Thursday, December 29, 2016

Moral Imagination

What is moral imagination, and what role does (or should) it play in moral reasoning? What is its importance in moral decision-making?
      Moral imagination may be described as an ability to devise new or alternative approaches to moral problem-solving, and thus an ability to formulate new interpretations of the meaning of moral actions and situations.
      It may also be described as an ability to conceive of new or alternative moral principles and values, and thus an ability to engage with, and have a fuller understanding of, one’s own moral capacities and those of a given individual, group, or society.
      It may also be described as an ability to develop new or alternative interpretations of the moral motivations of others, and thus an ability to recognize the range of possibilities available for moral behavior.
      For some individuals, moral imagination may take the form of imagining a kind of morality different from conventional morality. It may take the form of an imagining that what is conventionally taken as right is actually wrong, or that what is conventionally taken as wrong is actually right, or that there actually is no right or wrong.
      For those who do not know right from wrong (such as some young children, perhaps, or some cognitively disabled individuals, or some psychiatrically impaired individuals), moral imagination may be an imagining that something is right or wrong because of the responses that it seems to evoke from others. The emotionally immature or cognitively disabled individual may in some cases only discover that something is right or wrong by becoming acquainted with the moral and social responses of others to it.
      Trying to improve our moral conduct, and striving toward a moral ideal, may also to some extent involve our imagining the kinds of people we could be if we were to be live up to all our responsibilities and fulfill all our moral ideals. In order to become better citizens, we may sometimes have to imagine how we could become better fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, teachers, students, co-workers, colleagues, teammates, friends, or neighbors.
      To imagine something may be to conceive of that thing without ever having actually seen or experienced it. It may also be to perceive something as present or possible without its ever having actually been present for, or accessible to, sensory perception.
      To imagine something may also be to conceive of an object, person, situation, or condition that does not yet, but could, exist. It may be to evoke, summon, or call forth unrealized possibilities.
      If something engages or captivates our imaginations, we may find it to be particularly intriguing or compelling. We may discover that it presents to us a range of possibilities that we were previously unaware of or were only partially aware of. We may then be drawn to further explore its nature, meaning, significance, and implications.
      Moral imagination may be a power or faculty of producing from current or past perceptions new ideas or concepts that have moral applications, implications, or dimensions. It may involve creative and intuitive, as well as analytic and critical thinking. It may be combined with other moral faculties, such as moral perception, intuition, insight, reasoning, and understanding, in order to produce a more secure and reliable foundation for moral judgment.
      Moral imagination may also enable us to recognize that there may be more than one way of looking at and responding to moral problems.
      The ability to be imaginative may depend on an openness to new thoughts, new impressions, and new ways of looking at things
      Moral imagination may therefore enable us to find creative solutions to moral dilemmas. It may enable us to envision and formulate ideal modes of conduct.
      Supererogatory conduct (actions that go beyond what is morally obligatory) may depend on the power of the imagination to inspire us to perform actions that go beyond the call of duty.
      Imagination may also play an important role in such moral attitudes as sympathy, empathy, and compassion. The ability to feel and express sympathy, empathy, or compassion for others may to some extent depend on the ability to imagine what they are feeling, and thus to imagine the pain, suffering, distress, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, sadness, or despair they may be experiencing.
      A constricted moral imagination may constrict the ability to feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion for others. Failure to respond to the suffering and distress of those who are seen as outsiders or strangers may thus in some cases be due to a constriction, deficiency, or failure of imagination.
      Imagination may also enable us to evaluate our own actions in light of what we think others may think about them. It may help us to recognize that our conduct can always be improved.
      Moral imagination may enable us to exercise capacities for moral decision-making that we did not previously know we possessed or were only dimly aware of. It may enable us to anticipate the possible unintended consequences of our actions, and to judge whether those consequences are desirable or undesirable. In cases in which we are compelled to ask ourselves whether we may have failed to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated, it may enable us to recognize how we would feel if we were treated by others in the same way that we have treated them.
       Moral imagination may also play a role in, or be incorporated into, other forms of imagination, such as religious, aesthetic, literary, poetic, or dramatic imagination. It may inspire the creation of moral comedy or tragedy. It may provide a foundation for moral aesthetics or poetics, including the poetics of moral possibility.
      As a creative enterprise, moral imagination may also be opposed to mimesis, rote repetition, or mechanical mimicry of conventionally accepted behavior. It may be opposed to rigid and inflexible adherence to moral norms and principles of duty. Thus, it may make possible the perception of a kind of moral truth that transcends conventionally accepted truth, and it may inspire new approaches to, and creative strategies for, moral problem-solving.
      Moral imagination may therefore depend less on the seeing of things as they are (though it certainly does depend on this kind of seeing) than on the seeing of things as they might be. The seeing of things as they might be, or as they could possibly be, is also the awareness of possibility, which may be the essence or most fundamental feature of imagination.
      Moral imagination may be something that makes possible Raskolnikov’s overwhelming sense of guilt in Crime and Punishment, Ahab’s maniacal quest for revenge in Moby Dick, Kurz’s ultimate sense of horror in Heart of Darkness, and Joseph K’s inescapable sense of anxiety and desperation in The Trial.
      It may also be something that makes possible Jane’s faithfulness to her sense of duty in Jane Eyre, Strether’s moral scrupulousness and faithfulness to personal conscience in The Ambassadors, Jay Gatsby’s romantic idealism and sense of hope in The Great Gatsby, Emma’s carelessness and capriciousness in Madame Bovary, Hedda’s recklessness and self-indulgence in Hedda Gabler, Blanche’s disdain for Stanley’s crudeness in A Streetcar Named Desire, Levee’s sense of futility and rage in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Dimmesdale’s agonizing sense of guilt in The Scarlet Letter, and Aschenbach’s hopeless infatuation with Tadzio in Death in Venice.
      Matthew Kieran, in an article entitled “Art, Imagination, and the Cultivation of Morals” (1996), explains that morally significant art may promote imaginative understandings of moral problems, concerns, or situations. Art "may extend or deepen our understanding of the values and commitments that underlie our actions and desires,” and it "may also shape our understanding of what we value by showing us how to act…in morally fruitful or harmful ways.”1
      John Dewey (1922) explains that “deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action….Each habit, each impulse involved in the temporary suspense of overt action takes its turn in being tried out. Deliberation…. is an experiment in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, [in order] to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon.”2
      Steven Fesmire (2003) extends Dewey’s conception of the role of imagination in moral deliberation by proposing three interrelated theses: (1) moral character, belief, and reasoning are inherently social, embodied, and historically situated, (2) moral deliberation is fundamentally imaginative and takes the form of dramatic rehearsal, and (3) moral imagination may be conceived as a process of aesthetic perception and artistic creation.Fesmire therefore argues that imagination may provide deliberative resources for moral decision-making that are not provided by rigid adherence to abstract principles of morality.
      Mark Johnson (1993) explains that "moral reasoning is...basically an imaginative activity, because it...requires imagination to discern what is morally relevant in situations, to understand empathetically how others experience things, and to envision the full range of possibilities open to us in a particular case."4 He also says that moral situations may be metaphorically conceptualized in order to more clearly understand them, and that "the metaphorical character of moral understanding is precisely what makes it possible to make appropriate moral judgments."5
      Moral imagination may inspire the construction of moral narratives, and it may promote understanding of the ways in which such narratives can be framed or contextualized. Moral narratives may be those that have a moral content, subject matter, theme, purpose, or meaning. The understanding of moral situations may to some extent depend on the understanding of narrative accounts and explanations that have been provided with respect to those situations. Moral understanding may therefore be to some extent a kind of narrative understanding.
      However, moral understanding may be not only analytic, conceptual, thematic, and textual, but also synthetic, imaginative, empathetic, and experiential.
      Moral imagination may include the capacity to perceive previously unrecognized or poorly understood moral dimensions of our actions. It may also include, as a result of the capacity to think creatively about moral possibility and responsibility, the capacity to perceive those moral dimensions of our actions that are not immediately or prima facie evident. It may therefore enable us to develop a fuller understanding of the morally good, and a clearer understanding of the true nature of morality (whatever that may be).


1Matthew Kieran, “Art, Imagination, and the Cultivation of Morals,” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 54, No. 4 (1996), p. 345.
2John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), p. 190.
3Steven Fesmire, John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), p. 4.
4Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. ix-x.
5Ibid., p. 10.

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