Cultivating Moral Imagination

You don't have to be morally imagnative to figure out what the Mayans did at the top of this pyramid if you've seen the movie Apocalypto.So…I’ve been away.  The winter term is my one non-teaching term so I write, travel and generally spend time doing all those other things that profs need to do outside the classroom.   

Right now I’m engaged in writing a paper for an academic conference.  That paper is about engaging students so that they can learn about themselves and thus be better able to understand ethics and morality and ultimately be good PR practitioners and good citizens. 

I’m writing a paper that takes the view that moral imagination is at least as important (and perhaps more important) than all of those decision-making skills that ethics professors harp on – usually while intoning about a case study.  Did they know that case studies are considered to be problematic?  Did they know that there is little justification for using them incessantly?  Did they know that there is a very real danger of case studies being nothing more than an opportunity for them to moralize to their students?  Okay, my case study rant is over.

Moral imagination:  sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  What it really means is that if you have a well developed moral imagination you are able to see the multiple possibilities of situations – you consider all facets of it and you are able to see the breadth and depth of the potential outcomes.  Cultivating your moral imagination is largely a creative process that involves engaging with ‘things’ outside yourself. 

For example, you might watch the movie Wag the Dog and be encouraged to discuss the moral implications of it with your friends and colleagues.  You might watch reruns of Seinfeld and think about the fine line between issues of ethics and issues of etiquette.  You might keep a blog and invite comments from your peers and others to assist you in looking at a variety of points of view.  Or what about travel?  I visited the archaeological site at Chchen Itza in the Yucatan region of Mexico in February.  Can you figure out the kind of behavior that was demonstrated at the top of this pyramid by the Mayans?  If not, rent the movie Apocalypto.  Hope you have a strong stomach — but I guarantee that you’ll have to think about morality and its place in time and culture. 

Being able to make defensible ethical decision is at the heart of ethical behavior, I always tell my students.  However, it’s hard to make ‘good’ decisions if you haven’t thought about all the possibilities and been sensitive to the potential outcomes.  Chat with someone.



  1. Pattie,

    I’m not nearly the deep thinker you are, but what I will say is that the whole notion of a moral imagination, as you describe it, reminds me of the work many organizations have undertaken to promote greater diversity and inclusion in their cultures.

    Diversity and inclusion isn’t just about what you can see (race, gender, etc.), but also differences in style, thinking, perspectives, experiences, etc.

    A mature moral imagination would be able to account for diverse streams of thought and use that insight to assess outcomes.

    I suppose at the end of the day it’s all about the capability of seeing issues through others’ eyes.

    And can we truly do this? We can try, but it’s tough… and hence your good counsel — engage in dialogue with others… listen… learn… allow your moral compass to adjust… and then act.

    1. The abilty to be sensitive to others’ perspectives is a very important component of moral imagination as others have envisioned it. In fact, morality itself encompasses more than what we typically think of as ‘ethics.’ Fundamentally, in terms of behavior, it all boils down to respect. If we consider what’s going on today in the world of economies, it’s clear that there wasn’t a lot of respect (which requires you to consider people outside of yourself) going around. Thanks for the comment.

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