chapter  4
Make-believe morality and fictional worlds
ByMary Mothersill
Pages 21

Can I imagine myself to be a bad person, selfish, callous, dishonest, lazy, mean? Of course I can! On gloomy days, I not only imagine but believe it (or half believe it). (Let us assume that imagining and believing admit of degrees: believing ranges, from just over the border – from doubt – to absolute certainty; imagining can be mere supposition or absorbing fantasy. Where the object can be put in propositional form, believing and imagining are compatible with one another and also compatible both with the truth and with the falsity of the proposition in question.) So although I ordinarily see myself as a fairly decent person, I can easily imagine that I am not a fairly decent person and so come to believe (intermittently) that my character is, to put it mildly, regrettable. But can I imagine not just that I am a bad person but that it is all right to be that way? The question is ambiguous. I can imagine or come to believe that my bad character traits are excusable. Citing my unfortunate genetic inheritance, my unhappy childhood, the influence of evil companions, lessons in the school of hard knocks and so forth, I may be led to conclude that what is surprising is that I am not worse than I am. However, since imagining is often confused with remembering, I may come to doubt whether my childhood really was unhappy, my companions evil etc. and my gratifying sense of being justified may then dissolve. Can I imagine that my vices are really virtues, something to be proud of? Well, those vices could be redescribed in non-pejorative terms. I can imagine a benevolent uncle saying to me, ‘My dear, you are too harsh with yourself; you are not selfish but prudent, not dishonest but tactful, not callous but impartial’, and so forth. In short, when it comes to reflexive character assessment, the range of options for me and people like me is unlimited; although, given the widely shared desire to present oneself as a striking figure and the apparently boundless capacity for self-deception, it would not be surprising if our gallery of selfportraits contained a preponderance of heroes, innocent victims and, where

Such reflections as these make it hard for me to grasp what is sometimes called the problem of imaginative resistance, particularly as it figures in aesthetic theory. It has its roots in Plato’s concern for illusion, reality and the arts, but in its more tractable modern version it was an eighteenth-century invention. In Hume’s epistemology, the concept of imagination plays a major role, and in ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ he claims that there are limits to what can be imagined. A reader of fiction will cheerfully entertain wildly improbable hypotheses demanded by the story, but where standards of ‘morality and decency’ are in question, will find it impossible, at least very difficult, to imagine viewpoints contrary to his own; and, Hume continues, if it were possible, he should not do it. On the issue of what one ought (or ought not) to imagine, I draw a blank; but the idea that there is some peculiar difficulty in imagining characters in situations where the standards that obtain are morally unacceptable seems to me false to the facts of experience. Since I can imagine myself to be either a saint or a sinner and can imagine in both cases a judgement backed by a general (imagined) principle, how could I have difficulties with fictional characters who espouse ideas of vice and virtue that I find morally repellent? Since such characters live and act in a make-believe world, it is not up to me to decide whether the ruling principles in that fictional world are or are not acceptable. In fact it should be easier than imagining various things about myself, which is complicated by the thought that I am in some sense responsible for distinguishing truth from fantasy.