Are There Limits To What We Can Believe In Fiction? If So, What Determines These limits?

This relates to film but is really more to do with aesthetics. However i wrote it and felt it was relevant enough to post in my journal.

 

The imagination is a powerful tool that helps us look beyond possibilities. In the real world we are bound by possibilities and forces such as gravity.1 When we leap out of the window we fall ungracefully to the floor with terrible life-threatening consequences. Yet we freely accept that Superman is able to achieve flight and all because an author tells us that he can. Possibilities and impossibilities are open to our imagination; time travel, spaceships, travelling at speeds faster than light and talking animals are all accepted as proper items of imagination. Although the imagination is a powerful tool there seems to be a limit to what people believe in fiction: a moral limit. I will firstly explain why morality may impose a limit in our imaginative abilities. I will then explore Kendall L. Walton’s position that the limitation in imaginative abilities is due to the impossibility of imagining an opposing moral position as possible. I will then illustrate that Walton’s position is incorrect. I will then come to the conclusion that it is due to an unwillingness, rather than an impossibility, to imagine an opposing moral position as a possibility.

 

The imagination has a great ability to conjure up fantastical events that couldn’t otherwise ever be performed in the real world. However there does seem to be a limit to what people can imagine freely in fiction. This limit seems to be a moral consideration. Tamar Szabo Gendler explains that ‘When it comes to make-belief… I have a much easier time following an author’s invitation to imagine that the earth is flat than I do following her invitation to imagine that murder is right’.2 What we accept in the real world as a scientific impossibility we can accept as a possibility in the fictional world – we easily accept time travel in Back To The Future (1985). Yet when people are faced with a moral code they find disgusting, that paedophilia is really harmless or that infanticide is good, they resist the fictional world to the point where they stop reading the text entirely. This seems to be due to the exportability of morality. When a film asserts that pigs can fly we know that pigs cannot fly in the real world. When an author asserts that abortion is murder in a novel we know that this belief is applicable and exportable to the real world. The exportable and transferable nature of morality means that the moral position of a novel or film affects the readers ability to fully participate in imagining the fiction world. This is indicated by the inability of many viewers of Triump des Willens (1935) to admire the aesthetic qualities of Leni Riefenstahl’s film due to the moral and political position the film advocates [A further film, and maybe one more problematic, is the film Birth of a Nation (1915)]. One position holds that it is conceptually impossible to believe one moral position while accepting in a fictional world an opposed position as a possibility. This is advanced by Kendall L. Walton.

 

Walton believes that there is a limit to what we can believe in fiction. Walton believes that it is an impossible task to imagine a morally objectionable reality as good, such as that rape is in fact good for women, in the fictional world and still hold that rape is not good in the real world. Walton states ‘there are limits to our imaginative abilities. It is not clear that I can… imagine accepting just any moral principle I am capable of articulating’.3 Walton explains that, because of his moral beliefs, he is unable to imagine accepting a moral belief contrary to his own. Walton believes slavery to be wrong and cannot imagine accepting it as a possibility. Walton’s moral position is that slavery is morally impermissible. That position requires the belief that slavery cannot ever be morally correct. Therefore, because of his moral position, it would be contradictory to suppose or make-believe that slavery could ever, in any possible realm, be other than morally incorrect. Therefore Walton is unable to imagine slavery as morally correct because his beliefs do not allow the possibility. Walton seems to be arguing that it is impossible for us to imagine outside of our moral position. Walton’s position is called ‘the impossibility hypothesis’ by Tamar Szabo Gendler. 4 Gendler states that the hypothesis is defined by two points:

 

  1. The scenarios that evoke imaginative resistance are conceptually impossible.

  2. The conceptual impossibility of these scenarios renders them unimaginable.5


Walton believes that holding slavery to be morally impermissible and permissible at once is conceptually impossible and therefore unimaginable. The work has become ‘morally inaccessible’ and therefore the reader is unable to fully enter into the fictional world.6


Walton’s position, and the ‘impossibility hypothesis’, fails because it relies on morality being a fixed construct. Moral beliefs often change radically when they convert or lose their faith. If morality is changeable than imagining an opposing morality as possible and true in a fictional world is not an impossibility; it is rather an unwillingness on the part of the reader. An unwillingness that arises because one doesn’t want to change or accept an opposing moral position as superior. Gendler explains ‘my unwillingness to [imagine] is a function of my not wanting to take a particular perspective on the world – [the real, non fictional world] – which I do no endorse’.7 Essentially the reader fears that accepting a moral stance in the fictional world would mean that they accept such a position in the real world. If we accept in a text that a certain man’s relationship with a young girl was permissible fictionally, then it would lead us to believe it to be a possibility that paedophilia could be permissible in certain circumstances – such as those described in the text. Therefore we opt out of imagining a fictional world where paedophilia is permissible because we fear that we couldn’t reject it, or that we would start to accept it in the real world.

 

Walton argues that it is impossible to imagine an opposing moral position as a good things. He comes to this conclusion incorrectly. For a fictional world to be impossible to image the subject’s morals must not be changeable. Yet morals are changeable. This indicates that the inability to imagine an opposing morality is in fact an unwillingness on the part of the reader to imagine an other moral position being superior or acceptable. The text may purposely challenge the morals of others, yet the resistance come from the reader. The reader is unwilling to be challenged and enter into imagining a world that they cannot stomach; it isn’t that the proposed fictional world in unimaginable, it is rather that the reader doesn’t want to imagine, and engage with, the fictional world. Because morals are transferable people fear that involvement with a fictional world may include the adoption, or at least acceptance, of an alternative moral position, such as paedophilia being permissible or that slavery is an agreeable business. When we are questioned by fictions that oppose our moral outlook our counter-argument may be just as literary and hypothetical as the fictional world we are defending our position against. Therefore rather than enter into a dialogue with our own and other moral positions we opt to ignore the problems that arise and resist the fictional world. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to what we can imagine as possible in the fictional world but there is a limit to what we will allow ourselves to imagine in accord with out moral beliefs.

 

 

1I chose real because I felt it was better than non-fictional – though the term real is not without its problems.

2Tamar Szabo Gendler, ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 97, No. 2, (Feb, 2000) pp. 55-81 p. 58.

3Kendall L. Walton; Michael Tanner ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 68, (1994), pp. 27-66 p. 48.

4Walton denies that he defends/advocates the so-called ‘impossibility hypothesis’ yet the thesis fits his arguments exactly in regard to his conceptualization of the source of the resistance, I.e. that it is impossible to conceptualize a moral state opposed to one’s own.

5Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 66.

6Kendall L Walton; Michael Tanner, ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’, p. 30.

7Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 74.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

One thought on “Are There Limits To What We Can Believe In Fiction? If So, What Determines These limits?”

  1. An interesting topic and a worthy effort, but you are confusing the cinematic experience with reading, and fiction with non-fiction.

    To make your case, you need to isolate each area and elaborate only with directly relevamt examples, ie. don’t refer to a film as an example for a conceptualization for written text.

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