‘there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’

Some thoughts about consciousness, imagination and ethical value – a brief philosophical excursus (with apologies for pontificating and a vaguely relevant picture to dilute the verbiage)


Our ethical universe is defined by the scope of our imagination. That is, the moral significance of another being for me corresponds to my ability to imagine the world they experience. In a world of so many people, we are inclined and encouraged to focus our concern on those nearest to us, whose lives resemble ours. One death near at hand counts for hundreds on the far side of the world. And people nearer to home may be excluded from our attention by the differences between us and them, differences which we perceive as barriers, the walls of a black box we need not look into.

Consider a person whose physical or cognitive faculties are very constrained, whose life one would think from the outside is terribly limited. Such a person might well be neglected by society and by individuals in society, as living a life of little value to themselves or anyone else. How many ‘utils’ can such a life hold, even in the best of all possible worlds? What is the point, says the devil’s advocate, of wasting resources on such as them? (Think of the people not so long ago, put away in institutions, left there to endure miserable lives, out of sight, out of mind.)

But as soon as one seriously considers what it would be like to be that person, to be in that box, such dismissive neglect is hard* to maintain. Because for them, their life, their world, is (as for all of us) a universe. So if that life is deprived, miserable, painful, a universe is those things.

From the inside, we all live in/constitute an entirety – the world as experienced by us. While, from an objective point of view, we are each only insignificant fragments of a vast physical manifold, from a subjective point of view, our (my) consciousness contains everything. And before/after this life, nothing exists.


Sculpture: Personal Space (with visitors) – plaster, bronze, wood


Is this a solipsistic image? Perhaps – except that we are capable of a less egoistic stance, which asks us to exercise our (moral) imagination; we can attempt to empathise, at least to think about the content of those other black boxes. That is to recognise that every conscious being contains/constitutes a personal universe. This recognition is what calls up the claims of respect, à la Kant. As soon as I consider the life-world of the other in imaginative empathy, the weight of their needs for whatever would make their universe tolerable is felt. This acts as a counterweight to the caricatured utilitarian idea that individual values/utils can be added and subtracted, balanced against each other, and perhaps that some lives might not be worth living.

This may be an impractical thought. It does not much help us make policy decisions, which must somehow deal with costs and benefits and the distribution of scarce resources. How can choices between equally and absolutely valued lives be made? But perhaps it does just act as a reminder that no life, no person, ought to be seen as ultimately negligible. General policies tend to treat people as statistical abstractions, as beans to be counted. This makes the decisions easier. Such decisions should not be easy, though; they should not be taken lightly. They need to be anchored by an acknowledgement of the weight of particular lives.** Again we look to Kant: every conscious self deserves, demands, respect, as an end and not simply as a means.


*I had written ‘impossible’ but that would perhaps underestimate our capacity for hard-heartedness.

**It often seems that the people with power are, perhaps because of that fact, less likely or able to engage in imaginative empathy with respect to those they have power over, because their lives are so different or because it would make hard decisions even harder. Hence the recurring suggestions that members of government should experience the effects of their policies themselves by, for example, attempting to live on benefits.


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts


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