The Moral Psychology of Fiction

by Gregory Currie

© all rights reserved

Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals on facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.
Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Mr Gradgrind’s opinion is and always was an eccentric one, and most of us think that fiction can be the source of knowledge, that we can learn from fiction. But most fiction is simply false. How can we learn from falsehoods? Not only is fiction mostly false, but readers generally know that it is; learning from fiction does not consist in credulously forming wrong opinions based on the false information that fiction provides. (Some say that statements in fictional contexts are truth valueless rather than false. I disagree, but it doesn’t matter for present purposes. If it’s puzzling that we can learn from falsehoods, it is equally puzzling that we can learn from sentences that lack truth value.

There is truth–literal truth–in fiction, since most fictional stories play out against a background of fact. We can learn from that background of fact, as the reader of Patrick O’Brien will learn a good deal about Nelson’s navy, and the reader of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety will learn about revolutionary France. But this sort of information is not what we think of as distinctive about fiction’s capacity for teaching, and it would not be a good strategy to argue for the importance of fiction by citing it alone. Purely factual learning is more economically and reliably–if less entertainingly–derived from text-books.

Those who claim we can learn from fiction usually have in mind a distinctive kind of instruction for which fiction seems particularly useful: we might portentously call it moral instruction. In some way, fiction helps us better to detect and to make moral choices. That, at any rate, is the claim. It is a claim naturally subject to exaggeration, and there are versions of it I would not defend. But I believe there is some truth in it. What truth there might be in it is the subject of this paper

Value and Imagination

In her essay on literature and the moral imagination, Martha Nussbaum takes up what is for her “more than an analogy” and which she ascribes to Henry James: that “the work of the moral imagination is in some manner like the work of the creative imagination”. 1 I agree that there is more than an analogy here, though the underlying sameness I claim to find in these two functions of imagination might not be anything Nussbaum would endorse. I hold that, in so far as there is a role for imagination in helping us to see through a moral issue or to make a moral choice, that role is undertaken by the same mental mechanism that is deployed when we read or–if we have the right talents and inclinations–create fictional works. Indeed, I’m inclined to say that there are not two things here, a moral and a creative imagination, but rather one thing put to different purposes. And I will go further, and say that at least a good deal of the time, the purposes themselves are inextricably intermixed; sometimes, engaging imaginatively with fiction is deploying the imagination in the service of moral understanding. Let us see how.

In thinking about what to do or to be or to have, we sometimes try to decide what it is valuable to do or to be or to have. If we are thoughtful about these decisions, we shall try to think ourselves into a variety of imaginary circumstances, and then to imagine how we and others would flourish in those circumstances, and to glimpse the sorts of experiences we would have, were we to undertake or become or get those things. By imaginatively projecting ourselves into these situations we can undergo moral learning; we can learn something about whether a goal is worth pursuing, for ourselves and for those we care about. Imagination is not a perfect vehicle for such learning. Some things are just plain difficult to imagine, calling on a background of exotic experience many of us don’t possess. Worse, it’s often hard to know whether you have succeeded in imagining something adequately, and we consequently think we have acquired knowledge through imagining when all we have really acquired is error. Folk tales and psychological theory declare imagination subject to biases which systematically distort outcomes and block the inputting of crucial bits of real world information. When that happens, imagination becomes fantasy; at least that’s one way of drawing what is, by anyone’s lights, the hazy distinction between imagination and fantasy.

So if we are not careful, and sometimes even when we are, imagination will lead to ignorance or error rather than to moral knowledge. From the point of view of reliability, real experiments rather than thought experiments would be preferable in this area. We would gain more reliable knowledge by simply pursuing a variety of goals and seeing how things turned out as a result. We would also do a great deal of damage to ourselves and to others in the process. Imagination trades reliability for risk; the information it gives us is low grade, but the cost of getting it is minimal.

Perhaps we can increase the quality of that information that imagining gives us by employing external aids, just as levers and pulleys enhance our natural physical capacities. Elsewhere I have argued that fictions are, exactly, guides to the imagination, or, as Kendall Walton has it, props in games of make-believe. 2 They make it easier for us to weave together a pattern of complex imaginings by laying out a narrative; they give us, through the talents of their makers, access to imaginings more complex, inventive and colourful than we could often hope to construct for ourselves; sometimes, by artfully withholding crucial bits of narrative information, they can, like inspired and inspiring sports coaches, bring us to the point where we can make imaginative leaps for ourselves.

All this is, of course, its own justification; we are creatures who, for whatever reason, thrive on mimesis, and fiction in thrives through its efficient delivery of imaginative pleasure. But sometimes what fictions encourage us to imagine can instruct as well as delight; they can guide and encourage the imagination in its attempt to encompass the unfamiliar, keeping vividly before the mind elements of the imagined situation we might otherwise lose or suppress. If things go well with such a project, the result can be moral knowledge: knowledge of how the adoption of a value would affect our flourishing and that of those we care about.

A really spectacularly successful fiction (with success measured along the dimension I am currently considering) might get you to revise your value options: to reconsider the list of things which you do not currently value, but which you think of as likely candidates for valuing. Sometimes, after all, we begin to suspect that our values are wrong, and we may then desire to value differently. But fictions serve not only to help us assess options for valuing that are not our own current values; they can, more modestly, help us to reinforce or to test our commitment to our own values. Suppose that valuing is desiring to desire. We may not desire what we value, as the addict values abstaining from drugs but does not desire this, but the addict who so values at least desires that his desires be different from the way they are; he desires to desire abstaining from drugs. When we do not desire what we value, we are in conflict with our values–a conflict we naturally seek to eliminate. So an evaluative project might have as its aim that you end up desiring what you value: that you desire what you desire to desire. Or it might aim merely to increase the degree of your desiring for that which you value. Fictions can help here by inviting us to imagine ourselves more committed than we really are to our values and then to see ourselves, in imagination, flourishing as a result.

So: changes in our moral knowledge can bring about changes in our desires, and changes in our desires can bring about changes in our valuings; imagination can change our moral knowledge, and fiction can help imagination to effect that change. That is one way fiction can affect our valuings.

Notice that imaginative involvement with fiction does not seem to play any comparable role in developing our factual knowledge. I have granted that we can gain factual information from a fiction, if it is of the right kind, by a judicious discrimination between what is in it that is purely fictional and what is the authentic background of fact. But one does not choose what factual beliefs to acquire from the fiction on the basis of which of the fictions occurrences are made to seem most desirable–at least, anyone who did operate in that way would probably acquire a lot of false beliefs. Imaginative involvement plays a special role in developing our moral knowledge which it does not play in developing factual, descriptive knowledge.

Gregory Currie is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Arts at Flinders University, South Australia. This piece is extracted with permission from The Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol 73, no 2, 1995.

Notes and References

1. Martha Nussbaum,'”Finely Aware and Richly Responsible”: Literature and the Moral Imagination’, in Love’s Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 1990.

2. Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representative Arts, Harvard University Press, 1990, chapter 1. See also my The Nature of Fiction,Cambridge University Press, 1990.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]