Episode 87 – “A Piano in the House”

A birthday party is a gathering of friends and relatives of the birthday boy, or girl, man, or, in this case, woman. Mr. Fitzgerald Fortune, a theater critic, has invited friends and colleagues from the world of the theater to celebrate the birthday of Fortune’s wife, Esther. Such gatherings are unlikely to give rise to moral dilemmas, or  to raise questions about what moral principles to appeal to in considering how we ought to act in such circumstances.  Birthday party attendees gather to celebrate the anniversary of an intimate’s birth and to celebrate that person’s life.

We quickly learn that this is no ordinary birthday party because Fitzgerald Fortune is no ordinary husband and friend. He is a selfish, egotistical control freak who gets pleasure from inflicting pain, psychological pain, on others. His goal for this gathering is simply to increase his own happiness, which depends on the misery of everyone else.

This party is unusual in another respect. The room in which it takes place contains a player piano that has special causal powers. When it plays, it causes one of the individuals listening to it to reveal their emotions to the others present. Described in this way, it might not seem like something out of the ordinary. One might hear a sad piece coming from the piano, and, as a result, feel sadness, and show sadness. This piano does much more. It causes the individual to reveal deeply held and guarded feelings, emotions to which the individual himself or herself might not have conscious access. These emotions are manifested by the individuals actions and assertions, actions and assertions that would not, without the presence of the special piano, be revealed.

Just by suggesting a novel way in which our emotions might be elicited and comprehended, by ourselves and others, the episode raises questions about our access to our own emotions, and, more fundamentally, about what our emotions are. Is our access to them different from our access to our belief, and how does dredging up our emotions differ from recalling or reflecting on our beliefs? To what extent can our emotions be transparent to others, and what are the mechanisms by which they can be revealed? These questions have been of interest to philosophers like David Hume who saw the foundation of morals in human sentiments, as well as to psychologists since Freud, and cognitive scientists interested in the relationship between affect and cognition.

How does this special tool for uncovering emotions serve Mr. Fitzgerald Fortune’s purposes? He is delighted to use it to embarrass and undermine his “friends,” causing them to reveal emotions that they normally keep hidden. As long as there is an asymmetry in the use of the piano, where only the emotions of those other than Mr. Fortune are revealed, his purposes are served.

The piano is an equal-opportunity emotion revealer, as Mr. Fortune discovers late in the game. Fortune himself is forced to spill the beans, his own fears and hang-ups, in front of the others. His self-revelations don’t prompt others to sympathize with him, but rather to retreat in horror. This suggests that Mr. Fortune would be more fortunate without the emotion-revealing piano. After all, the piano doesn’t really reveal things about the emotions of others that Fortune doesn’t already know, e.g., that his wife detests him, that his colleague is in love with his wife, and that their overweight friend is lonely.  The emotion-revealing piano just makes it easier for him to embarrass and humiliate others. His success at being a jerk depends on the asymmetry of the access to emotions. He is better at keeping his emotions bottled up, until the special piano comes along. The opacity of the emotions, then, may serve the purposes of the ethical egoist, who becomes an expert at decoding the emotions of others while concealing his/her own.

“A Penny for Your Thoughts” serves as a companion episode to this one.  Each explores an aspect of the problem of other minds. “A Penny for Your Thoughts” explores the possible world in which someone has direct access to the thoughts of others, while “A Piano in the House” is the possible world in which there is direct access to the emotions of others. In both cases, those who gains direct access to other minds, either their thoughts or their emotions, gets more then they bargained for.

Further Reading:

Baier, Annette C., “Getting in Touch with our own Feelings” in Baier, Annette C., Reflections on How We Live 2010, Oxford University Press.

Baier, Kurt, From a Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics, 1958, Cornell University Press. Chapter 8.

Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 1966, Dover Publications.

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Episode 86 – “Kick the Can”

How should we live in old age, if we achieve it? How should we evaluate our life  when we are old, and in evaluating it how should we take into account the arc of existence that includes the infirmities and limitations that come with age? How should we care for our elderly parents and others? These are just some of the philosophical questions raised in “Kick the Can.”

“Static” opened with the rather depressing sight of elderly residents of a boarding house passively glued to the communal television set. One resident, however, rejects this lifestyle.  “Kick the Can” is about an older crowd, not at a boarding house, but at Sunnyvale Rest, an old-age home with a full time nurse and full time physician in residence. Like “Static,” “Kick the Can”features a resident who doesn’t fit in, a resident who is not content to bask in the tranquility and calm that his setting provides.

The malcontent in “Kick the Can” is Charles Whitley, who, at the start, believes that his son is coming to rescue him from Sunnyvale Rest. Charles fully expects to move in with his son and young family. But the son quickly disabuses Charles of that plan, and Charles slinks back to Sunnyvale. Charles seems quite healthy and alert. Is it morally permissible to place a parent in a facility, when they are capable of living with the family, and wish to do so? Charles’s son, and later, his caregivers, seem to systematically underestimate his abilities. The more Charles exerts his desire for independence, the more they question his competency. A picture emerges of Charles, and others like him, as victims of a particularly distasteful form of discrimination. T

This discrimination – age discrimination  – does seem justified, particularly as we survey the scene of Sunnyvale Rest at the start of the episode, and witness its residents, a motley assemblage of individuals, hunched over, moving stiffly, or not at all, or fixated on itching a hand, or …. It is correct to include these individuals in a group, a group with disabilities or special needs. The philosophical question is how ought we care for this group. Is the care we see in the episode appropriate? Is it required? Is it just?

How we ought to apportion resources for the more senior members of our population is a pressing issue of distributive justice, one taken up by Norman Daniels in ground-breaking work in the 1980s. As the percentage of the population that falls into this category increases the question of the fair allocation of resources to all segments of the population has only become more urgent.

“Though it prompts reflection on such issues,  “Kick the Can” does not raise these macro-level concerns directly. Instead, it focuses in on the psychology of the elderly, their self-conceptions, and the relationship between their self-conceptions and their psychological and physical health. Almost as soon as Charles realizes that his son has not come to save him from Sunnyvale Rest, he is buoyed by a new discovery. He sees a group of kids across the road playing Kick the Can. That sparks his memory of his own childhood, and his imagination. He remembers the “magic” of play, the pure joy of running, shouting, and interacting with others, of engagement in a communal activity.  Charles says to his friend Ben: “Maybe kick the can is the greatest magic of all.” Magic just means excitement, interest, and intense feeling – the magic of a first kiss, which Charles also recalls. He imagines playing Kick the Can, and although others tell him that playing such games is incompatible with being an old person, he refuses to accept such objections. Because he can imagine playing the game, playing it is a possibility for him. He asserts: “I can’t play “Kick the can” alone!”So he seeks and eventually finds collaborators among his equally elderly co-residents, convincing them that it is a possibility for them by getting them to remember their active youth and then imagine engaging in it now.

Engaging in action, whether it is taking a walk, making coffee, or playing a game, requires some awareness of one’s sense of oneself. One has to take oneself to be capable of the actions to be undertaken, and sometimes that includes awareness of one’s identity as a member of a class. When I plan to go scuba diving, I take myself as a member of the class of certified scuba divers. As this episode reminds us, the elderly often confront their membership in the class of old people, and  that it need not, that self-conception can itself be debilitating. Being old is a state of your body, or it is also a state of mind. Charles realizes: “Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe it’s a way of looking at things, a way of thinking.”

The faculty that needs to be cultivated and renewed is the faculty of the imagination, which Serling refers to as “the fifth dimension” in the opening for this and other episodes:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow – between science and superstition. And it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Charles succeeds in sparking his imagination and that of his fellow residents, except for that of his good friend, Ben, who realizes too late, that he has been left out of their game of  “Kick the Can.”  Serling notes that  “childhood, maturity and old age are curiously intertwined, and not separate.” Ben’s imaginative limitations reveal that Sunnyvale Rest, and anywhere we find the elderly is “a dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking to visit the twilight zone.”


Further Reading:

Daniels, Norman. Just Health Care. Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 1985, Chapter 5.

Temkin, L.S., 2008, “Is Living Longer Living Better?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3): 193–210.

Williams, Bernard “The Makropulous Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”, Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Velleman, J.D, 1991, “Well-Being and Time”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 72: 48–77

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Episode 85 – “”Showdown with Rance McGrew”

Is there a moral requirement to historical accuracy, when we create works in historical settings, or is historical accuracy valuable for its aesthetic contribution, or for making the fictional account more compelling to its audience? “Showdown with Rance McGrew” attempts to make the case for the moral requirement. Creators of fictional works ought to portray their subjects in settings and circumstances that represent the settings and circumstances of the historical periods which is represented in the those works.

There are a number of puzzles and questions that arise in attempting to formulate this moral prescription. Works of fiction are, by their nature, false accounts. They are not historical works, and they aren’t, and more accurately can’t be constrained to making claims that are true or accurate. Fiction is fully unconstrained. Anything goes! So how could truth be required?

To respond to this challenge, the first thing we have to note is that the prescription, if it applies,  applies only to fiction that is set in an historical setting, and to fiction that refers to historical persons, places, or events. The requirement also  does not specify that historical settings, persons, and events must only be set out in representations that correspond to historical facts. Historical fiction is not history. It is still fiction, and the fiction writer has license to invent circumstances, events, and narratives that are novel.

So how is the historical accuracy requirement to be met? What counts as a violation of it? “Showdown with Rance McGrew” may not provide a complete answer, but it does provide some guidance. McGrew is an actor in formulaic Westerns – American cowboy movies, set with dusty main streets for shoot-outs, a bar for brawls, and lots of cowboys with attitude. McGrew plays a tough U.S. Marshall, out to get Jesse James. But as we observe the filming of this Western, we can tell that almost everything is wrong. McGrew looks like a cowboy, but he is just a Hollywood pretty boy, and knows little about the culture and values his character is supposed to represent.  From his general demeanor, to the way he holsters his gun and the way he drinks whiskey, McGrew is a fraud. 

We can only imagine how Jesse James and other real gun-slingers would react if they only knew how they were being represented in these flicks. And guess what, we can imagine this, and we do. Jesse James appears on set, and critiques McGrew’s performance. But he does it in the context of the old West. McGrew is still acting, but his surroundings have suddenly become the authentic old West, and in it, McGrew looks terribly out of place. Jesse James complains not only of McGrew’s character, but about the details of the story line, and the choreography of the action scenes. The original story line has Jesse Jame attempting to shoot McGrew in the back. The real Jesse James complains that this deviation from what he would have done is unacceptable, and he’s there to do something about it.

If we’re not motivated to historical accuracy  by the possibility of correction from the returning dead, imagining their disapproval does serve a function. Just as we are obligated to carry out the conditions of a will, and that’s an obligation to someone who is dead, perhaps we are also obligated not to misrepresent the important characteristics and events of deceased individuals or even whole countries or cultures. We still have license to make things up. But we can make things up within the constraints of truth.

Telling the truth within fiction has another, related  purpose. Fictional accounts have to be framed within the conceptual and belief structure that the author shares with the audience or reader. “Showdown with Rance McGrew” makes this point at the very start of the episode. Two cowboys emerge from the saloon and look down the dusty main street. One says: “He ain’t here yet.” The other says: “He’ll be along.” The first: “He knows he’s going to get shot.” We expect someone to appear on a horse coming down the street. What appears, is a Ford Thunderbird convertible coupe, with the top down and the radio blaring jazz. We expected a scene from a Western. What we got was a scene from a movie set, of the talent arriving for the  filming of a Western. What we see is historically inaccurate for the old West. It is historically accurate for 1960. So a writer of fiction must pay attention to the expectations of the readers or viewers, and align with their beliefs.

Further Reading:

David Hume, An Enquiry concerning human understanding, Section 3, “Of the Association of Ideas”, Tom L. Beauchamp, ed., Oxford, 1999. (see paragraphs 4- 18.)

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Episode 84 – “The Hunt”

There are any number of circumstances in which one might confuse heaven and hell, including when one is in the latter but thinks they are in the former. For example, in  A Nice Place to Visit, Rocky thinks he is in heaven for quite a while before he puts in a request to go to “the other place.” The request is denied, because he is already in the other place. Ontological confusion also occurs in “The Hunt,” when Hyder Simpson, accompanied by his hunting dog Rip believes they’ve arrived at the entrance to heaven, when they  are actually at the gates of hell.

It might seem counterintuitive that anyone could confuse heaven and hell, since we understand them to have incompatible properties. Heaven, if it exists, is occupied by good people, hell, by bad people. In heaven, everyone is happy. In hell, everyone is unhappy. But the idea that we could be confused about which is which just mirrors our confusion about good and bad in this world: A plentiful supply of fossil fuels through the twentieth century appeared to be a wonderful thing. We had an inexpensive supply of energy to support the the rise of the industrial world, raising the standard of living for many. But the good of that energy supply appears to be outstripped by the negative effects it has had on our environment. The good turned out to be a bad, at least on balance. And there are plenty of examples of human actions, on the individual, group, and even global scale that have at one time appeared to be good, while on reflection being very bad.  So our assessments of the goodness or badness of actions, states of affairs, whether natural of human-induced, are fallible. We are susceptible to short-sightedness, deception, biases, both cognitive and moral, and various limitations on our judgment and predictive powers.

When Hyder Simpson and Rip arrive appear in the afterlife,  Hyder doesn’t know where he is, and that’s understandable, since  it’s not clear that heaven and hell have a location.  When he guesses that he’s at the gates of heaven,  the gatekeeper doesn’t correct him. Rip  growls, sensing that something isn’t right. When Hyder finds out that the membership rules exclude Rip, he refuses to to enter himself. He doesn’t doubt that this is heaven. But he also knows that it’s not for him, and he is confused at the injustice of his dog’s exclusion. As he puts it: “Dog has a right to have a man around, just as man has a right to have a dog around.”

In the decades since this episode aired, there has been an explosion of interest in animal rights.  Regan’s 1983 book was among the first, and many have followed. The interest in animal rights resulted in part from work on the problem of consciousness in the philosophy of mind. It had long been argued, by Descartes and others, that non-human animals cannot think. But denying conscious states, such as states of pain, and other perceptual states, is much harder to maintain. And if other animals feel pain, what is the moral status of inflicting such pain? There may be a big gap between avoiding the infliction of unnecessary pain on animals and insuring their right to a place in heaven, but it’s a start.

Contemporary philosophers and other theorists, including cognitive ethologists, have argued, against Descartes,  that some non-human animals have cognition as well as consciousness, reviving and furthering the anti-Cartesian position of Montaigne and Hume. In life, Rip was a hunting dog, with responsibility for flushing out raccoons so that Hyder could shoot them. Which hunter – non-human animal or human animal – has the more impressive skill set? Rip is no less impressive in the afterlife. He was suspicious at the gates of hell, growling at the gatekeeper, while Hyder was easily duped by the gatekeeper, and was prepared to walk right in. As the representative from heaven puts it: “A man – he’ll walk into hell with both eyes open.  But even the devil can’t fool a dog.”

Further Reading:

Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method (1637)

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (1748, 1777) “Of the reason of animals”

Michel de Montaigne, Essays (1999)

T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (University of California Press, 1983)

Peter Godfrey Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

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Episode 83 – “Dead Man’s Shoes”

Can you step into someone else’s shoes, and in doing so, become that other person? In “Dead Man’s Shoes,” that seems to be what happens, and the ambiguity surrounding what really happens is a feature of the story, not a bug. Of course, the mechanism of the transfer of personhood really doesn’t matter.

Dane, a thug, is killed by another thug, and his body is unceremoniously dumped by some trash cans on a city street. Nathan, a transient, discovers the body, and steals his Italian loafers. That is, Nathan steps into Dane’s shoes.  When he does, he seems to become Dane, though he clearly doesn’t appear to be Dane to others, since his body is that of Nathan, not Dane.  At the very least, he seems to take on Dane’s interests and dispositions, including the disposition to drink tequila on the rocks, and to physically abuse Dane’s girlfriend. Ultimately, he seeks revenge on behalf of Dane.

Nathan, in Dane’s shoes, never claims to be Dane. When he’s not wearing Dane’s shoes, it isn’t clear that he knows who he is or how or why he is where he is. In Dane’s shoes, he is focused on finding Dane’s killer and extracting revenge, as Dane would have done, had he survived the attempt on his life. Again, from the perspective of others, Nathan is not Dane, even when he’s wearing Dane’s shoes. Dane is dead, and at least some people know that.

It’s part of the fabric of human interaction that one person’s project or projects can become the project or projects of other persons. It’s a commonplace that a person’s project can be taken on by another person after the death of that person. If a person survived the death of their body, then they would, in virtue of being the same person as the person who suffered the death of their body, wish to continue their projects and further the interests they had before bodily death, all things being equal.  While surviving your death might make it more likely that your projects are attended to,  if what is important is that those projects stay on the books, survival isn’t required. One simply needs the continued existence of someone who identifies with those projects and interests to a great enough extent as to perpetuate them.

Derek Parfit explores these issues in his 1971 paper and in much subsequent work. As we’ve seen in several episodes, the problem of personal identity is not easily resolved. Parfit argues that there are cases where there is no determinate answer to the question of whether a person at one time is the same person at another time, and further, that it doesn’t matter to what we care about when thinking about survival. If what we care about is whether our projects continue, then identity isn’t important. If, at my death, fission occurs and there are two individuals who share my beliefs, desires, and projects, it doesn’t matter that if there’s no way to determine which one of them is me. Neither has to be me, as long as at least one of them continues to carry out my projects.

Parfit’s position is well represented in “Dead Man’s Shoes.” Nathan isn’t Dane, but that doesn’t matter. Somehow he has enough continuity with Dane to carry forth on Dane’s behalf.

Further Reading:

Derek Parfit, “Personal Identity” The Philosophical Review 80, 1, (1971), 3-27.

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