Game Design as Travel Journalism
Religious Stories

Imaginary Morals

What is the role of imagination in human morality? Expanding this faculty seems to have allowed humanity to take morality further than other animals. Imagination itself is not uniquely human – a dog barks because it hears an unfamiliar noise and imagines a threat – but imagination is uniquely developed in our species. Our cortex is proportionally larger than any of our relatives, and part of what this seems to deliver is an enormous capacity to construct complex ideas and fantasies. Both art and science depend upon imagination to a tremendous degree.

From an early age, children tell stories that exercise their capacity for make-believe, and philosopher of art Kendall Walton has shown that this ability extends into adulthood. All our representations – paintings, theatrical plays, films and novels – use imagination in a manner parallel to that of children's games, albeit with a considerably higher degree of sophistication. Where those fictions involve storytelling, an ethical dimension inevitably creeps in. As the prolific author Michael Moorcock has noted, morality and story structure are closely linked. We do not need heavy handed "And the moral of the story is..." endings to draw ethical conclusions from a tale; the very arrangement of a narrative has a moral dimension.

What is more, Professor Walton has noted (as indeed Hume did centuries earlier) that we are resistant to a story that forces unwelcome moral principles upon us. Ordinarily, we accept all manner of wild propositions simply on the author's authority, as in fantasy and science fiction, which bend the rules of reality in absurd ways as a matter of course. But we are not willing to accept the author's authority on moral matters. If we read a book in which the omniscient narrator tells us that the mixing of races is wrong, for instance, we will say that the author has a perverse moral attitude and not accept this aspect of the story – we can accept almost anything in fiction, it seems, provided it does not transgress our prior values.

Part 10 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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We do not need heavy handed "And the moral of the story is..." endings to draw ethical conclusions from a tale; the very arrangement of a narrative has a moral dimension.

I agree, but I remember being a little disappointed after reading Brave New World many years ago - the scenario that the book depicts is generally considered to be a dystopia but I couldn't help thinking that to assume that removing those aspects of society which Huxley decided were "necessary" for a "good" society was a bit presumptuous.

Or maybe it was a double bluff - maybe Huxley was trying to make us question whether a society without such aspects would be intrinsically bad.

Hopefully this doesn't come across as a complete non sequitur - my point was that the story might have a moral dimension, but the moral lesson resulting from it can be left open to interpretation.

Given that this book made me think considerably more than any other fictional book I can think of, that might not be a bad thing.

Hi Jon, not a non-sequitur at all! This question of the relation between fiction and morality is definitely apropos here.

The example you're using here, of Brave New World, is slightly different from the moral aspect of story structure that Moorcock refers to (or still something he must have had in mind, since he uses similar allegorical techniques in his alternative history writing).

There is, undoubtedly, this other side of the moral (and political) dimension of stories that relates to the setting - and particularly in fantasy/science fiction where the points being raised may be given as much in the setting as in the events. For instance, I'm not sure 1984 gives us much basis for moral judgement in its events, but its setting and tone is certainly instructive.

I believe Brave New World intentionally bites the apple to see if its rotten... I see this book as challenging classical utilitarian notions of "good" as based around maximising pleasure. Huxley's World State is the dystopia that comes from taking this principle to its logical extreme. The world is rendered meaningless by excessive distractions and entertainments (as opposed to 1984, where fear is the focus of the dystopia).

Both novels are intended as critiques of different cultures, of course - 1984, of Communist Russia. Brave New World of consumerist United States. There is still a moral element in these critiques, but of course it strays heavily into the political, asking not "how shall we live" but more "how should we govern?"

Thanks for raising this point! This role of fiction in provoking thought allegorically is supplemental from Moorcock's general point, and well worth taking into account.


Just came across this on stumbleupon BTW - a graphical way of exploring the counterpoint between the two novels.

Thanks for sharing this, Jon! It's a nice set of comparisons - but the conclusion at the end is, I feel, premature in that both dangers remain very real indeed, but different nations are closer to one threat than the other. Huxley, who lived in California for a while, reflects the danger of Western culture, while Orwell, who lived in the Soviet Union for a while, reflects the danger outside of this.

Best wishes!

Yes - good point well made.

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