Episode 76 – “Still Valley”

Like “The Passersby,” “Still Valley” is set late in the Civil War, as the South is losing the war. It is in this context that the episode addresses the ethics of war and warfare. There are two large questions about the moral status of war.  The first is: Are there ethical grounds for engaging in war? The second is: If the answer to the first question is affirmative, are there limits to what is permissible as a participant in a war, and if there limits, what are they? These two questions about the moral status of war and warfare are referred to respectively as jus ad bellum, and jus in bellum – when a country can fight a war, and how a country can fight a war.  “Still Valley” concerns the second question, raised from the perspective of the losing side. In desperate circumstances, are there limits to what actions soldiers in battle can take to defend themselves and advance their military goals?

War provides the opportunity to engage in morally allowable, and even in many instances morally required behaviors that in civilian life are morally impermissible.  If killing individuals who are not immediately threatening you is permissible in war, but not outside of war, what is impermissible in war? What are the ethics of warfare, since they clearly not are the same as the ethics of everyday life?

A quick review of the history of conflict between nation states easily generates a list of morally questionable military practices, including torture, espionage, attacks on civilians, the use of chemical and biological agents,  and the use of nuclear weapons, to name just a few familiar modalities in modern warfare. “Still Valley” does not investigate the moral status of a particular military practice or strategy. Instead it ask a more basic question: Does the context of war justify doing evil, or put another way, cutting a deal with the devil?

Two confederate soldiers are scouts checking the advance of their Union adversaries. Their mission is dangerous, and one of them questions whether they are required to take the risk. AT this stage of the war, he is really questioning whether he is required to continue to fight this war at all. His main concern is is own survival.  Is this a morally permissible stance for an active duty soldier?

Sergeant Joseph Paradine, the other soldier, does not question is role in the army, and heads down to the valley where the Union troops may be located. He arrives to find the Union soldiers frozen in place, the result of spell put on them by black magic, the work of the devil. Paradine is given the book, and has the power to neutralize the Union soldiers  wherever he finds them.  Should he do “the devil’s work?

The argument ensues. Paradine is tempted to get “in league with the devil,” but he resists the temptation when he realizes that to do so means rejecting God, that is, rejecting the moral order that has guided his life to this point. Essentially, what he realizes is that he shouldn’t do what is morally wrong, which in this context is not a trivial truth. The circumstances of war do not excuse behavior that we otherwise would find morally repugnant.  Even the horrific, desperate circumstances of war can’t justify stepping outside of morality.

Further Reading:

John Kekes, “War” Philosophy, Vol. 85, No. 332 (April 2010), pp. 201-218.

Steven P. Lee, Ethics and War: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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Episode 75 – “The Midnight Sun”

There’s a Tom Lehrer song is entitled “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.” In it Lehrer manages to humorously describe the end of the world in a nuclear meltdown. Serling’s “Midnight Sun” was written at about the same time – the early Sixties, a time when we were preoccupied by the possibility of a global death sentence. We all die, but we do so in succession. What’s the difference between the prospect our individual deaths and the prospect of our coordinated simultaneous demise?

In “Midnight Sun” we see two New York City residents holding on to life and suffering the consequences of a change in the earth’s orbit that brings it ever closer to the sun. This is global warming with a vengeance. There was no warning and there is no escape. Residents are fleeing the city, but there’s no place on the planet where one can find relief from the sun. Everyone, everything, will perish, and soon. Of course this is an accurate prediction for all of us – individually and collectively. Each individual will die, and it seems ever more certain, not that life on earth will end – since that is indeed certain, but that it will end sooner than we might think. Though it was not intended as such, this episode could serve as the poster child for our very real but relatively recent concerns about global warming.

Just as it is common to fear one’s own death, we may share a common fear, or dread, of the extinction of all life on our planet, or, at the very least, we may share the belief that an apocalypse of the kind represented in “The Midnight Sun” would be a bad thing. It would be bad because it would bring about the kind of suffering that is portrayed here, and the pure futility of trying to survive the what can’t be survived. Serling describes the predicament as representing “the poles of our fear.” We could be wiped out by the planet burning up or by the planet freezing up, by the lack of water or by too much water, or by one or more  of any other polar extremes.

Among first responders and other health care professionals, the prescription: “First do no harm” is well-known. As a principle in moral theory, Baier refers to it as the “Person-Affecting Principle.”  Recognizing  “The Midnight Sun” as a representation of the likely harm to persons in future generations, the question naturally arises: Are we first doing no harm to these future persons?  Are there yet-unborn selves whose plight will be something like that of Norma Smith and her neighbor, Mrs. Bronson? Are we harming them, and could we avoid such harm?

The question of whether we have obligations, such as the obligation to do no harm, to future generations is a rich and thorny philosophical one.  We can make sense of obligations to actual persons, but does it make sense to talk about obligations to persons who don’t exist? First, it’s not certain that there will be future persons, but if there are, we don’t know who those persons will be, how many of them there will be, what they will be like, what they will want, and what they can reasonably expect us to have done for them. Second, as Baier points out, which persons will exist in the future depends on contingent features of the present over which we may have no control, and no understanding of how those features will affect the existence and conditions of future persons. An accidental throwing of a switch  causing a major power outage in a city may lead to a spike in the birth rate nine months later, resulting in the existence of future persons who would not have come into existence had that mistake not been made. How can we assess our obligations under conditions that are so radically contingent?

To show that we have obligations to future generations will require that we respond to such difficulties and show that in spite of the difference between actual and future persons, we can specify, within limits, the ways in which our lives should be lived to minimize their suffering.

“The Midnight Sun” introduces another philosophical problem, the problem Samuel Scheffler explains as making sense of our desire that there be future generations, that the meaningfulness of our lives is caught up with our hope and expectations for the “afterlife,” where that term doesn’t refer to a heavenly existence, but to the earthly existence of regular folks after our death. In “The Midnight Sun” we see suffering and pain, but the most disturbing feature of the lives of Norma and her fellow sufferers may well be the palpable sense that this is the end Tom Lehrer described. And it isn’t funny.

Further Reading:

Annette C. Baier, “For the Sake of Future Generations” in Annette C. Baier, Reflections on How We Live (Oxford University Press, 2010)

 Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, 2016)

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Episode 74 – “Deaths-Head Revisited”

Many Twilight Zone episodes provide fodder for philosophical reflection precisely because they invite us to exercise our concepts and attempt to apply them to possible cases and worlds where the strangeness of the circumstances makes doing so a real challenge, one which may have a philosophical payout. There are possible worlds, however, that don’t need to be invented, that are found by exercising our memory, rather than our imagination. Some historical events are so strange, so unusual, and so puzzling, that it is just as difficult to make sense of what actually happened in the real world as it can be to imagine what we would say about a possible world.  We can’t, however, reflect on the actual world, the historical past, without, at the same time, thinking about other possible worlds, and in particular,  how the actual world could have, or more pointedly, should have, been different. It is that exercise in reflection that takes place in “Deaths-Head Revisited,” an episode that first aired roughly a mere fifteen years after the end of World War II and the atrocities it revisits.

A Herr Schmidt returns first to the town of Dachau, in Bavaria, near Munich, after the war, and visits the infamous concentration camp, one of many that detained and exterminated Jews, gypsies, and others viewed as undesirables in Nazi Germany. But Herr Schmidt is here not to visit, but to recall his role as Kapitan Lutz, a former SS officer who ran the camp and order the torture and mass murder of its detainees. This premise is, of course, about as unrealistic as the portrayal of any monster or alien in any episode. It’s hardly plausible that an officer of the SS who made it out of Germany alive at the end of the war, and who then found refuge in South America, would risk a trip back to Germany, much less to a concentration camp. It is much more plausible, then, to take the portrayal of Herr Lutz’s travel as a trip of his conscience, and set of reflections on what he did and its moral status. As Serlling says in his introduction, Dachau doesn’t just exist in Bavaria, but also “in one of the populated areas of the Twilight Zone,” in this case, in the imagination of Kapitan Lutze.

Could a former SS officer revisit Dachau in his imagination, recalling the things he had done, while retaining his equanimity, or would his reflection on his past actions bring their absolute wrongness into such powerful relief, that ultimately, even someone as monstrous as Herr Lutze would recoil from his own past behavior?  Perhaps the episode is only claiming that this could happen, and that the possibility that Lutze’s reflection could lead to his insanity is enough to demonstrate the that extreme immoral behavior is ultimately unsustainable, even for a Kapitan Lutze. If that’s the claim, it is a positive, even up-lifting one. Demonstrating that it is true, of course, would require much more heavy philosophical lifting.

If one sets out the basic historical facts, as this episode does, that 10 million people were tortured and killed in the camps, “burned in furnaces, shoveled into the earth,” then Becker, a re-imagined victim, serving as Lutze’s interlocutor,  these facts, these images, live on, in Lutze’s memory and that of others, and the attempt to deny responsibility for them by those who were and are responsible must fail.  One Lutze begins to confront these facts, it becomes impossible for him to end his imaginary visit to Dachau. This is his form of insanity. He is now a prisoner of the very place he imprisoned and murdered others.

One line of ethical theorizing ties morality to rationality. Morally good behavior is the behavior of a rational agent. A properly reasoning self-interested agent would infer that certain forms of behavior further her self interest and certain forms of behavior hinder self interest. Actions falling into the first group are good, the second bad. Someone who who exhibits systematically  immoral behavior is irrational. This approach makes sense where individual actions don’t align with laws and customs within social groups and governments. But what do we say about mass immorality – is it mass irrationality?

Another approach to understanding morality in terms of rationality is to hold that it is irrational to have certain kinds of desires. Bernard Gert writes: “A rational man not only cannot desire evil, he must also desire to avoid it.” (Gert 1973, p. 49) This seems to help us understand Kapitan Lutze’s breakdown, until we cash out Gert’s conception of evil as “personal evil.” Clearly Kapitan Lutze has always sought to avoid his own pain, his own hunger, his own isolation. At the same time he sought to inflict pain, hunger, isolation, and more on countless others.

Lutze’s irrationality emerges from his reflection on the past, but not by the realization that his behavior was at odds with his self-interest. In fact, self-interest and adherence to Nazi principles and directives probably was motivated by self-interest. There’s something going on in his reflection that is not captured by the morality as rationality approach, even though Lutze’s descent into irrationality results from coming to grips with his immorality. Perhaps we can explain the former in terms of the latter, rather than the other way around.

Further Reading

Bernard Gert, The Moral Rules: A New Rational Foundation for Morality (Harper & Row, 1973)

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Episode 73 – “It’s a Good Life”

I characterized “The Mind and the Matter” as grappling with Leibniz’s answer to the questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing” and “Why is it this way rather than some other way.” I said that Leibniz’s answer was that the actual world is one of the possible worlds an all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good god considered, and its the one he/she/it created, indeed the world he/she/it had to create. “It’s a Good Life” presents us with an all-powerful and all-knowing god, but the answer to the question “Why is it this way rather than some other way” is far less interesting, because the god whose will provides the answer to that question lacks one of the three supreme attributes of Leibniz’s god. This god is not all wholly good. And this god has taken human form, the form of a six year old boy, Anthony Fremont, in Peaksville Ohio. The world is the way it is depicted because that’s the way Anthony wants it to be.

There is no doubt that Anthony is God, though it’s unclear who ran the show prior to Anthony coming on the scene.  Whether he is part of a succession of gods, or just the same god who created things prior to his appearance to us, Anthony is in total control, and what happens is what he wills to happen, or at least what he does  in response to the willed action of the few human agents that remain. Anthony has wiped out everything except the rural hamlet of Peaksville, Ohio. Perhaps most of the cosmos is intact, even if civilization has been reduced to this small portion of the American midwest.

Anthony is all-powerful. He creates and destroys species at will. He can create anything he can imagine.  He dictates the behavior of all people. They do what he tells them to do. Anthony is all-knowing. When individuals harbor beliefs and desires that Anthony doesn’t approve of, they can’t keep their thoughts from him. He knows and lets them know that he knows. They also know that Anthony is a vengeful god.

I suggested that Anthony is not Leibniz’s god, because he is is far from being wholly good.  The title of this episode, however, suggests that life under Anthony is good.  This characterization may be no more puzzling than Leibniz’s characterization of our world as the best of of all possible worlds. If our world is the best world, or even a good world, and its the creation of a being who could have created the world differently, then such a being has a lot of explaining to do about the presence of disease, famine, earthquakes, floods, and  other natural “evils,” even if other evils can be attributed to the free will of human agents.

Unfortunately, Anthony doesn’t offer explanations, and his creations are on thin ice when they question why things are the way they are. They have no doubt about their obligations to Anthony. They must love him unconditionally, praising him and his acts, and they must offer their thanks for all that he has given him, which includes Anthony’s killing of spouses, destruction of livestock and crops, and his complete control over the options available to them. But, “It’s a good life” or “It’s the best of all possible worlds.”

If Anthony is a representation of our god, then we have a solution to the problem of evil. The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good god. “It’s a Good Life” shows how the tyranny of an Anthony explains why we would have to say that our god is wholly good, precisely because that god isn’t wholly good.




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Episode 72 – “The Grave”

This is a Western with a metaphysical twist. Can someone who is dead commit murder? Can Pinto Sykes, a recently deceased gun-slinger, cause the death of Conny Miller, a bounty hunter who had tried, but failed, to bring about Sykes’ demise? When Miller visits Sykes grave, Miller winds up dead. But is his death due to natural causes, or to unnatural causes? That’s the question, and of course, Serling just leaves it open, concluding: “you take this with a grain of salt or a shovelful of earth, as shadows or substance, we leave it up to you. And for any further research, check under ‘G,’ for ‘ghosts’…in the Twilight Zone.” “Shadows” are non-natural causes, “substances” natural ones.

To turn this into a controversy that is of some philosophical interest, we have to refine the shadow/substance distinction. If all we’re asking is whether there are ghosts who can pull flesh-and-blood human creatures down and kill them at in graveyards, then we’re not doing philosophy. But philosophers have made the distinction between natural and n0n-natural substances and causes, and we don’t have to invoke the possibility of ghosts and other shadow phenomena to engage with these questions.

When we describe the events that occur in the world, many of them fall easily within the domain of natural causes and effects: the decline of sea otter populations results in the explosion of the sea urchin population, which leads to the decline of kelp forests. These causes and effects are all natural, that is, they occur in nature and can be explained by theories in biology and ecology.  And we can stay within nature when we bring in human otter hunting as a cause of the decline in the otter population. But when we seek to explain the cause of the over-hunting of sea otters by explaining the role of such factors as greed, short-sightedness, we at least appear to leave the realm of the natural. When we include cognitive and affective features of human agents, we appear to move beyond “substance” and move into the “shadows.” What kind of natural phenomena correspond to our beliefs and desires, and by what mechanisms do they bring about their effects? These are lasting philosophical questions.

When probing the cause of Conny’s death in “The Grave” we have at our disposal a wealth of facts about Conny’s relationship to Sykes. On the one hand Conny appears to be a tough guy. He’s been on the trail of Sykes for years, determined to hunt him down. But the townsfolk grow tired of waiting for Conny to do the job, and so they do it themselves. When Conny appears, they questions his toughness and resolve. They taunt him and dare him to visit Sykes grave. With all this context, there’s no need to appeal to the shadowy occult to explain his death. One quite plausible explanation, an explanation that will appeal to beliefs and desires,  is suicide.

One quite plausible view is that the natural/non-natural distinction collapses, that all apparently non-natural phenomena are really natural. Affective and cognitive states are really just states of the organism,  they are just states for which we lack the kinds of robust scientific explanations we have for other things, such as the eating habits of sea otters and sea urchins. We don’t have the detailed understanding of mechanisms that have beliefs and desires, and so when we find ourselves appealing to such features of human agents in order to explain their behavior, such appeals are placeholders for more complete all-natural explanations that we may be able to supply in the fullness of time.

Further Reading

Daniel C. Dennett,  The Intentional Stance (Bradford Books, 1989)

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