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.
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.