What, if anything, has lasting or intrinsic value? Suppose your strategy is to steal something of great value and hold onto it for a hundred years, with the hope of cashing in when the heat is off. Is that a good strategy? That’s the strategy in this episode, with a little help from technology that suspends the aging process in the bodies of the thieves for 100 years, so they can cash in the stolen items without getting caught. Will something of great value now have great value in 100 years? Is there anything that has great value now that is guaranteed to have great value in, say, 100 years?
There are lots of ways of thinking about value, and about whether there anything is intrinsically valuable. Some things are valuable as a means to some end that we desire or value. A vessel that floats is valuable if we desire to cross a body of water. If we don’t wish to get back our starting point, the vessel may lose its value. Values like this are called instrumental values, and they are clearly extrinsic.
Are there any physical objects, or types of objects or substances that have intrinsic value, or are all “things” merely valuable as means for achieving some end, for accomplishing some goal? That may depend on what we include among our objects. Do they include living things? Persons? We may well think that human lives, or more generally, some varieties of conscious experience, have intrinsic value. If we think that there are no things – physical things – with intrinsic value, then we could use that position to craft an argument that persons are not physical things, if we’re committed to intrinsic value.
“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” provides grounds for thinking there is intrinsic value, and that what has it might not be what is most valuable or precious within one’s own culture, or even what has been most valuable over different cultures and several millennia. The argument for intrinsic value is presented as a recipe: Take some candidate for intrinsic value and imagine a possible world in which it is valueless. If the description of that possible world is coherent, then the object in question does not have intrinsic value. The problem with this argument is that it can eliminate intrinsic value candidates but it can’t show that anything has intrinsic value. However, the episode at least provides a hint of a candidate for intrinsic value. As the last two survivors of the caper attempt to walk to through the desert, and survive to cash in, we see quite plainly that their survival, their existence as persons, is a precondition for anything else having value.
“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” is also a case of time travel. As is often noted, any enduring existence is a case of time travel, just a mundane case. In the episode, the four thieves attempt to partake in a non-mundane case of time travel, by suspending their life processes for a long interval, and then re-emerging on the scene after that interval. So they travel to a point in time that they wouldn’t be able to reach by ordinary means. This method is different from the typically imagined time machine, but it has the advantage of being a non-hand-waving procedure: We know, in outline at least, how they manage to skip to the future. Unlike the typical time-travel scenario, their trip in time, like our mundane time travel, is only in one direction. We’ll see Serling explore this possibility future in another episode.
See Michael J. Zimmerman, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.