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There's an entry in the SEP called "Imaginative Resistance" which goes over an account of a problem with our ability to entertain moral counterfactuals:

The phenomenon of “imaginative resistance” refers to psychological difficulties otherwise competent imaginers experience when engaging in particular imaginative activities prompted by works of fiction. Usually, we seem to have no trouble engaging with time-travel or space-exploration stories, superhero movies, or talking non-human animal fables. At other times, we do not seem to be able to play along that easily; for instance, when we are presented with an alternative Macbeth where

the facts of [Duncan’s] murder remain as they are in fact presented in the play, but it is prescribed in this alternate fiction that this was unfortunate only for having interfered with Macbeth’s sleep. (Moran 1994: 95)

The issue touches on matters like supervenience in ethics and, I suspect, the distinction between, and varying capacities for, counterfactual and counterpossible reasoning (the word "counterpossible" does not show up in the SEP article, however). It reminds me of a doubt I've had about Moorean, or maybe better Rossian, intuitionism about ethics: if, "A is a wrong action," can be denied without contradiction and must be supported, then, by intuition (in the quasi-perceptual sense of the term), then it should be possible to imaginatively entertain a proposition like, "Destroying all possible worlds is a neutral action" (perhaps not ever a right one, though).

Question: but then to what extent, if any, does this phenomenon testify for or against moral fictionalism? Offhand, it seemed to me to be counter-testimony, but upon reflection I came to think that the fictionalist has a powerful response available:

  1. (Against) If the quasi-truth of a moral proposition depends on what story we happen to be telling, then the possibility of telling a different story would seem to allow for reprogramming our imagination so that it doesn't resist our telling such a story.
  2. (For) That's the reason for the phenomenon, though: when we imagine the counterfactual world where unrestricted destruction is neutral (or the counterpossible one where it is outright goodX), we are not imagining ourselves in that world, ergo we are not imagining that said world is one where we have been telling a different story than the one we are telling in the real world.

There's a chapter in a book on Nietzsche that is apparently relevant, but to get a copy of it at this time, I'd have to go to a shady search engine and find the book on one of those document-sharing sites (I'll admit that I did that the other day to get a citation for an answer I gave to another poster, here, but I don't want to make a habit of doing so).


XC.f. Anselm's peculiar claim in Cur Deus Homo that if God commanded us to look from left to right, even at the cost of all worlds coming to an end, yet would God's command still hold for us. My first impression of this passage was that Anselm was being overly devout, craven even, but I later wondered if he might have meant his thought experiment as a moment in counterpossible, not just counterfactual, reasoning.

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    It seems to me that it is neither. Imaginative resistance in fiction seems to be a function of constraints spelled out, implied, or projected by the author. In the extreme case of mathematics, we also experience strong resistance to imagining otherwise (Kant on geometry is a prime example). Mathematical fictionalism is, of course, controversial, but our practice of mathematics, and psychological reactions thereto, seem rather disjoint from whether platonic realm is out there or not. See also the post on the ethico-mathematical analogy.
    – Conifold
    Aug 14, 2023 at 18:37
  • @Conifold I have, unfortunately, elided the difference between imagery-imagination and propositional imagination. It seems hard to clearly imagine alien geometrical imagery (the best I've been able to do myself with the 3-to-4D transition is to think of folding a 3D net upward, like with folding a basic Sierpinski triangle into a tetrahedron, but that's still indirect), but it seems easier to entertain propositions about alien geometries, maybe. W.r.t. moral counterfactuals, I've read through a lot of morally deep fantasy stories by authors with different standards of ethics, so... Aug 14, 2023 at 20:12
  • ... I have been able to "sympathize" with otherwise offensive or at least "weird" moral attitudes (or, for example, I have made some sense of the TV Tropes' blue-and-orange morality entry). I guess maybe I myself don't even experience strong imaginative resistance to alternative moral fictions at this point (or my own moral ideas are so bizarre at times that I'm not in the right position to recognize my own deviation from common standards?). Aug 14, 2023 at 20:14

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One of my pet peeves with philosophers who talk about counterfactual possibilities is that they leverage the concept of story-telling without actually engaging it. Sure, we can talk about the possibility that the moon rises in the west rather than the east — a perfectly possible scenario — but as a story that counterfactual is meaningless except as it impacts the dense web of meanings that we have already attached to the moon-as-is. A story isn't about the object it focuses on; a story is about the relationships that object is embedded in.

Moral stories in particular are about social dilemmas, and the problem of 'imaginative resistance' isn't that we can't entertain certain moral counterfactuals, but that some moral counterfactuals don't pose actual dilemmas. In the cited example, MacBeth isn't struggling between the promise of power and the horror of murder. He's making the same moral choice an average college student makes when deciding whether to stay up late cramming for an exam: loss of sleep vs potential gain. It's a bad, un-engaging plot-line.

The same problem occurs in discussions of moral fictionalism; it doesn't really grasp the essence of story-telling. If we construct a counterfactual story in which unlimited destruction is morally neutral, what significant moral dilemma is there to engage? The counterfactual becomes capricious and arbitrary, e.g.: "I'd destroy the world now, but, you know... I haven't had my coffee yet." the story is no more morally compelling than a story about the world being destroyed by a giant asteroid, because there's no struggle over the consequences of agency. We could (perhaps) reprogram our moral understanding with a different morally compelling story, but the story has to present a proper dilemma and resolution, or it won't do. We can't just pick any arbitrary counterfactual and apply it.

The upshot is that 'imaginative resistance' doesn't support or counter the idea of 'moral factionalism'. All it does is help highlight where the discussion is going wrong.

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  • Does Anselm's hypothetical scenario count as an engaging story for the unrestricted-destruction question? At least, it daunted me to think that Anselm would claim that God is so glorious that any disobedience of Its commands is anathema, even in the incredible situation where God commands us not to move our eyes in exchange for unrestricted destruction. Aug 15, 2023 at 22:38
  • @KristianBerry:Keeping in mind that I haven't read Cur Deus Homo, Anselm sounds like he's being hyperbolic, along the lines of Genesis 22 (Abraham told to sacrifice Isaac). He's not really asserting an alternate world. He's asserting the principle of absolute devotion and obedience, with the implication that God will test faith, but not follow through on such destruction. There's a moral consideration there, sure, but the 'ending of all worlds' is a MacGuffin, not an integral part of the moral dilemma. Aug 15, 2023 at 23:24
  • Perhaps, but maybe Anselm was coming up with a maximally daunting scenario as part of his whole maximal/perfect-being theology? Though that becomes parochial enough, then, for we who are not inclined to give God that kind of "benefit of the doubt." Also, Anselm seems to prefer normal logical background rules when arguing, not the vagaries of counterpossible conditionals, and I don't even know what how prevalent or clear-sighted such conditionals were in his time... Aug 15, 2023 at 23:29

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