Episode 39 – “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”

A two-bit criminal is commissioned to make a hit, to commit murder on behalf of his gang. In advance of the hit he is confronted by his conscience, represented by his alter-ego in a mirror. His alter-ego critiques his life, his past choices, and his immediate plans to commit a murder.

The episode poses this question:

When faced with a critical choice, can a person defy his or her character and will oneself in a new direction? Can one decide to give up a life of petty crime fueled by fear, incompetence, and self-loathing? Can one turn over a new leaf and go straight, find a job and a mate, as Jacky resolves to do? Here the question isn’t whether one can sustain the change of character. The question is simply whether one can initiate such a change.

This is an empirical question, and we can look to the run of human behavior for the answer. It seems clear that  people sometimes, perhaps rarely, do a 180, or something close to that. The philosophical question is how it is done, for a genuine 180. An alternative view is that we can make a distinction between apparent and real 180s, and every 180 is just apparent, not real. In the episode the method of achieving real character change appears to be an argument between Jackie and his conscience. His conscience wins the argument, and the change takes place. But we don’t really see how it happens. At the pitch of the argument Jackie collapses. He wakes up as a new man.  Was it the force of the reasoning displayed in the mirror, or something else? Does reason have the power to move us to such radical action, or is it something else?  Perhaps it is reason, but the clincher may be his alter-go’s claim that he needs companionship and love.

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