts him. Phyllis in turn complains that Joe doesn’t have a clue about how hurt she is by his admission of his infidelity. Spurts of sympathy are followed by heavy blows of derision. The former is overwhelmed by the latter. Love is overrated. What the Britts needed was  sustained mutual sympathy.

Further Reading:

Cited in “Episode 119 – Passage on the Lady Anne”:

Landau, Iddo, 2004, “An Argument for Marriage,” Philosophy, 79: 475–481.

Dan Moller, Dan, 2003, “An Argument against Marriage” Philosophy, 78: 79-91.

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