Episode 146 – “I am the Night – Color Me Black”

It is widely recognized, by philosophers but also by many others, that feelings can be communicated from one person to another, where it isn’t just that one person can understand what feelings another person is having, but one person is caused to have the same, or similar feelings experienced by the other person. On a chance encounter with a friend who has a happy and cheerful disposition, and who, on this occasion, greets us with a smile, we often acquire that cheerfulness, and smile back. If, on another occasion, that same friend appears sullen and sad, as a result of a death in her family, we share that sadness.

Is hate communicated from person to person in this way? It is a central theme of “I am the Night – Color Me Black” that hate, like a sickness, can be “contagious and deadly.” If hate is contagious, does it spread the way other emotions, such as grief and sadness spread, via sympathy? If hate does not spread this way, how does it spread?

Jagger, having been convicted of murder,  is awaiting execution by hanging in a small midwestern town. The case is not straightforward. The person Jagger killed was a white supremacist who was advocating violence against the town’s black residents. The trial itself may have included testimony by a deputy sheriff who committed perjury.

The phenomenon of hate spreading like a contagious disease is represented by the somewhat murky picture of the sequence of events. A series of hateful acts is carried out by a white supremacist, followed by a challenge from Jagger, who attempts to call out the hateful acts as wrong, but winds up in a deadly brawl. This leads to the trail and conviction, both of which are clouded by accusations of wrong-doing, leading finally to the public execution of Jagger, at the hands of the local sheriff.

Examining any two links in this chain of events, we can see instances of hate, followed by other instances of hate, but is it correct to describe hate has transmitted from one event to the other? For example, Jagger admits that when he reacted to the hate-filled acts of the white supremacist, and caused his death, that his actions were motivated by his own hate of his adversary. But the objects of hate are clearly different in the two cases. The white supremacist hates non-whites. Jagger hates the hater of non-whites. Clearly the character and actions of the white supremacist play a causal role in Jagger’s actions. But while the actions of both involve hate, it’s not clear that this is a contagion phenomena.

Maybe it’s the feeling of hate that is the same in the different events that make up the chain of events. Is there something felt in common by people, even when the objects of their hate is different? This question is briefly, but perhaps crucially, raised in the episode, when the black minister asks Jagger about his feeling of hatred when he committed the act of murder. He asks Jagger how he felt when he committed murder: When he came at you, did it feel good to you then? When you killed him, you enjoyed that didn’t you?” Jagger responds: “You know it!” This occurs right before Jagger’s hanging, and the crowd which formed is also experiencing enjoyment at the prospect of Jagger’s death.

Hume contrasts hate and love, where the feeling of love is an agreeable feeling, and the feeling of hate is a feeling of uneasiness.  But Jagger, his antagonist, and some of the townspeople appear to experience hate as a form of pleasure. In “Of Tragedy” Hume points out that something like this reversal of sentiments happens when we are presented in tragedies in literature. We take pleasure in observing tragic events when they are portrayed in literature and poetry.  Hume suggests that this can happen outside of our engagement with fiction as well. “Nothing endears so much a friend as sorrow for his death. The pleasure of his company has not so powerful an influence.”

The fact that hating can be pleasurable may account for its spread. Why would we so apt to hate if it always made us uneasy? In this episode, the metaphor for hate is darkness, a darkness that also spreads from this nexus of pleasurable hate, a hate that plunges us into darkness.

When the minister finds out that Jagger’s act was committed through pleasurable hate, he condemns the act, even though Jagger’s motivation was to protect black residents of the town from the white supremacist. The consequence that the white supremacist was silenced does not reduce the wrongness of Jagger’s action.   What really matters is the “quality of mind” which causes love or hatred. Hume writes: “In every case, therefore, we must judge of the one by the other; and may pronounce any quality of the mind virtuous, which causes love or pride; and any one vicious, which causes hatred or humility.”

Further Reading:

Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 2, Part 2, Section 1.

Hume, David, Miller, E. F., ed., (1987)  Essays, Moral, Political, Literary, Liberty Press.

Sayre-McCord, G., “Hume and Smith on Sympathy, Approbation, and Moral Judgment,” Social Philosophy and Policy, 30: 208–236.

 

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Episode 145 – “The Masks”

Death has always been a central concern of philosophy, and it is one of the most central topics in episodes of The Twilight Zone. If, as Epicurus noted, our own death is not a state we can experience, we can, and often do, imagine what the state of things will be after our death. So the “twilight zone,” Serling’s name for the realm of the imagination, is a natural place for death to reside.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” explored the realm of the imagination of a person approaching death, a person just moments away from no longer possessing an imagination. The circumstances did not allow Peyton Farquhar the luxury of considering what life might be like after his death for others. In “The Masks” Jason Foster is dying, but he’s known this for a long time, and though he is now near death, he is intensely focused on what Samuel Scheffler has called “the afterlife,” the life of others after one’s death.

Scheffler calls attention to the extent to which our values presuppose that the world will continue as it has been after our death. We each recognize that human and other animal life spans are finite and will come to an end, but as has been the case, deaths are staggered, and the death of any one person is followed by the continuation of the life of many others. Scheffler makes this point by suggesting that what we value would be significantly altered if we suddenly learned that the world will be destroyed in 30 days by a collision with an asteroid. In that possible world, which Scheffler calls “the doomsday scenario,” we would likely lose our interest in our intellectual projects, are artistic endeavors, and even in our relationships with one another. Much of what we value would lose its point, and our lives would be significantly diminished.

“The Masks” provides support for Scheffler’s position, not by presenting a doomsday scenario, but rather by having us observe the final hours of Jason Foster in the presence of his family.  Foster’s concern for the future presents a philosophical puzzle. He knows that he is not going to be part of that future. So why should he care about it? Normally, this would not be a puzzle. Parents usually are concerned about the well-being of their children and other people they are close to, and they often take steps to insure that their financial support, for example, is in place after their death. Wills are legal documents that direct actions to take place by others, on behalf of the deceased. Foster has already prepared a will which does provide for his children and grandchildren, and that is not what concerns him as he approaches his end.

What concerns Foster is the recognition of the truth about the character of his daughter and her family, by the members of that family. Foster’s final act is to force his family to recognize their flawed characters, their moral failings. He does this by requiring that they wear masks that represent “the antithesis of what the wearer is.”  One mask represent greed/avarice/cruelty, another represents cowardice, another insolence and vanity, another dullness and stupidity. Of course the mask don’t represent the opposite of the wearer’s traits, but their actual traits, in Foster’s view. The masks are to be worn until midnight. When Foster dies, at midnight, the family discovers that the masks don’t come off. Put differently, they recognize that the old man’s characterizations of their personal and moral failings is enduringly accurate.

Why was the exposing of his family’s vices of such importance to Foster? It’s clear that revealing these flaws will not change anything after he dies. What does Foster achieve with this act, and it it something that we should approve of?

First, Foster’s condemnation of his daughter and her family is on target. Collectively they represent a a virtual catalogue of vices, cemented together by smug self-interest.  Perhaps what Foster objects to most is their smugness and lack of insight into their own faults. Clearly Foster has criticized them in the past, but to no avail. Now he’s found a way to drive the point home, namely by changing how they appear to others. He’s rendered transparent what formerly they were able to keep under wraps, their greed, cruelty, vanity, insolence, and  stupidity.

Foster’s daughter and her family would like nothing less than to keep the truth about their relationship to her father hidden from the rest of humanity. Foster, in contrast, wants nothing less than to have the truth revealed for posterity. This tells us something about how truth and morality are related. The virtuous champion the truth. The vicious see truth as their enemy. In the case of Foster’s family, the donning of masks is what unmasks the truth.

Further Reading:

Scheffler, S., 2016, Death and the Afterlife ,Oxford University Press, (cited in “Episode 75 – The Midnight Sun”).

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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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Episode 143 – “Queen of the Nile”

We readily acknowledge that the well-being and survival of non-human animals is often at the expense of other living things, that increasing the lifespan of one creature, a predator,  means shortening the lifespan of another, its prey. In the ordinary course of things, in our own species,  most of our predator behavior appears to be directed towards other species, though on reflection, much of it, in contrast to that of many others, occurs within our species, and encompasses not just our well-being and survival, but also our perceived self-interest. We intentionally short the lifespan of others in war and self-defense, but also as the result of choices we make to pollute and warm the environment, to selectively treat some illnesses and conditions, but not others, and by other choices we make as scientists, inventors, manufacturers, and technologists. Like most predator behavior, we don’t usually target individuals for elimination. The individuals who die at our hands happen to belong to a class of individuals we’ve called “the enemy,” for example.  When our interactions with the environment have consequence that a certain number of people will die from the pollutants we’ve introduced, our assault is completely impersonal and, unintended. We don’t drive cars in order to bring about death by cardiopulmonary diseases, though that is a consequence of our transportation decisions.

In light of this, the actions of Pamela Morris, a film star, may appear less startling, unusual, and perhaps even less objectionable, than they initially do, in “Queen of the Nile.”

In the possible world in which we encounter Pamela Morris, she has the ability to extend the length of her life by extracting years of life from her victims, in contrast to Salvadore Ross, in “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross,” who negotiated a mutually beneficial transaction with others to trade years of life.  With the help of the scarab beetle, Morris transfers life from others, who wind up with an untimely death, while Morris’s life and youthful appearance are preserved.

It is difficult not to condemn Morris’s actions. Although she claims that she feels like she is fifteen years old, and she still desires to “savor all that there is in this world,” Jordon Herrick, the journalist on assignment to interview her, presumably also desires to live, and there appear to be no grounds on which her life should be valued above his. Morris appears firmly in control, and even manipulative.  She seduces Herrick, and clearly not because she’s attracted  to him, but in order to kill him and obtain his future years of existence.

Viewed from another perspective, Morris is in a struggle for survival. Without her deployment of the scarab beetle on her unsuspecting victim, Morris will perish. Her actions are like those of someone on a shipwreck, pushing their way past others to the lifeboat. Such behavior is not admirable, but, one might argue, nor is it morally wrong. A  philosophical position that supports this conclusion is called “ethical egoism.”

In addition to thinking about actions individuals take out of self-interest that may impact the longevity of other individuals, we can consider the effects of our collective actions on the well-being and even on the survival of others. It is estimated that air pollution is responsible for approximately 4.6 million premature deaths per year, worldwide. As Morris’s decision to place the scarab beetle on Herrick’s body shortens his life, and lengthens hers, so our decisions to power machines that pollute the air shorten lives, particularly the lives of poor residents who live near sources of pollution such as freeways and factories.

Intentionally shortening the life of another human being for one’s own benefit seems worse than engaging in acts that do not target particular individuals but lead to consequences which shorten the lives of individuals. Murder is an example of the former. Killing in combat while at war is an example of the latter. We can at least say this: Any action that results in the shortening of the life of others should come under close moral scrutiny.

Utilitarianism, the view that we ought to engage in those acts which maximize overall utility, or happiness, would condemn the behavior of Pamela Morris, on the grounds that her potential happiness is not greater than that of her victim, Jordan Herrick, and the other victims that came before and will come after him. The utilitarian judgment of our collective air polluting behavior depend on an assessment of the contribution of our transportation, manufacturing, and other activities to our overall happiness, compared to the cost, in premature deaths. A strength of the utilitarian approach is that de-emphasizes the personal dimension. In both cases what matters is the contribution of actions to overall happiness. The happiness of particular individuals doesn’t play a role.

“Queen of the Nile” is also a commentary on the moral status of the way famous people in the entertainment industry often treat others. Pamela Morris is a star, adored by fans, and surrounded by images of herself and mementos of her appearances in film. Jordan Herrick exists merely to help promote her image, increase her fame, and feed her ego. She feigns a love interest in him, but it is just part of her act, calculated to extract anything of value from him. Switching to Immanuel Kant’s perspective, in contrast to that of utilitarianism, Morris treats Herrick as a means to an end, rather than as an end in himself.

Further Reading:

Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 1948, Paton, H.J., trans., Harper Torchbooks.

Mill, John Stuart 2015, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays, Oxford University Press.

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Episode 142 – “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

Most philosophical treatments of death treat death as a a state, if not of the individual, then of the world in which that individual no longer experiences or has mental states. Describing the world as a world in which Abraham Lincoln is dead does not attribute any properties or states to something that exists. It is the claim that something that did exist no longer exists.In light of the fact that it is true of each of us, that at some point in time, it will be true that we are dead, there is much to ponder about that fact, and what it reveals about the meaning of life.  In our discussion of “One for the Angels” we introduced Lucretius’s argument that death is not something to be feared, precisely because death isn’t a state of the person who will be dead. In response, some have noted that while it may not be rational to fear being dead, it may be rational to fear dying, which is a state of the individual who will, after dying, be dead.

Dying, then,is of philosophical interest, though less attention is paid to this final stage of life, and to the process of dying. Unlike being dead, dying may be a process over which we have some influence. If we engage in risky behaviors, death may come sooner, and the kind of death we fall prey to may also depend on the kinds of activities we perform. Mountain climbers, for example, are aware, and generally accept, that their choices may increase the likelihood that they will suffer traumatic injuries and trauma-induced death. Thus we can have preferences about how we die, as well as about when we die, and like our preferences for other things, like success in our careers and the enjoyment of a bottle of wine, our preferences don’t guarantee the hoped for outcomes.

Dying is also something that often can be experienced, sometimes up to the moment of death. Under many of the circumstances in which people die, it is difficult or impossible to communicate what it is that is being experienced. The dying person may have lost, or may not be in a position to communicate in speech or some other form, due to illness, trauma, time, or circumstances. The finality of death entails that there will be no later time at which one can recall the experience to oneself or others. The experience of death dies with the dead. Martin Heidegger put it this way:

Death does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man ‘suffers’. The dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense; at most we are always just ‘there alongside’. (Being and Time 47: 282)

The loss of one’s own experience is the loss that the dying person is suffering. Perhaps the closest one can come to preserving the insights from the experience of dying is to study what are often referred to as “near-death experiences.” If there are such experiences, we may gain some insight into features  of the experience of dying from those who have almost died.

This loss is powerfully and painfully depicted in “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The occurrence is the death, by hanging, of a civilian sympathizer in Confederate South during the U.S. Civil War. Under other circumstances we might not sympathize with Peyton Farquhar, the convicted Confederate sympathizer. Here we witness an execution, the sudden and radical ending of a human life,  a life of experiencing the wonders of the physical world and a world of relationships to other human beings, a world of love and attachment. All of that will come in an instant, at the command of a Union soldier.

Heidegger is certainly right that we can’t experience the loss-of-Being of another. However, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” may come pretty close. What is an instant is stretched out in time. What is in the head of Peyton Farquhar is revealed to us, the Others. What is revealed is familiar to us, what we value and love. It is the the experience of the beauty of nature, the exhilaration of sensory experience, of motion, of the feel of water against our skin, of the sounds of birds, and the yearling to go home.

Further Reading:

Heidegger, Martin, 1962, Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

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