Episode 135 – “The Long Morrow”

It is reassuring to see that in a future where we are preoccupied with scientific and technological advancement, there is still a place for love at first sight, though, as it’s portrayed in “The Long Morrow,” there is certainly room to question whether the encounter between Commander Stansfield and Ms. Horn is appropriate workplace behavior. Putting that worry aside, the brevity of the encounter, we find out, is in sharp contrast to the length of the separation that follows for two persons who have fallen deeply in love.

As we noted in our discussion of “Jesse-Belle,” some philosophical accounts of the nature of love claim that love is grounded in an emotion experienced by the lover. Other accounts maintain that for someone to love another person, the lover must beliefs about the characteristics of the person loved. that support the reasonableness of loving that individual.   These and other alternative theories of love don’t shed much light on this episode, which celebrates the attraction between two individuals as something as inexplicable as it is powerful. There are some general philosophical observations we can make about what makes love possible that are revealed in this particular match.

Philosophers are fond of asking questions of the form “What makes x possible?” The answers to such questions are lists of necessary conditions, things that x must have in order to exist. When all the conditions needed for x are assembled, then we say that we have a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for x.

What makes love possible? If we’re not interested in love when someone loves the hamburger they are eating, we need to make the question more precise. What makes mutual romantic love between two persons possible? Starting with some basic conditions, we can begin with the need for two prospective lovers to meet. So a plausible condition is that two persons who are in love have, at some time t, have met ‘in person,’ that is, they’ve met in space and time. We might call this the spatial-temporal proximity condition.

For this condition to be plausible, we have to say something about what it means for two people to meet. It isn’t enough for two people to be in spatial and temporal proximity. Two individuals can be in the same crowded room and not meet. We would have to spell out some details to make this condition at all plausible.

There’s a further difficulty with the spatio-temporal proximity condition, and that is that people can meet without being in spatial proximity.  This was true even before the Internet. Individuals have met and have corresponded through letters, for example, and have fallen in love without meeting in person. More recent advances in telepresence, including video chat and other such network technologies, have made it easier for relationships to begin and to be sustained in the absence of spatial contiguity.

The temporal contiguity requirement is not as easily dismissed. A reader in the twenty-first century might love the plays of Shakespeare, but that reader can’t be in love with Shakespeare, the person. The lover and the loved must be co-temporal, for some interval. This requirement is at the heart of “The Long Morrow.”

Right after Stansfield and Horn meet and fall in love, Stansfield is sent on a mission to a distant planet. The mission will last forty years, and the plan is for Stansfield to be placed in a state of suspended animation for most of the mission. If that plan is followed, then Stansfield will return to earth at roughly the same age he was when he left. Horn will be forty years older than him. Though forty years has passed from Horn’s perspective, almost no time has passed from Stansfield’s.  They have not co-existed during those forty years, in the sense that forty years has only passed for one of them. There is a sense in which Stansfield does exist for those forty years, but only as an unchanging object. In the sense that matters, he has not lived for those forty years. In this scenario, a necessary condition for a relationship of mutual love is absent.

This is not the scenario that unfolds in “The Long Morrow.” What happens instead is that Stansfield, without informing Horn or anyone else, foregoes suspended animation, while Horn opts for it, expecting that they will both meet in forty years at their current ages. The result is functionally equivalent to the former scenario. One of them is forty years older; the other hasn’t aged. The difference is that now the aged person is Stansfield and the non-aged person is Horn. The failure to meet the temporal proximity condition is the same. Tragically, it is not possible for the two of them to carry on their love affair after Stansfield returns.

Like the crooks in “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” xHorn participates in a form of time travel. She traverses forty years in forty years, but she does so without changing. It is not  that because she was ‘asleep’ the forty years seem to her like forty seconds, what turns out to matter most is that the forty years seem to others, and particularly to Stansfield, like forty years.

A strikingly similar case is presented in “The Trade-Ins.” x After undergoing the body exchange procedure, Mr. Holt has a youthful body. Mrs. Holt does not. Mr. Holt immediately appreciates that the conditions for the possibility of maintaining his relationship to Mrs. Holt have evaporated. Mr. Holt with a young body facing his elderly wife shares an insight with the elderly Stansfield facing a youthful Ms. Horn.

Further Reading:

Soble, A., (1990) The Structure of Love,  Yale University Press.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 135 – “The Long Morrow”

Episode 134 – “You Drive”

Moral philosophy, or ethics, concerns norms of right action.  One way to try to characterize actions that are right, or morally permissible, is as actions that don’t violate the norms of right action. This characterization is empty, unless we can say more about what makes an action right, or more about what counts as a violation of our norms. Rather than starting with a positive characterization of what is right, it is sometimes easier to begin with recognizing things that are wrong. If we can say why they are wrong, we maybe able to begin to articulate the norms that they violate. “You Drive” provides us with an excellent starting point.

Oliver Pope is a distracted driver. That’s clearly his first wrong action. As a driver, he is responsible not only for his own safety, but that of everyone in the vicinity of his moving vehicle.  Oliver violates the norms of good driving. But are the norms of driving moral norms? Is Oliver doing something wrong in this stronger sense, or is he just a bad driver?  Suppose Oliver was not distracted, but was driving with just one hand on the steering wheel, rather than having both hands on the wheel, as he ought? Would he be doing something morally wrong, or is this just a violation of driving etiquette?

These questions reveal that we talk about norms or standards of behavior in different ways, that there are different kinds of norms. Often we can keep these differences in their own corners. There are norms of bread baking, but violating those norms doesn’t make one a bad person. Driving norms may be different. If violating the norms of good driving leads to dangerous behavior on the road, then we might characterize such behavior as irresponsible. If driving with one hand on the steering wheel leads to an accident that wouldn’t have occurred if both hands had been on the wheel, we might conclude that the driver indeed did something wrong, that is, he put another person in danger unnecessarily.

Oliver’s distracted driving is the cause of the collision of his moving vehicle with a teenage bicyclist. The act of hitting the teenager is not a separate act from the act of driving while distracted, and so while it is correct to say that Oliver hit the teenage bicyclist, we shouldn’t say that he undertook the act of hitting the cyclist. That’s not because he didn’t intend to hit the cyclist. He certainly didn’t have that intention, but he also didn’t intend to drive while distracted. We don’t assess the collision as a separate act because it is the consequence of a prior act, and it is that prior act for which we hold Oliver responsible, regardless of his intent or lack of intent.

Immediately after the collision, Oliver does something right: He parks the car and runs over to the stricken boy.  But then he immediately does something wrong: He runs to his car, gets back in and drives away. Serling doesn’t mince words. He describes Oliver Pope as a “businessman turned killer.” Oliver’s new status as killer may not even depend on his distracted driving. Even if the cyclist is at fault, Oliver’s abandonment of a gravely injured person is a clear violation of our moral norms. Olivier is morally (and legally) required to seek medical attention for the fallen teen.

The requirement of seeking medical aide for the injured party may not hold for mere bystanders. There is a bystander in this case, and it is clear that she does assist. But she’s may not be morally or legally obligated to do so. Her action is right, and even laudable, even though her failure to act as she does might not could as morally wrong.

Some would disagree. How could a bystander to such an event fail to render assistance? If our intuitions take us to requiring active assistance in events where we’re not directly involved, what are the limits of such obligations, and what are the reasons supporting those limits? Some would say that the beneficent bystander goes above and beyond the call of duty, that her act is supererogatory. It is the goal of moral theorizing to figure out where obligation begins and ends,  at both “ends,” at the junction of right and wrong, and at the junction of right and the supererogatory.

Once he has resolved to abandon the scene, Oliver is faced with the task of sustaining that resolve. It is this phenomenon, that of sustaining and nurturing a decision to do something morally terrible, that is the subject of the episode. Sustaining the terrible decision entails lying to family and colleagues, changing other aspects of his behavior and demeanor, and even worse. The good Samaritan who witnessed Oliver’s vehicle leaving the scene of the crime misidentifies Oliver’s colleague as the hit and run driver. Oliver chooses to do nothing. It is in his self-interest to see the colleague whom he views as a threat at work, convicted of the crime Oliver committed.

Can Oliver get away with it? Can he sustain the deception and live with it? As it turns out, Oliver can’t, but that doesn’t mean that no one can. Oliver transfers his conscience to his car, or better put, he imagines that he is engaged in a dialogue with his car, also causally implicated in the accident. The car knows right from wrong, and eventually wins the argument, but not without a struggle, and ultimately, not without some degree of mercy for the accused. The story presents an ultimately rosy picture of human nature. Our psychic constitution is incompatible with sustained evil. Conscience will eventually win out. Again, that this can be generalized beyond the case of Oliver Pope is suggested, but not proven.

We’ve noted that the eye-witness at the scene testifies with certainty that Pope’s colleague is the hit and run driver, and that this is incorrect. Epistemologists and psychologists have, in the last few decades, begun to study the phenomenon of testimony closely, and to attempt to assess its role as a source of evidence both in everyday and scientific knowledge claims, and in legal contexts.  Cases like the one represented in this episode are more common than we previously thought.

Further Reading:

Gert, B., (1966), The Moral Rules: A New Rational Foundation for Morality, Harper Torchbooks.

Hardwig, J., (1991), “The Role of Trust in Knowledge” The Journal of Philosophy 88, 12, 693-708.


Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 134 – “You Drive”

Episode 133 – “Ring-a-Ding Girl”

We’ve noted that the title “The Twilight Zone is Serling’s name for the imagination, and that that the imagination is the faculty of the mind that constructs possible worlds, and that descriptions of those worlds are couched in terms of propositions which may not be true of the actual world, are possibly true, true in the possible world described. We also noted that a possible world is one where the set of propositions describing that world can all be true at the same time. Logicians call a set of propositions which can all be true together a consistent set of propositions. Several episodes, as we’ve seen, fail this consistency test, and thus don’t really represent possible worlds. They seem imaginable, and are presented as such, but that imaginability depends on the episode suppressing key claims that, if made explicit, would reveal the inconsistency of the narrative.

“Ring-a-Ding Girl” is such a story, and it’s impossibility is fairly explicit.  Bunny Blake, a famous movie start, returns to her hometown for a brief visit, and to attempt to protect the residents of the town from a plane crash that she predicts will occur during the annual town picnic held in the local park. She is successful in preventing the residents from attending the picnic. The plane crashes at the town park, but the residents are not there. They’ve all gone to a  special performance that Bunny Blake is putting on for them instead. So far, this is a consistent story, even though it involves Blake’s correct prediction of the crash.  But here’s the clincher: When the plane crashes, Bunny Blake is on it, and she dies in the crash.  The inconsistent propositions which make up this story include: (1) Bunny Blake, at time t, is visiting her sister in her home town, and (2) Bunny Blake, at time t, is on a plane bound for Rome, Italy.  Bunny is simultaneously in two places at the same time, which is not possible.

It is implausible that Bunny Blake would have a true belief that a plane will crash in her home town, though that she has such a belief is not inconsistent with other propositions which comprise the descriptions of what happens. It isn’t required that Bunny knows that the plane will crash, which would require that she has good reasons for her belief. Bunny’s certain is based on reasons that she possesses, though doesn’t share others, perhaps because they would not appear to be good reasons to anyone else. Bunny’s sense of certainty about the future plane crash is not unlike the certainty many people have about future events. Sometimes those premonitions are correct, and sometimes they are not.

We can also make perfectly good sense of why Bunny would want to divert the residents of her home town from the point of impact of the plane, and we can well imagine Bunny imagining the implementation of the diversionary tactic that is presented as the tactic used by Bunny on the ground in her home town. Thus there is a way of making the story both consistent and plausible. First, if Bunny anticipates the crash based on the instability of the plane and the pilot’s report to the passengers, and she knows the location of the plane at the time it begins its uncontrolled descent, then her prediction that the crash could kill many of her home town acquaintances and family is not just a premonition, but a justified belief.  Second, if the account of her presence on the ground is a representation of what Bunny merely imagines while she is in the final moments of her flight, then she is not in two places at once. She is at one place, imagining herself being in another place, and that is possible.  She is thinking: If I were in my home town, I would warn folks, or somehow prevent them from being at the spot where the plane will crash.

There are other ways of interpreting “Ring-a-Ding Girl” that could render it consistent, though this interpretation fits well with the representation of another aspect of the story, which has to do with the clash of cultures and traditional roles in the 1960s that took place when a woman asserted herself outside the home town and family, and took up a career. At least as she imagines it, her reunion with her townsfolk and family is complicated. She is clearly viewed with curiosity and even a bit of suspicion on her return.  If the reunion with the town is an imagined reunion, then what is represented is Bunny’s own insecurity about how she, as a successful career woman, is processed by others outside of Hollywood. This brings to mind the old saying, “You can never go home again.”

Further Reading:

Blackburn, Simon (1999), Think, Oxford University Press, Chapter 4, “The Self”, pp. 120-148.

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Episode 133 – “Ring-a-Ding Girl”

Episode 132 – “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”

The elderly are often marginalized, discounted as mentally deficient, and viewed as a drain on the resources earmarked for the young and well. “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” follows on the heels of  “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain.” Both concern the relationships between someone who is growing old, and younger family members. Other episodes that address problems of aging in terms of the relationships  the elderly bear to their younger compatriots include “The Trade-Ins,” “Kick the Can,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” and “Long Live Walter Jameson.” These stories all present the plight of the elderly with compassion and understanding.

Like Wanda in “Nothing in the Dark,” Sam Forstmann fears his death. But unlike Wanda, who is alone and avoids contact with people because she thinks anyone could be “Mr. Death,” Sam’s preoccupation with his future death takes the form of a preoccupation with a clock, a grandfather clock that was given to him at birth, and like Sam himself, has been running ever since. Sam believes that when the clock stops, he will die. While this sounds dramatic, and a bit odd, perhaps what Sam is expressing is that that his existence depends on the things he is passionate about, and when the things he is passionate about no longer exist, then he will no longer have reasons for living. Although the object of his passion is a bit unusual, the relationship between reason, passion, and motivation for living is not.

How ought we live as we get closer to death? Should the increasing proximity to death be a factor in how we act or in how others act toward us? That may depend on what we know about the temporal location of our death. Generally, we do no know very precisely, when we will die. We traffic in probabilities. We know the probability that a male will die in their sixties, seventies, eighties or nineties. Using more information about the state of our own health and our habits (called “prior probabilities), we can make more refined probabilistic judgments about our own demise (using tools from probability theory called “Bayesian Reasoning”). As age and/or infirmity advances, we sometimes know how much time we have left.

Whether we are young or old, healthy or ill, the quality of life, our well-being, is affected by our attitudes toward our own death.  Someone who is terminally ill and still well enough to have some control over the course of her life may reflect on what their strongest desires are, and whether they can achieve them. They may formulate what has come to be called a “bucket list,” and resolve to check off as many items on the list as possible. Others may plan for a future in which they don’t exist, by putting their legal, financial, and other affairs in order.

Sam, as we’ve noted is preoccupied by his proximity to death, though he has no special knowledge about how close or far he is from that event. His uncertainty about the date and manner of his death may contribute to his concern. Sam also doesn’t make special plans related to his advanced age. He lives comfortably with his granddaughter and her family, and he has no plans to move on.

Sam does not represent a good model of aging well, and he knows it. Ultimately he breaks his obsession with his clock, both literally and figuratively. The variety of fear of death he experienced had been directed inward. Dreading a future painful experience prevents him from appreciating other people, and from an awareness of their appreciation of him.

One’s well-being isn’t measured by its duration, at least that’s not all of it. Sometimes we say that it’s great just to be alive, but that’s not what we really mean. We mean that there are experiences we value, and  to have those experiences, we have to be alive. It’s great to be alive to have the experiences we appreciate as great experiences. In “Escape Clause”  we saw that someone who could live forever would, under the appropriate circumstances, would prefer death to endless life. It is suggested there, and in the work of Bernard Williams, the fact that we die may make life worth living, rather than being something that we wish would not happen. It is still part of the fabric of human nature that we can view death as something we may not welcome, though keeping that view in check is part of healthy affective management.

Further Reading:

See references for “Kick the Can” and  “Escape Clause.”


Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Episode 132 – “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”

Episode 131 – “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain”

Among the most fundamental features of being human is that we are living things, and like all living things, we age and ultimately we die.  It may seem odd, but there are many philosophers who have denied or downplayed this fundamental feature of our existence, from the ancient philosophers to the modern. They hold that a person has a soul, which is distinct from the body it temporarily inhabits, and that the soul, once created by God, is immortal, and thus will survive the death of the body. While the body ages and dies, the soul does not.

Not all philosophers hold this view, but even those who believe that our minds or souls are distinct from our bodies, still have to come to grips with the fact that while we occupy this veil of tears and are closely related to our bodies, persons, however related to or united with their bodies, do age, and thus they have to come to grips with the effects of aging.  Not only does aging affect how fast we can run and how long we can dance, but perhaps more importantly, how we are viewed by others.

It is not surprising, then, that we have been obsessed with finding the fountain of youth, that is, with the question of whether the aging process can be slowed, halted or reversed.  Certainly this is a legitimate question in biology and related fields, as aging,  whether at the level of the organism, or at the cellular level, is a natural process that is subject to empirical investigation.

“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” takes us to a possible world in which scientific progress on aging has advanced to the point where a drug therapy exists that shows some promise of influencing the aging process in animals, including humans, though it is “at least twenty years” away from being ready for clinical trials on humans.

Harmon Gordon has a young wife who has tired of him. The difference in their age is, he thinks, responsible for her loss of interest in him. Harmon’s brother, Raymond, is a physician who has developed the age-reversing drug, and he implores his brother to inject him with it. Although Raymond resists, he ultimately injects Harmon. Harmon’s aging process is reversed, but there are unintended consequences.

Harmon’s request raises several difficulties for Raymond, who is related to Harmon in several different and potentially conflicting ways. First, Raymond is the brother of Harmon. Second, Raymond is the physician of Harmon. And third, Raymond is a scientist performing experiments that could potentially benefit the aging population, of which Harmon is a member.

As Harmon’s brother, Raymond’s assessment of Harmon’s needs is influenced by his family relationship, and his detailed knowledge of Harmon’s personal life and personal problems. Thus he caves in the Harmon’s request, against his own best judgment, for the anti-aging therapy when he would not have done so for any other patient. Further, as a scientist whose primary responsibility is to conduct research in a manner which is free from bias, following protocols such as the use of double-blind trials, where neither experimental subjects nor investigators know who has been given the therapy being tested and who has been administered a placebo, the decision to administer the untested drug to his brother violates many principles of the ethics of experimentation, not the least of which is administering a therapy to a human subject without approval by the appropriate governing bodies. Here the ethics of care, taking care of the needs of a patient, and a family member, collide with the ethics of clinical research.

The problem for which the age-reversal therapy is the intended solution, is the problem of aging, which is multi-dimensional, but here is manifested as the way advancing age distances one from others. Though we all age at the same rate in one sense, so that after a year, we’re each a year old,er in another sense the elderly age more quickly than the young, and after a year, an elderly person may seem to have aged far more than someone in their thirties, for example.  By choosing to marry a much younger person, Harmon has found himself swimming against a strong current, and in danger of drowning.

The tragedy here is that Harmon has misdiagnosed the problem. The difficulties in his relationship to Flora, his wife, isn’t due to a difference in age, but in the choice of a partner. Flora is mean, uncaring, and completely selfish, and it’s clear that she is probably unsuitable as a partner with any, whether close to her age or not. Even the most advantageous outcome of a drink from Raymond’s fountain of youth would not reverse Harmon’s unfortunate choice of a partner. Raymond attempts to point this out to his brother, and in doing so as a brother, comes closer to helping him than he does as a physician or scientific investigator.

This suggests that the problem of aging boils down to our changing relationships to others. As we age, our relationship to younger people changes. We become like parents, and then like grandparents, and if we live long enough, like great grandparents. But that may not comport with how we see ourselves. This is Harmon’s problem, but to a greater or lesser extent, it is everyone’s problem.

Samuel Scheffler pinpoints a problem with aging that results from the inevitable loss of our peers as we become older. Our friends and colleagues are a source of our own reasons for action. The decisions we make about what projects to engage in, what forms of recreation to participate in, what political and social issues to support, is shaped by the beliefs and interests of those to whom we are related by bonds of friendship and family. As Scheffler puts it, those peers cast a “normative shadow,” and as those peers die while we survive, that shadow becomes smaller and smaller.  To counteract this effect of aging requires building new close relationships, something that other aspects of aging make it increasingly difficult to do.

Further Readings:

Hellman, S., and D.S. Hellman, 1991. “Of mice but not men: Problems of the randomized clinical trial,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 324: 1585–89.

Scheffler, S., 2016. “Aging as a Normative Phenomenon” Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 505-522.

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

Posted in reflections | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Episode 131 – “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain”