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

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 3 of 3

In my first post I introduced the notion of imaginative identification, and said how crucial I think it is for ethics; but I also suggested that most modern moral philosophy has not made good sense of imaginative identification. I see six reasons for this failure. Last time I discussed the first three of these reasons, which come from the nature of imaginative identification. In this third and final post I’ll look at the three reasons for the failure that come from the nature of moral philosophy.

I think moral philosophy tends to overlook the question of imaginative identification, the question “What is it like to be someone else?”, because of three things: its rationalism, its impersonality, and its moralism. By its rationalism I mean, here, moral philosophy’s (and indeed philosophy’s) familiar fixation—on the whole—with the propositional and the cerebral, and its neglect of the affective and the experiential and the dispositional. So the question of imaginative identification is taken (wrongly) to be a question about “mere” feelings, and (correctly) to be a question about the nature and quality of experience. It is assumed that the nature and quality of experience cannot be a matter of knowledge, or not at least of knowledge stricto dicto, and hence that there cannot be anything here that is worth trying to fit into our moral theories.

Well, it’s true that understanding the nature and quality of someone else’s experience is, in significant part, not a kind of understanding that is stateable as propositional knowledge. It does not follow that there can be no knowledge of it unless propositional knowledge is the only kind there is. And I have argued elsewhere (Knowing What To Do Chapter 11) that it is not. There is also (at least) knowledge how, experiential knowledge, and objectual knowledge. Among the good ways of getting hold of these kinds of non-propositional knowledge we should certainly count drama, novels, and other forms of narrative art.

Moral philosophy’s impersonality is its familiar quest for the absolute conception, its attempt to move as far as it can towards the point of view of the universe, the view of reality “as it is anyway”, the view from nowhere. One clear case of this quest for impersonality is Nagel’s suspicion of subjectivity in The Possibility of Altruism, and his tendency there to coordinate the subjective with a series of familiar Kantian oppositions in such a way as to put it on the bad side of all of them. Note again how narrative art, unlike philosophy, typically does not so much pursue the view from nowhere as a whole variety of views from a whole variety of somewheres—which it invites us, vicariously, to enter into.

Finally, moral philosophy’s moralism is its instinctive rush to judgement: its aversion to taking up any viewpoint on reality that is, in one way or another, morally compromised. Moral philosophy does of course engage in narrative thinking from time to time, for example in the construction of examples or thought-experiments. But there is, pervasively, a tacit assumption that any protagonist of a narrative with whom we are supposed to engage or identify will be an innocent, a good person; and that engagement will be difficult or impossible if s/he is not. Rather as there is (or is supposed to be) a puzzle of imaginative resistance in the philosophy of fiction—a puzzle about why it is possible for someone with normal historical beliefs to imagine fictionally that Napoleon won at Waterloo, but not possible for someone with normal moral beliefs to imagine fictionally that rape is all right—so there is a marked resistance, in the narratives that moral philosophy occasionally entertains, to do anything that comes anywhere near identifying with bad characters.

Here too there is a marked contrast with narrative art. To say that narrative art sometimes invites us to imaginatively identify with bad people, or with morally ambiguous people, or with people in bad or morally ambiguous situations—this is if anything to understate the case. We might almost wonder what else narrative art does but precisely that.  And if imaginative identification is indeed identification, if it involves me in making someone else’s perspective my own, albeit temporarily and fictively—then when the perspective is a truly wicked person’s, as it is in Macbeth and Richard III for example, it is not hard to see why the moralistic are worried; indeed we might almost be inclined to go moralistic ourselves.  

Consider, for instance, this Shakespearean sleeper who awakes from a terrible nightmare: 

Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft! I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

This is, of course, Richard III who speaks: this is his last lament before he meets his deserved end. No one, the moralistic will say, should be sympathising with this paragon of wickedness; yet here too what Shakespeare does is take us right into the experience of a deeply evil man, and make something out of it that is not only humanly comprehensible and identifiable-with, but also both artistically and philosophically remarkable.

My charge of moralism against standard-issue moral philosophy is not that it doesn’t or can’t “do things like this”. This example of Richard III, like others that we might consider, is a distinctively artistic (and specifically dramatic) achievement. Moral philosophy is not drama, and does not need to try to be; it would be absurd to suggest that moral philosophy ought to attempt to mimic such achievements. But it should be possible for moral philosophy to find a way or ways of reflecting on such cases, of making ethical sense of them, and of the imaginative identifications that they involve; and it should be possible for moral philosophy to do this without distorting the cases.

I think these things are indeed possible, and have sometimes even been actual. But my point here is that they are not very common. Of course some philosophers have written very well about evil (one thinks at once of Gabriele Taylor, Mary Midgley, Jonathan Glover, and Hannah Arendt). Still, most moral philosophy makes no attempt at all to get “under the skin” of atrocities, or of monsters like Macbeth and Richard III—to parallel, in its own way, what Shakespeare does with them. Most moral philosophers, I suspect, would be deeply worried by the very idea of attempting to imaginatively identify with people as clearly and profoundly wicked as Macbeth or Richard. They have little to say except that these characters are wicked, or evil, which often looks like little more than a way of keeping them at arm’s length. And when moral philosophers do approach atrocities and monsters, the results are often distorted by, at least, the three factors about moral philosophy that I have mentioned above—rationalism, impersonality, moralism.

These factors and others have limited the range of imaginative identifications that are available to moral philosophy, particularly as compared with narrative art; indeed they have made it very difficult to see imaginative identification as a central part of moral philosophy at all. The result has been to make moral philosophy shallower, less humane, and less interesting.

Those who have wished to make moral philosophy deeper, more humane, and more interesting have often wished to make more space in it for the notion of imaginative identification. And often they have sought to do this as part of a more general wish for an ethical philosophy that is, as we may say, an ethics of experience, an ethics that begins with a serious attempt to ground itself in the realities of our answer to the question “What is it like to be a human being?” That is a project that has been engaged in by, for instance, Karl von Hartmann, Hans Lipps, Edmund Husserl, William James, Max Scheler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, Knud Ejler Løgstrup, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Nagel, Bernard Williams, and Cora Diamond. It is also something that I seek to do myself.