Liberty in Focus

Understanding and applying the outlook of personal rights and freedom.

Imagination in the Service of Abuse.

with 7 comments

By Spencer Morgan

Imagination is one of our most wonderful abilities. It allows us to make objective determinations and to prepare for scenarios which we have not yet encountered. It is, however, a very dangerous basis for actions… especially actions which will impact another individual in a harmful way. Children are born with this wonderful gift and tend to use it harmlessly. They are usually aware of its lack of relationship to reality.

Many adults, however, use whatever remaining capacity they have for imagination in the ways public schools have trained them. They use it to engage in a very twisted and potentially destructive form of fantasy.  These fantasies obscure the obvious moral reality of a given situation and justify an act or situation based on the conditions of the imaginary construction, instead of the more immediate and apparent reality. It is upon the widespread participation in this very psychologically dubious exercise that a whole host of institutional, everyday abuses of real people depend.

Perceived Differences and Ethnic Abuse.

Racial and ethnic abuses are frequently attributed primarily to the human tendency for fear of the different or unknown. It is often said that it is the apparent difference of the victim that forms the justification in the minds of the aggressor or the passive enablers. While fear of the unknown is very real, and perceived differences may make the exercise more palatable to certain people who have a legitimate desire to harm others for that reason, this mentality is only realistically attributable to a very small segment of those who are tolerating the act of abuse.

By assigning the blame for these abuses to the human tendency for hostility to the different, we have laid a philosophical groundwork for a fundamentally irrational solution to racism which has millions of people living in guilt and fear of the very acknowledgment of a cosmetic or ethnic difference. This only alienates individuals from one another because while one them is pretending to ignore a racial or ethnic difference, the person with whom they are interacting may be very proud of those distinctions and perceives the exercise of ignoring them as an insult.

Collective Abstractions: The Real Problem

This approach, along with perpetuating ethnic and racial divisions, largely misses the mark. It also does not explain the historical occurrences of widespread social and political abuse based on ethnic or social distinctions which are not visibly apparent. When we evaluate the mentality of someone who commits an act of aggressive violence against another individual, we just look carefully at the mindset that enabled the harm to be committed. Was the aggressor simply a sociopath who enjoys hurting people for the sake of doing so? It is certainly possible, but rare statistically and so this can not account for the widespread tolerance and even participation in such act that have occurred historically.

When we examine most of these historical occurrences of ethnic abuse, we can easily identify the specific mental exercise which really enabled the act of violence against the individual to be supported on any sort of widespread scale. It is the same psychological exercise that enables acts of violence in other, otherwise obvious, instances of immoral harm. It is the act of imagining that the harm is being done to a unit of a larger collective group, to which certain dangerous or “evil” attributes are assigned which enables the abuse. Whether these attributes are visibly apparent makes no difference, as long as people are willing to use their imagination to assign that attribute to a victim. This exercise serves to dehumanize the victim and obscure the obvious moral implications that we could not escape if we viewed the victim as another individual with inherent value. It is the abstract group or the individual’s associated status that is being acted against in the mind of those who justify it, not the individual.

Authority as a Basis for the Morality of an Act.

In addition to the exercise of viewing the individual victim as merely a manifestation of their identified group, another dangerous use of imagination is the assignment of inherent virtue by authority to obscure the otherwise obvious immorality of an act. If you saw one person force another person’s car off of the road, get out with a weapon brandished, kidnap that person and take their property at the point of a gun then this would obviously be a harmful crime under most systems of morality. Put a uniform on the aggressor and some fancy colored lights on the vehicle he is driving and it becomes an act that is not only morally permissible but likely to be applauded by most people. My purpose here is not to assess the actions of police in general or any specific case of alleged abuse, but for the reader to honestly ask;

“How is the fundamental morality of the act changed by the intangible designation of authority I attribute to the perpetrator?”

“Is this distinction really significant enough to result in the opposite of what would otherwise be a very obvious determination of this action as being violent and immoral?”

As Stanley Milgram observed in his well-known experiment, individuals are all-too willing to allow and even engage in acts they perceive to be causing pain and harm to another individual when the act is given a cloak of abstract authority. This video below describes in detail his psychological experiment and the results;

“Go chop down a forest”

The most sickening part is of this exercise is that it involves acting on the basis of a perception which is an impossibility.  We perceive that we, or those acting with our tacit or explicit approval, are acting not against the individual human that their actions inevitably are taken against, but against the group with which we identify him. Likewise, we perceive the aggressor not as an individual but as the incarnate embodiment of the virtues and priorities we have assigned to their position of authority.  Just as one can not chop down a forest but can only chop down trees, one can only take action against individuals and only individuals are capable of action. 

These social abstractions and fictional constructs have their legitimate descriptive and explanatory purposes, but as a basis for individual action and determinations of the morality of an act against an individual they can and have lead to the worst abuses in history.  They can not can alter the fundamental morality of the act in question… just as the forest does not really exist.


Written by Spencer Morgan

September 8, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Posted in Philosophy

7 Responses

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