The Ethics of Imagination

Mikhail Epstein

From the book Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. New York: St. Martin's Press (Scholarly and Reference Division),  1999, pp. 164-168 (Chapter 11)

Three Levels of Ethics

Transcultural theory needs to articulate its own ethics, which can be called an ethics of the imagination. Traditionally, imagination was considered to be the capacity least bound to ethical responsibility, incompatible with or even antagonistic to ethical imperatives. The long-standing debates between ethics and aesthetics targeted exactly this opposition between moral norms and free imagination, between duty and desire, between reason and fantasy.

However, if we look at the most common and established ethical rule as it is inscribed in the heritage of many cultures­Christian, Chinese, Greek­we find an implicit call for imagination as expressed in the requirement that we "do unto others as we would have them do unto us." This presupposes a kind of commonness between ourselves and others that cannot be found in actual existence and empirical experience­we are all different. Without imagination a person would be unable to put herself in the position of others or to put others in her own position. One has to be imaginative to be righteous. One has to imagine what other people may need, dream of, and aspire to in order to respond adequately to their needs. Percy Bysshe Shelly has expressed succinctly this link between morality and imagination in his "A Defence of Poetry": "A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own."1

But there is much more to this imaginative aspect of ethics than just identifying oneself with others. Two modifications may be added to the golden rule to embrace those aspects of ethics that are not reducible to a commonness between myself and others, between the subjects and objects of ethical actions.

The first addition would refer to the uniqueness of the ethical subject as distinct from the ethical object. "Do unto others as we would have them do unto us . . . but as nobody else may do unto them except for us." The uniqueness of the ethical subject would be crucial in cases when among the many needs of others are those to which the given subject is uniquely or exclusively qualified to respond. The action that will be ethically preferable is that which no one can accomplish except for me and that which no one can do better than me. Since I am different from the other, the ethical relationship between us should be based on our mutual irreducibility. The basic rule of differential ethics thus can be formulated in this way: Do what no other person in the same situation could do in your place. Act in such a way that your most individual abilities meet the most individual needs of the other.

This is also true for our expectations from other people. Not only what we do to others, but what we expect them to do for us, is an ethically marked position. A totalitarian politics that forced a violinist to take an ax and cut wood to provide heat during an energy shortage was ethically reprehensible though it claimed to be truly humanistic as expressing equal concern about the needs of all people. From the standpoint of the ethics of difference, the musician should not only be allowed but encouraged to respond to those specific needs of people that he is in a unique position to answer. Reduction of individual abilities to the more general needs is what underlies the crude, politically dominated ethics of "mass societies."

Thus an ethical subject has to imagine not only what makes other people similar to him but what makes them different, which is a more complex task for the imagination. It is easier to imagine that other people need heat and food in the same way as you do than to project the specific intentions and expectations, which might completely escape the range of your interests. This second level of ethical concern involves imagining the other as the other, in his or her irreducibility to any common model of humanness.

Finally, the third level of ethics involves not others as myself and not others as others but myself as other. This capacity to be a stranger to oneself, to go beyond one's inborn or socially constructed identity is not just a creative possibility but also an ethical responsibility. Without being different from oneself one can never find points of commonality or dialogical interaction with people of different cultures and ways of life. As Jacques Derrida rightly observes, "it is because I am not one with myself that I can speak with the other and address the other."2

Judeo-Christian ethics is focused on the notion of "neighbor," the nearest and closest one; but what about love of, or at least responsiveness to, the distant ones? Nietzsche attempted to introduce this imperative­"love to a distant one"­into ethics but his anti-Christian stance caused him to ignore love for those nearest and actually grew into contempt toward his own "neighbors"­contemporaries, compatriots, colleagues, cohumans, and others in proximity. It is interesting that although Soviet ethical doctrines never explicitly acknowledged Nietzsche's influence, they were based on a similar principle: The distant ones were privileged over neighbors in the value hierarchy of a typical Soviet citizen. He had to love his comrades, his class brothers, and the exploited toiling masses all over the world but was required to denounce his family members on the basis of their disloyalty to the state. Soviet ethics was devoid of imagination and did not recognize the right of model citizens to multiple identities or alterations of identity.

In fact, love for distant ones or at least the ability to interact with them depends on the capacity of a given subject to be different from itself, to embrace an unlimited range of virtual or potential identities. In distinction from the ethics of commonality, as prescribed in the golden rule, and in distinction from the differential ethics of uniqueness, the third level can be posited as an interferential ethics of multiplied identities and transformational possibilities that is certainly most appealing to the capacities of imagination.

Ethics in the Subjunctive

Though ethics is usually presented as a set of rules and norms of behavior, this does not imply that the contents of ethics should be as normative and prescriptive as its forms are. Ethical prescriptions include the freedom from prescriptions. This paradoxical element of ethics cannot be fully eliminated. When Christ said, "Know the truth, and the truth will set you free," He expressed in prescriptive form the freedom from all prescriptions.

If we look at the most elementary forms of ethics, such as politeness and courtesy, we find that even these most routine models of morality are based on the presumption of human freedom. If you need somebody to give you a glass of water, the polite way to express this need will be not an imperative or a command but a suggestion, "Would you please be so kind as to bring me a glass of water?" "Would it be possible for you to do this or that?" The politeness is implied in the modality "would," which transforms the action from the actual or imperative modality to a subjunctive mode. My need has to be transformed into somebody else's possibility or opportunity in order to be presented ethically (politely). The imperative "Do this" is applied only between parents and children or officers and soldiers, thus marking the relation of power or authority. But insofar as ethics challenges this power relation, it has to transform any command into a suggestion, every imperative into a subjunctive.

If this is true on the level of elementary politeness, how much more important it must be on the level of the higher moral initiatives that are addressed to others. Even in the most fundamental and global issues of war and peace, power and freedom, authority and equality, discipline and responsibility, ethics should appeal to possibilities rather than impose necessity and constraints. Often the same person who uses the subjunctive "Would you" when asking for a glass of water would use a categorical imperative, demanding that humanity obey his grand ethical schemes and prescriptions. Almost all our discourses and the procedures of teaching and writing are imbued with the imperative mode: Do as I do, do as I say, do as I write. Every interpretation avers its conclusive truthfulness instead of suggesting itself as just a possibility, a discourse in a subjunctive mode. All disciplines of scholarship and interpretation would benefit by incorporating these zones of politeness, potentiality, and imagination, which are not only an "excess" of aesthetic subjectivity but are first of all modes of ethical responsiveness that multiply the levels of freedom in our readers, students, interlocutors, instead of forcing their minds into our own persuasions.

Ethics is the domain of requests rather than commands, the domain of imagination rather than obligation. The commandments pronounced by God cannot help but be obligatory if we identify ourselves with the people of God and recognize the hierarchy that connects heavenly Father and earthly children. However, if ethics should be understood as a specific domain regulating the relationship between brothers and sisters and distinct from the religious domain regulating the relationship between Father and children, we should formulate the principles of this ethics in a noncommanding mode, as a system of requests and proposals appealing to the freedom of the other person, to his "maybe or maybe not." Certainly, this ethics "in the subjunctive mood" is much more favorable to the work of the transcultural imagination than an ethics that prescribes us to obey already established laws.

Thus, in addition to the golden rule of commonness, we need a differential and interferential ethics based on imagining others as different from ourselves and imagining ourselves as possibilities for others.


1. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (Fort Worth, Philadelphia: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992): 519-520. From a different perspective, the connection between ethics and imagination was recently discussed in Mark Johnson's book Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). The author of the influential books Metaphors We Live By and The Body in the Mind, Johnson extends his views on the cognitive role of metaphors and develops an alternative conception of moral reflection­one that is imaginative and constructive rather than rational and based on universal laws.

2. Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation (Roundtable on 2 October 1994 at Villanova University) ed. with commentary by John D. Caputo ( New York: Fordham University, 1997): 14.