chapter  5
12 Pages

‘‘How Could You?’’: deeper understanding through fiction

Sometimes a fictional character’s behavior, like that of an actual person, defies

understanding – or so it seems. The incomprehensibility of extreme cases of

morally condemnable behavior is familiar: how could someone do something

that is so selfish, so unconscious of the needs of others, so gratuitously cruel, so

violently brutal? Explanations of this incomprehensibility have been offered in

terms of the resistance we have to imagining being like that, or to doing such

things.1 But people engage in incredibly admirable behaviors as well, morally

and otherwise, where there should be no such imaginative resistance. These

include behaviors that are self-sacrificing in the extreme, matter-of-fact in the

face of carnage and chaos, persistent when others have given up. They include

impressive behaviors in non-moral ways as well: the performance under pres-

sure of baseball’s ‘‘clutch hitter,’’ the ability to come up with a joke or bon mot

appropriate to whatever the occasion. With these cases, neither morality nor

moral justification is the issue, or even an issue; it is just hard to know how one

could have, or come to have, the psychological strength or summon the resour-

ces that enable one to rise to the occasion. And there is a third type of incom-

prehensible behavior, eccentricities due to mental traits or dispositions that are

deeply different from, alien to, one’s own: the quirkiness of an obsessive collector

of paper clips, a child-like naivete´.