Fiction and Imaginative Resistance

19 October 2005

This post has been hanging in Limbo land for awhile, waiting for me to find time to get it finished.   I haven't had much time to blog lately but hope to squeeze more blogging in.  Also, I hope we can make a renewed push to get some of our on-air guests to contribute as well.

Thanks to Steven Meyer for being our guest on recent  show on the willing suspension of disbelief.     Steve was the  first English professor we've actually had on the program.   Given that there can still be some hostility and talking at cross-purposes between philosophers and literary types these days, it was a nice to have a fruitful exchange in which we were  all more or less on the same page.

I've been thinking a bit more about the phenomenon of  imaginative resistance and that's the main  subject of this post.

I recall saying during our on-air conversation that we are inclined to go along and imagine whatever the author of a well-constructed fiction invites us to imagine.    Without the slightest resistance, we accept invitations to  imagine scenarios that contradict the known laws of nature or that rewrite  some large or small fragment of the history of the world.  We have no resistance to imagining  scenarios that, on one way of measuring,  might be seen as  altogether  metaphysically impossible.  Our  imaginations resist  violating the most obvious laws of logic, but imagination can clearly accept the suspension of the  least obvious laws of logic.   If you think that quantum theory involves violation of the laws of classical logic and requires a new "quantum logic"  then perhaps you should say that the imagination refuses to heed and can even help us reconfigure logic itself. 

On the surface then, the imagination is subject to very few constraints.   The "on the surface" has to do with the fact that it's sometimes a little tricky  to specify the exact contents of an episode of imagination.    Suppose  I ask you to imagine a scenario in which Ken Taylor, the actual son of Sam and Seretha Taylor, was  born not to Sam and Seretha but to some imaginary royal couple in some long ago and faraway land.   Can you really imagine that this very person, the one and only Ken Taylor,  was born to different parents?   Or are you really imagining a person a lot like me,  but with different parents,  born and reared  in a different age?   Believe it or not, one could spend a long time arguing about this sort of issue.  But I won't do that here.

What I'm intrigued by at the moment is the extent of  our imaginative resistance to scenarios  which violate the dictates of what we take to be morality.    I gave the example of the show of being invited to imagine that its a morally good thing to kill a perfectly innocent child in cold blood.   I think we experience a great deal of imaginative resistance to any such scenario.   During the show I was taking the line that that's because our in tact moral sense is part of the "frame" relative to which we  (morally) evaluate imagined scenarios.   If we are asked to alter the very content of what we take to be  morality,  we don't really have any place to stand when it comes to morally evaluating the proffered scenario.  Part of the point of imagined worlds, on this way of thinking about things, is to provide imagined experiments in living on which to exercise the moral sense. 

But on further reflection while I think there is something to this line,  I now think that  there is less to it than I first thought.    First of all,  I'm a pretty thoroughgoing relativist about morality.   And I think there is a certain plasticity to our moral sense.   The moral sense is relentlessly pushed and pull, figured and reconfigured by all sorts of things.   I suspect that the imagination plays an important role in reconfiguring our moral sense.  We  tell ourselves stories that enable us to gain imaginative acquaintance, for the first time, with  the common humanity of those with whom we have been at odds.  We tell ourselves stories that show us how much our own moral fortunes depend on  moral luck.   It's not to hard to imagine, for example,  a story about an ordinary German, whose character differs little from our own,  becoming,  during the Nazi period,  one of Hitler's willing executioners by a series of small steps that we ourselves might have taken in the same circumstances.   

If fiction has the power to challenge and reconfigure  our moral sense through invitations to  re-imagine the  moral order,  does it follow that the we don't, after all,  imaginatively resist what goes against our own current standards of morality?   I think we can still say that the answer to this last question is no.  But I also think one shouldn't conclude from that fact that, therefore,  anything goes with respect to imagining alternative moral frameworks.  We don't allow another to simply   "stipulate away"  the contents of our current moral sense in the same way that we do allow another to stipulate away  the contents of our current best science or our current understanding of the history of the universe.   

It's not exactly puzzling why this should be.  Our moral sense is deeply intertwined with our concrete conceptions of what a life should be, how a society should be ordered.   To re-imagine the moral order is to re-imagine not just  morally indifferent matters of fact, but the very foundations of our lives.   We cannot simply stipulate those foundations away without also stipulating away  the lived and felt basis of our moral sense.  To imagine away the wrongness of killing a child, is either to  imagine away  that which leads us to view  children as  innocent or to imagine away the moral significance of innocence.  How do  we do either of those things without entirely reconfiguring the very idea of childhood?  Someone who invites me to stipulate away either the innocence of children or the moral significance of that innocence has asked me to do  something I don't quite know how to do.   I don't immediately know what kind of world I am being invited into when I am invited to imagine such a world.   True,  I don't know how warp drive is supposed to work either.  But I know that a world in which there is warp drive is a world in which spaceships can get from place to place faster than light can.

To be sure,  there are many works of fiction that are not "aimed"  at us or at people with moral senses exactly like our own.   Think of fiction aimed at the members of cultures radically unlike our own in times radically unlike our own. What are we to do when we encounter such works?  Might not such a work offer me a way into an alien moral order?    Perhaps there are times and cultures  in which children are considered the mere property of their parents rather  than  vessels of moral innocence to whom nurture and protection are morally due. Perhaps richly constructed scenarios of such world can provide me the wherewithal to do what I cannot do by the power of mere stipulation.

Suppose that so.   How should we,  here and now,  regard invitations to imagine issued from such cultural milieus?   Two different sorts of responses seem available.     We might simply read works which issue such invitations  by using  our own current normative lights as our guide.  That's, I suspect, is mostly what we, in fact, do when faced with such fiction.   But we can also try to imaginatively project ourselves into that  different moral order.  The former is easy.  The latter is difficult, but still perhaps psychologically possible.   

Whether the latter is morally permissible is another question.  Even if it is psychologically possible, should  I  permit myself to put on the moral sense of a  racist, sexist, imperialist  milieu in order that I am able to achieve  -- what exactly?  Fuller appreciation of a morally repugnent work that glorifies  empire, or the subjection of women or the  enslavement of peoples of color? 

My gut instinct is to say no.  On the other hand,    it seems right that I should  permit myself to be "morally stretched"  by a work that challenges me, say, to expand my compassion beyond my own class and kind   What's the big difference? Why should I resist the one but  go along with the other?

One might answer that the one promises moral improvement, moral improvement by my own lights, while the other does not.  But might I not be improved in a different way by projecting myself into the moral universe of the jerk?    For example, if  I want to speak with and perhaps persuade the sexist, imperialist, racist jerk to abandon his jerky ways, might it not be useful for me to gain  full imaginative acquaintance with the world as that jerk sees it, might it not even be morally mandatory to equip myself as best as possible to deal with the jerk?   It would be one thing, I suppose, if the invitation to imagine had the power to permanently reconfigure my moral sense, but if I think I am immune to such reconfiguration, then what?

Comments (1)

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Sunday, November 6, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Without the slightest resistance, we accept inv

Without the slightest resistance, we accept invitations to imagine scenarios that contradict the known laws of nature or that rewrite some large or small fragment of the history of the world. We have no resistance to imagining scenarios that, on one way of measuring, might be seen as altogether metaphysically impossible.
This all depends. (My partner could not enjoy The Matrix because he found the premise -- humans as batteries -- thermodynamically implausible.)
As for the suspension of moral judgment, I agree that it's a more complicated feat. Part of this might have to do with how works of fiction are (often) constructed. It seems much more common for an author to present a set of circumstances in which a particular act which we would judge to be immoral (under normal circumstances) becomes moral, or vice versa. (For example, in those sci-fi scenarios in which a time-traveler is his own grandfather -- generally, that kind of relationship with grandma is frowned upon!) But the novels that present the reader with a civilization whose moral judgments are very different from our own tends to do so with the aim of eliciting a response from the reader -- a response that counts on the reader having a particular kind of moral sense. The Handmaid's Tale, or Walden Two or Never Let Me Go are powerful because of our reaction to the different moral sensibilities of their fictional inhabitants.
But the question remains: is the success of works of fiction like these a matter of the authors understanding their audiences (and the moral sensibilities of those audiences) really well, or have the authors assumed (whether correctly or incorrectly) that there is some set of moral sensibilities common to all humans (and thus to all potential readers) that ought to give these literary works something like universal appeal?