How to be somebody else: imaginative identification and the limits of ethics, Part I

Sophie Grace Chappell is Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, UK, Leverhulme Major Research Fellow 2017-2020, Visiting Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, St Andrews 2017-2020, and Erskine Research Fellow, University of Canterbury NZ, Spring 2020. Her main current research is about epiphanies, immediate and revelatory encounters with value, and their place in our experience and our philosophical ethics.

Sophie Grace Chappell is Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, UK, Leverhulme Major Research Fellow 2017-2020, Visiting Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, St Andrews 2017-2020, and Erskine Research Fellow, University of Canterbury NZ, Spring 2020. Her main current research is about epiphanies, immediate and revelatory encounters with value, and their place in our experience and our philosophical ethics.

A post by Sophie Grace Chappell.

Part 1 of 3

One of the main concerns of ethics, as ordinary good people do it, is the activity that we may call imaginative identification: understanding, getting a feel for, learning vicariously and fictively to inhabit not only my own point of view, but other people’s points of view too. “You don’t know what it was like, you weren’t there”, we say, and “It’s easy to say that when you’re not in my shoes”, and “Try and see it from her point of view”, and “You’re right from your side. I’m right from mine”, and “How would you like it if I did that to you?”. I would say (though other commentators have, implicitly, disagreed) that the Golden Rule propounded by Jesus in Matthew 7.12 (and elsewhere by Confucius, Rabbi Hillel, and many other moral teachers) is about the same thing: about imagining what it would be like to be someone else, and thinking what I would want and not want to happen to me if I were that other person.

Without imaginative identification, something crucial will be missing from our ethics. If ethics were just about doing the right things—about producing the right outputs, whether that means actions or states of affairs, or both, or something other than either—then it would still be arguable that imaginative identification was an indispensable means to the end of producing these outputs. But ethics is at the very least about doing the right things for the right reasons. Without that there cannot, for instance, be any virtues. And in a whole galaxy of utterly familiar real-life cases (commiserating with someone, accepting an excuse, placating an angry child, anticipating someone else’s nervousness, getting a joke, grasping the point of an anecdote or a poem, soothing a stressed rabbit...), doing the right thing for the right reason(s) is impossible—not just instrumentally but constitutively impossible—for anyone who does not go via imaginative identification.

Further, we should take seriously a possibility that Iris Murdoch has often written about—the possibility that ethics is not even about doing the right things for the right reasons, so much as about seeing things aright: about vision and imagination.

Is there not also a good constructive imagination which plays an important part in our life? Imagining is doing, it is a sort of personal exploring... This activity is, moreover, usually and often inevitably, an activity of evaluation. We evaluate not only by intentions, decisions, choices… but also, and largely, by the constant quiet work of attention and imagination. The image here is not so much that of a body moving... but rather of a sort of seeping of colour, or the setting up of a magnetic field... We are obscure to ourselves because the world we see already contains our values and we may not be aware of the slow delicate processes of imagination and will which have put those values there. (Iris Murdoch, “The darkness of practical reason”, Existentialists and Mystics 1998: 199-200)

If Murdoch is right, imaginative identification is not just a necessary corollary of what ethics is really about. Since for the most part the scope of ethics is other people, imaginative identification is itself what ethics is really about. And then there can no more be a genuinely good person who does not have at least some proficiency in imaginative identification than there can be a genuinely comprehending language-user who/which is merely a Chinese room. For just as genuinely comprehending language-use is not just about getting the answers right, but about inhabiting the language that one uses, so genuine goodness is not just about getting the answers right (not even for the right reasons), but about inhabiting goodness. It is not just about acting in accordance with the virtues, it is about living them. To recycle a famous line of Aristotle’s (NE 1103b27): if we are interested in doing ethics, not just theôrias heneka, but hin’ agathoi ginômetha—not just as intellectual sight-seeing, but so as to become good people—then we cannot avoid engaging with the phenomenon of imaginative identification. We simply have to try to make sense of it.

One striking fact about imaginative identification is how good literature is at doing it. Another striking fact is how bad moral philosophy, as standardly and normally practised, is at either doing imaginative identification, or even at accommodating the doing of it within its theoretical structures. Are there contemporary moral philosophers who are centrally concerned with the question “What is it like to be someone else?”? There are, but nowhere near enough of them. Even implicit, never mind explicit, deployments of the notion of imaginative identification remain, on the whole, at the margins of ethics.

This is not, for instance, what contemporary sentimentalists or empathy theorists such as Michael Slote[1] are mainly thinking about. Their main interest is the thesis in moral psychology that moral responses can be reductively analysed as feelings, and the thesis in metaethics that “true” moral beliefs can be reductively analysed as appropriate moral responses.

Nor is it, in anything more than a superficial sense, what Golden-Rule theorists like Richard Hare and (I suppose) Peter Singer are doing. When they talk about “(not) doing what you would (not) want others to do to you”, their focus—unfortunately—is on the wants, not on the people who have the wants.[2] They use the Golden Rule not as I have suggested it should be used, as a prompt to imaginative identification with other people, but rather as a heuristic that gets us from the personal, to an essentially impersonal shopping-list of wants or preferences to be quantified, and quantified over, in their moral equations. And perhaps the same comment applies to the Tim Scanlon of What We Owe To Each Other.

Nor is the question “What is it like to be somebody else?” a central one for Kant or his contemporary followers. Perhaps an interest in this question might be inferred from Kant’s talk of moral agents as “ends in themselves”—but if so, Kant hardly spells this out. And Kant is openly contemptuous of the Golden Rule, the “trivial quod tibi non vis fieri” as he calls it (Groundwork, Footnote 68), that Hare and others have made so central to their moral thinking. The Golden Rule, he says there, does not “contain the ground” of any duty: the fact that you would not like it “if someone did that to you”—if you wouldn’t—is never, or hardly ever, the reason why they should not do that to you—if they shouldn’t.

Nor, again, is this question really what Stephen Darwall is exploring.[3] To put it briefly, his admirable body of work on the second-person standpoint is concerned with the fact that there are other people who are also standpoints on the world; not, or not principally or directly, with what it is like to be some other person who is also a standpoint on the world.

Is this question central for Thomas Nagel, who famously poses the question “What is it like to be a bat?”? Is Nagel, perhaps, at least equally interested in the question “What is it like to be someone else?”? I am not sure. Though Nagel makes many of the conceptual connections surrounding this one, it doesn’t seem obvious that Nagel makes this one. It is not clear, for Nagel, that the possibility of altruism rests on the possibility of engaging with, almost entering, another person’s mind. To the contrary, the message of The Possibility of Altruism tends to be that our ethical thinking should move from the (subjective, solipsistic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent?) “personal standpoint” to the (objective, altruistic, bracingly moral?) “impersonal standpoint” at the earliest possible moment: “What is important is that we are not solipsists, and that the rejection of solipsism involves a capacity to view ourselves and our circumstances impersonally” (p.106). Overall, then, the keynote of The Possibility of Altruism is suspicion of the subjective, not interest in it; with a kind of Kantian underlay to the suspicion.

But one (these days) rather neglected philosopher with ethical concerns, who also raised Nagel’s sort of question about what-it’s-like-ness, and in fact raised it some time before Nagel did, certainly does focus on the question what it’s like to be someone else. This is Timothy Sprigge (see The Importance of Subjectivity, ed. Leemon McHenry, Oxford: Clarendon, 2010). For Sprigge, ethics begins precisely in the recognition of other persons as having a subjectivity in the same way as I do. (As Sprigge puts it—Sprigge was an idealist: each person is not just a viewpoint on the world, but a world.) It is only on the basis of this recognition, Sprigge argues, that we come to see the fundamental reason why benevolence and compassion are the fundamental virtues, and why equal promotion of the good of all such persons is the fundamental duty.

Another possible exception to the general neglect is Harry Gensler; though I am not entirely clear whether, for him, the use of the imagination in ethics has the intrinsic value that I want to accord it, or is merely an effective heuristic for locating moral demands. Either way, Gensler writes this:

The golden rule is best interpreted as saying: "Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation." To apply it, you'd imagine yourself on the receiving end of the action in the exact place of the other person (which includes having the other person's likes and dislikes). If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule… To apply the golden rule adequately, we need knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. With knowledge, imagination, and the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking. (http://www.harryhiker.com/goldrule.htm; see also Gensler’s Ethics and the Golden Rule (New York and London: Routledge, 2013))

I don’t mean to single out for berating or belabouring any of the estimable moralists who I suspect of neglecting the question that I want to focus on. Some of them, especially Sprigge, Nagel, and Darwall—and Kant—I am a big fan of. But there is an interesting issue, which we can raise as a completely general question, ideally non-recriminatory in tone, about why moral philosophy as normally done has so strikingly failed to reflect the centrality to non-philosophical moral thinking of our question “What is it like to be somebody else?”. It hasn’t, of course, completely ignored that question. But as I said earlier, it has apparently been subject to a pressure to ignore that question, or at least sideline it.

So if moral philosophy has failed to make good sense of imaginative identification—why is that? More about this next time.


[1] Michael Slote, Moral Sentimentalism (OUP 2010); A Sentimentalist Theory of the Mind (OUP 2014).

[2] Anthony Price, to whom thanks, cautions that this may be a little unfair to Hare. Moral Thinking, after all, has a chapter entitled “Another's Sorrows”; and on p.95 of that book we read: “If we do know what it is like to be the other person in that situation, we shall be (correctly) imagining having those experiences and preferences, in the sense of knowing or representing to ourselves what it would be like to have them.” All admitted. Still, I stick to my guns about preference-agglomeration being the main focus of Hare’s and Singer’s theories.

[3] Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint (Harvard UP 2009).