Ethics of an Imaginative Approach I

If everything is based in the imagination, are we not dealing with the problem of radically relativizing all ways of seeing the world. Yes, but the problem of relativism is not as difficult as it may appear. You might ask yourself: "when all forms of human culture are perceived to be imaginal first, then is it not true that all forms of human thought are as potentially as valid expression of the human condition/imagination of that condition, as any other?"

This perspective may appear to provide a sense of empowerment through the subversion of one's pet peeves in their culture, but let me assure you this is not the case. The dilemma is, simply put, if all forms of expression are potentially equally as valid as any other, then how can we justify the examples set by individuals like Geoffery Dalmer or social experiments like Nazi Germany? While it may be true that as products of the imagination, Dalmer and Nazism are valid expressions of the human imagination, this cannot confer any real and lasting ethical or moral justification.

But, within the logic of the argument as so far presented, how can I justify denying moral sanction to an expression of the imagination? Simply because I make no pretensions to an autonomous, disconnected, purely mental-metaphysical notion of perception, apprehension, and thought. Every individual imagination is rooted in several things: one is his or her physical body, another is in his or her social-cultural relations (from images of family and family to experiences of the cosmos to cosmology; technologies both physical and metaphysical; artifacts and fantasy-histories), a third is in his or her specific physical experiences/location/climate/environment.

By being connected to all these things a person's or a culture's imagination is kept in check with reality, with the really-real. It is my belief that the physical informs the imagination and the imagination forms the physical - by merely pointing at a plant and calling it "plant" you have super-imposed an imagination onto that physical object; but you could not have called the plant a "plant," if you were not somehow 'connected' to it.

It is this connection to reality of both the physical and social worlds and bodies (Freud's very useful and suggestive idea of reality testing is operative here) that we find our way out of the dilemma presented earlier: how can we provide a social critique of human expressions/actions when we understand them all to be products of the imagination? Simply because we are tied intimately, necessarily to our bodies and worlds.

Our imaginations are subject to reality testing whether in the form of direct testing in the physical world ("Mommy, why can't I fly?") or in the social world ("She doesn't like me or does she?) As such all imaginings are subject to constant scrutiny by the morality-keepers in both traditional and contemporary society, ranging from the nosy, old-woman across the street to sanctioned, super-secrete policing-intelligence-thought-religion types. But this also happens on the individual level using unconscious, internalized censors which, if Freud is right, follow the dictates of social and cultural history.

In a less fascist-world, the optimal situation for judging, validating and justifying one imagination/discourse compared to another would be as follows:

  1. those imaginations which (Kuhn) seem to answer all the observed problems best;
  2. those imaginations that spark that aesthetic reactions in others (if it is deemed 'beautiful' it is considered socially acceptable, if 'Ugly' then it is considered contemptible and in need of repression, if 'Indifferent' then it is not considered at all);
  3. those which speak to the soul best, potentially allowing them to stand the test of time (Shakespeare, for instance, did not right the majority of his plays for any high-culture, as is often the mistaken impression caused by clumsy high-school instructors, but rather for the masses. Because he wrote with such passion and spoke to both the hearts and minds of the majority, his plays have become almost immortalized and now constitute part of what is considered high Western culture.);
  4. those which, according to any combination of the above items, people turn into beliefs (to paraphrase William James' pragmatic theory of truth: "if someone believes in something sufficiently, and if that belief makes a significant difference in their lives, then their belief gives its object some form of 'real' existence.)

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Copyright 1997 Marc Fonda. All Rights Reserved.
Last updated: March 5, 1997.