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The Development of Moral Imagination

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Creativity has been defined as the ability to generate ideas that are original and unexpected, but are considered useful or important (Sternberg, 1999). Moral imagination involves not only the ability to generate useful ideas, but also the abilities to form ideas about what is good and right, and to put the best ideas into action for the service of others. This involves sensitivity to the people and lifescapes at hand. The everyday world is populated with opportunities to steer consciously through the shoals of social relationships and decide what sort of agent to be. Research into mental preoccupations indicates that individuals ponder moral and relational issues much of the time (Klinger, 1978). Thus, on a daily basis, people employ one of humanity’s greatest gifts: moral imagination. But what fosters the development of moral imagination and determines to what extent it is used to benefit humanity? How does the morally imaginative individual utilize emotional and social experiences, reasoning, and selection to produce imaginative moral action? These are the questions that this chapter addresses.
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The Development of Moral Imagination
Darcia Narvaez, University of Notre Dame
Kellen Mrkva, University of ColoradoBoulder
Narvaez, D. & Mrkva, K. (2014). Creative moral imagination. In S. Moran, D. H. Cropley & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), The
Ethics of Creativity (pp. 25-45). New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in
the place of many others...the great instrument of moral good is the imagination” (Byron Percy
Shelley, 1821, p. 13).
The everyday world is populated with opportunities to consciously steer through the
shoals of social relationships and decide what sort of agent to be. In fact, research into mental
preoccupations indicates that individuals ponder moral and relational issues much of the time
(Klinger, 1978). Thus, on a daily basis people employ one of humanity’s greatest giftsmoral
imagination. But what fosters the development of moral imagination and determines to what
extent it is used to benefit humanity? How does the morally imaginative individual utilize
emotional and social experiences, reasoning, and selection to produce imaginative moral action?
We address these questions.
The interest in psychological research on morality is growing rapidly (Haidt, 2007) and
spreading to a large number of fields. Yet it is rare to encounter a moral psychology study which
examines creativity or theorists who give much room for creativity in their accounts of moral
functioning. Though there is at least some empirical research which will shed light on these
topics, John Dewey’s philosophical accounts may provide the greatest insights.
Dewey’s conceptions of moral imagination perhaps best advanced understanding of the
relationship between creativity and morality (Fesmire, 2003). He conceived imagination as a
dramatic rehearsal in which people creatively explore and rehearse alternative courses of actions
such that likely outcomes and impacts on others will guide moral decisions. This involves co-
authoring the future with others through dialogue and feedback on imagined alternatives but also
developing keen perception and flexible response to each situation.
We will discuss moral imagination in similar terms to Dewey, but must first explain its
relationship with creativity. Creativity has been defined as the ability to generate ideas which are
original and unexpected, as well as useful or important (Sternberg, 1999)
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. Moral imagination
involves not only the ability to generate useful ideas, but also abilities to form ideas about what
is good and right, and to put the best ideas into action for the service of others. The use of moral
imagination involves exploring alternative actions and possibilities while being sensitive to the
people, situation, and lifescapes at hand (Fesmire, 2003).
Place of moral imagination:
The prevailing view on the interaction between creativity, deliberation, and morality is captured
by deontological philosophy. This perspective emphasizes moral deliberation as conscious
reasoning, which is assumed to exist apart from emotion (Kant, 1949). Emotions are considered
to be inconsistent, unreliable and irrational, and thus, to be avoided. A deontological approach
has little room for moral imagination. In fact, imagination was considered to be in the realm of
aesthetics, and outside of morality (Johnson, 1993). Indeed, situations typically discussed are
those with clear rules. Kohlberg’s measures pitted values against one another and scored
responses within certain established boundaries. The role of creative and practical thinking and
the influence of emotions and situational considerations were downplayed if not considered
completely irrelevant to the goal of measuring moral reasoning capacities (Fesmire, 2003).
However, explicit reasoning is insufficient for the moral life. From a neurobiological
perspective, the emphasis on conscious reasoning and a selection of principles is dominated by
the intellect (‘left-brain,’ McGilchrist, 2009). The intellect typically comprises the conscious
1
aspects of the mind which tend to minimize the vast tacit knowledge of and behavioral control by
the rest of the brain. When a person relies on intellect alone, it signals that the intuitive mind and
emotional intelligence are underutilized or underdeveloped (Narvaez, forthcoming).
In contrast to a heavy emphasis on application of reason to moral decisions and
judgments, other philosophers emphasize emotion as the source of moral judgment. Moral
judgments spring forth without effort or worry. Reason is used only to defend intuitive response
(Haidt, 2001; Hume, 1739/1969). Building on Hume’s view, Haidt (2001) proposed a social
intuitionist theory that emphasizes instantaneous moral judgment (defined as evaluations of other
people’s actions and characters).As with deontological studies, the prototypical situations and
methods deployed by Haidt and others do not enlist creativity. The unusual and emotionally
strident situations create a quick positive or negative response which bias the conclusions made
about reason, creativity, and morality (Monin, Pizarro, & Beer, 2007). A third perspective
directly addresses creativity in moral situations. Building on social intuitionism’s view that
reasoning is used for post-hoc rationalization, Ariely and colleagues conclude that creativity may
actually increase unethical behavior (Gino & Ariely, 2012). This is because creativity makes
individuals better at inventing justifications for cheating and more skilled at defending personal
moral goodness after moral violations. In one study, priming individuals with creative words led
to more cheating, suggesting to the authors a causal link between creativity and cheating. Despite
these concerns, we believe, like John Dewey, Mark Johnson and others, that moral imagination
contributes positively to moral functioning in most circumstances.2 Moral imagination relies on
different types of intelligencecognitive, social, and emotional. The latter may be key for the
others.
Emotion and Moral Development
When emotion systems are misdeveloped, morality can go awry. Early life shapes the
emotional and cognitive capabilities that underlie morality and imagination (Greenspan &
Shanker, 2004). Children are born with only one quarter of the brain developed, caregivers co-
construct 75% of the brain (for full-term infants) in the first years after birth (Trevathan, 2011).
As a dynamic system, early life experience on multiple levels sets the stage for the rest of life.
Caregivers shape the thresholds for numerous brain/body circuitries, and much of this entails
neuroendocrine and emotion systems (Meaney, 2010; Schore, 2003a, 2003b). Too much stress at
the wrong times in the first years of life can foster a stress-reactive brain, setting up a self-
protective personality (Narvaez, 2008, forthcoming). For example, when infants don’t receive
physical comforting in timely ways, the vagus nerve can be mistuned, leading to long term
difficulties with social relations, as well as numerous health problems (Porges, 2011; Narvaez, in
press). When an infant is distressed too much during gestation or postnatal life, the
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) can be tuned to being hyper (or hypo) active (Lupien
et al, 2009). This affects imagination and creativity. Children who suffer from posttraumatic
stress disorder have difficulty with daydreaming and symbolic play which consolidates meaning,
affect and representation (Reid, 1999; Slade, 1994; 1987). Whenever the stress response is active
it draws energy away from higher order thinking capacities, influencing how and how well a
person imagines and relates to others (Sapolsky, 2004). But if stress and trauma occur early in
life, systems never reach optimal trajectories (Shonkoff et al., 2012). Well-rehearsed stress states
become traits. In this way neurobiological systems influence morality, setting up propensities to
use different social and moral mindsets. What the brain’s capacities look like has much to do
with early life experience when brain system connections are being established.
Many philosophical traditions and psychological theories underestimated the role
emotion plays in moral functioning, although there have been some exceptions (e.g. Hume).
Even among those who emphasize emotion descriptively, emotion has been overwhelmingly
viewed as disruptive normatively and as impairing moral judgment (Ben Ze’ev, 2000).
Philosophers have viewed emotion as passive, undependable, and even primitive and bestial. In
reality, individuals use their emotional experience to think in inclusive and integrative ways (Isen
& Daubman, 1984), build social relationships, and broaden creative possibilities (Fredrickson &
Branigan, 2005).
In recent decades, it has become clear that emotions serve as informatory guides to
adaptive judgments and behavior (Panksepp, 1998; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & McGregor,
2002). They serve as cues to value, the relevance of stimuli, and whether our actions are
successful (Panksepp, 1998). In the moral domain specifically, they reflect our goals and values
and help us respond flexibly and adaptively (Pizarro, 2000). They can be used imaginatively in
attending to the morally-relevant aspects of a situation, selecting moral goals, integrating values,
and being sensitive to other individuals (see “everyday moral imagination” section). They form
the substrate for moral motivation and action (Blasi, 1999). Multi-ethics theory takes this
perspective.
Extending Dewey’s Moral Imagination
Triune ethics theory (TET; Narvaez, 2008) asserts that humans rely on a variety of
neurobiologically-derived moral mindsets derived from evolved global brainstates (MacLean,
1990). Individuals can habitually favor one mindset or fluctuate among several. Before
delineating the theory in detail, we note the tremendous overlap and agreement between Dewey’s
and TET’s conceptions of moral imagination and moral functioning.
Both theories emphasize that moral imagination requires being sensitive to the morally-
relevant aspects of a situation, envisioning different alternatives for action, and thinking about
the ramifications of an action for people involved (Narvaez & Vaydich, 2008; Somerville, 2006;
Fesmire, 2003). These capacities rely on finely tuned perception, which is highly affected by
where one habitually places attention (Murdoch, 1989). If one’s attention is captivated by
perceived threat cues, then moral perception will be narrowed to what is self-protective. Second,
both Dewey and TET emphasize the social nature of moral imagination, and the need for
flexible, open thinking. Studies examining TET have found strong correlations between moral
imagination and both openness to experience and agreeableness. They also posit that flexible
thinking and the ability to adapt in ongoing social relationships characterize imaginative
behavior. Dewey asserts that individuals with flexibility and the ability to deal with ambiguity in
imaginative ways are better able to perceive moral situations and act effectively. Dewey views
moral behavior as co-authored with others and as occurring in uncertain or ambiguous situations.
Third, both TET and Dewey emphasize that the moral imagination involves self-regulation or an
ability to put beliefs and goals into action. Dewey idealizes the person who is able to regulate
behavior based on the imagined effects and inspect beliefs for their value in action. Triune ethics
goes so far as to posit neurobiological roots of the moral imagination in which individuals
engage the prefrontal cortex to self-regulate, prevent harmful behaviors through “free won’t”,
and engage in reflective abstraction. Fourth, both TET and Dewey emphasize the importance of
harmony in dealing with multiple values such as autonomy and community. TET asserts the
importance of coordinating emotion and reason, the conscious mind with the adaptive
unconscious, and goals with mood and energy. Combining the insights of both Dewey’s moral
imagination and TET allows one to better understand the processes which moral exemplars
engage in when facing a moral situation. Individuals can take advantage of the power and
intelligence of the moral emotions while using regulation and metacognition to ensure they guide
behavior towards fulfillment of moral goals and virtues.
Multiple Ethics
Triune Ethics Theory extends the keen insights of Dewey while delineating the
developmental and neurobiological substrates of moral imagination. It develops a view of
various moral mindsets that people rely on which are formed during reciprocal interactions with
caregivers in early life and during other sensitive periods in life. The list of types is in Table 1.
There are certain emergent rules about getting along with others that develop in
supportive environments and foster right-brain development (Schore, 1994; 2003a, 2003b).
Optimal early life offers the experience of reciprocal interaction through intersubjectivity and
mutual influence. Intersubjective responsivityattending to and responding to social signaling
in a collaborative manneris a creative response. Babies are ready for playful, creative proto-
narrative co-construction with caregivers at birth (Trevarthen, 2005). Baby and caregiver create
their own stories through reciprocal, sensitive communication. This type of “companionship
care” fosters all three types of attachment (Narvaez, forthcoming). Protective attachment is like
imprinting, a desire for physical proximity, and is evident even in abused children. Warmth
attachment is emotional connection to the caregiver, which facilitates capacities for
compassionate relationships. Companionship attachment offers an intellectual friendship, a
cognitive sharing that fosters creative imagination.
Nurturing caregiving in early life fosters optimal right brain development, including the
prefrontal cortex which is critical for moral imagination (Schore, 2003a, 2003b). Imaginative
capacities in adults involve tacit knowledge, a trust in process, an indwelling in the other,
whether object or person. Living through the mind of the Other involves an extended self
(Polanyi, 1958). Moral imagination capacities emerge from social creativity, based on these
intensive social experiences in early life (although there are other sensitive periods in life when
the brain can be reshaped to some degree). Those who have responsive caregivers, whose needs
are met without distress, are more likely to develop secure attachment and the neurobiological
underpinnings of a socially adaptive personality and moral intelligence (Eisenberg, 2000;
Narvaez & Gleason, 2013). This is represented by capacities for an engagement ethic, relational
attunement with compassionate capabilities (Narvaez, 2008, 2012, in preparation). When
deliberative capacities are added to this base of relational attunement capacities, communal
imagination can flourish. Communal imagination uses capacities for abstraction from the present
moment, addressing moral concerns beyond the immediate but grounded in a relational web,
based in well-honed social skills. This kind of broad sense of community was displayed by our
hunter-gatherer cousins who were concerned with the welfare of all life forms, even into future
generations (see Narvaez, 2013).
**PLACE TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE**
One of the defining characteristics of the moral imagination in triune ethics theory is its
ability to abstract and move beyond the present situation. This allows one to act on behalf of
those not present, or on behalf of abstract ideas like justice (Narvaez, 2010). The capacity to act
on behalf of these abstract ideas requires a coordination of reasoning with motivational and
emotional processes. For communal imagination, empathy is a powerful source of moral
behavior. When empathy-arousing stimuli are not present, the powers of imagination can still
maintain engagement in moral behavior. It is believed that individuals who demonstrate long-
term commitments to humanitarian or prosocial causes rely on an ethic of imagination by making
moral concerns central to their identity, and selecting or seeking out situations which arouse their
motivation and empathy to take action (Heath & Heath, 2010; Pizarro, 2000). Failure to help
others commonly occurs because empathy is not engaged (Trout, 2009). For individuals who do
not imaginatively regulate and heighten their emotional responses adaptively, “sympathy is
easily aroused but quickly forgotten” (Wilson, 1993).
In contrast, those with poor early care are likely to develop stress-reactive brains, making
social interaction and an engagement ethic difficult. Stress-reactivity leads to a habitual safety
ethicshifting between different inegalitarian social orientations: an aggressive stance (bunker
morality) or a withdrawing stance (wallflower morality). In those with sufficient physiological
but less-than-optimal social experience in early life, the right brain is often underdeveloped,
leading to a dominance of left-brain use (Schore, 1994, 2003a, 2003b; Siegel, 1999). In this case
imagination can be divorced from compassion, resulting in the calculation of utility in detached
imagination (emotional disengagement) or adoption of a non-imaginative ideology reflected in
vicious imagination (inegalitarian relations). See Figure 1.
**PLACE FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE**
Moral imagination can be handicapped by childrearing practices due to the
misdevelopment of brain/body functions that occur when infants’ basic need are not met
(Narvaez, forthcoming). Evolved caregiving practices have been culturally discouraged, perhaps
due to ignorance about their deep influence on development and lifelong capacities. The
developmental niche that evolved for humans in early life includes: frequent on-demand
breastfeeding for 2-5 years; nearly constant touch in the first years of life; responsiveness to the
needs of the child so that the child does not become distressed; free self-directed play; multiple
adult caregivers; positive expectation and support; and natural childbirth (Narvaez, Panksepp,
Schore & Gleason, 2012). ‘Undercare’ (when these components are missing) undermines not
only cognitive and emotional intelligence but also moral creativity, for it is often the social-
emotional systems that are underdeveloped with modern caregiving practices (Schore 1994,
2003a, 2003b; Trevarthen, 2005). Caregiving practices that violate evolved, expected care harm
capacities for moral engagement and communal imagination and encourage the use of detached
and vicious imagination, self-focused uses of imagination (Narvaez, 2012; 2013; forthcoming).
Poor early care interferes with all capacities, from social, emotional to reasoning skills,
encouraging both detached and vicious imagination.
Moral reasoning can be misused in two ways. First, when moral reasoning is calculative
and divorced from relational empathy, imagination is limited as reasoning seeks to apply a rule
to a situation (detached imagination). Calculative moral reasoning is harmful to moral
imagination and action because it detaches from lived emotional experience and disengages
social emotions. Actions originally viewed as immoral or even unthinkable can be justified
among individuals who are detached from their prosocial emotions or are not experiencing
empathy (Bandura, 1999). The road to habitual detached imagination may be lubricated with
poor social intuition or emotional intelligence.
A second form of reasoning misuse occurs when individuals or groups take on a vicious
imagination. Vicious imagination seeks dominance and control of others, overtly or covertly,
demonstrating the superiority of the individual or group (e.g., in terms of lifestyle, ideas, values,
efficiency). It too is detached from empathy but can be fueled also by anger. In this case moral
reasons are used to justify actions or to confirm bias and strengthen preformed conclusions about
inegalitarian relations. In extreme cases, individuals view human lives as secondary to their ends,
and take evil action in a misguided effort to do good (Bandura, 1999). As examples of
pathological altruism, Baumeister & Vohs (2004) cite the Stalinist purges in Russia and the
cultural revolution in China. In these and similar cases the desire to ‘do good’ was responsible
for more deaths than actions considered “necessary evils” or based on revenge.
Everyday Moral Imagination
Early experiences, and reciprocal interactions with caregivers in particular, have
tremendous influence on the moral orientations individuals develop. These moral orientations, in
turn, influence everyday moral functioning. Multiple capacities are needed to respond to
everyday moral situations with flexibility and imagination. The following section will address
how individuals (1) select goals and actions, (2) develop habits, (3) integrate numerous values
into a single decision, and (4) make sense of their actions and their identity in retrospect.
Moral focus. Imagination guides us in the selection of goals and action. Mark Johnson
describes deep moral imagination:
“We need to imagine how various actions open to us might alter our self-identity, modify
our commitments, change our relationships, and affect the lives of others. We need to
explore imaginatively what it might mean, in terms of possibilities for enhanced meaning
and relationships, for us to perform this or that action. We need the ability to imagine and
to enact transformations in our moral understanding, our character, and our behavior. In
short, we need an imaginative rationality that is at once insightful, critical exploratory,
and transformative.” (p. 187).
Imagining how an action might turn out facilitates choices and the eventual taking of action.
Gollwitzer and others have found that goals such as sending letters, dieting, exercising, and even
performance on a helping behavior increase among those who imagine the actions they must take
to achieve their desired outcome (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).
Emotional experiences, imaginative or real, can alter judgments. Many of the abstract
moral principles we come to endorse were formed as a result of an emotional experience that
alters judgment. In some situations, we feel empathy for individuals who we judge negatively
and come to change our higher-order principles as a result of our emotions in what Pizarro
(2000) calls bottom-up correction. For example, Batson et al (1997) found that individuals had
negative attitudes towards stigmatized groups such as the homeless but revised these attitudes
after feeling empathy for the group. Learning about a homeless man’s experiences which led to
his present condition leads to greater sympathy the next time he is seen on the street (see
Betancourt, Hardin, & Manzi, 1992). Imagining and understanding another’s reality can change
how one thinks and may even instigate investigation into understanding the cause more deeply.
An imagining individual uses abstraction capabilities with emotions engaged, becoming open to
changing thinking as a result of the dramatic mental experience. The many pitfalls of making
judgment can be minimized with an integration of emotion and reasoned judgment, resulting in
helpful assistance directed to those who will be benefited most (Loewenstein & Small, 2007).
This occurs among those with greater moral expertise (Narvaez, 2006, 2010; Narvaez & Lapsley,
2005).
Thinking in only abstract, philosophical terms leads to inferior moral decisions. Just as a
person wanting to learn to drive a stick shift would not learn anything by pondering the matter
outside of the car, we cannot learn much about moral action through detached or dispassionate
thought. We must practice manipulating the stick shift and clutch within the process of driving.
Similarly, moral imagination and action takes place in the stream of life. As we cooperate with
others, we learn how to perform positive moral action. In Dewey’s view (1908/2009), it is vital
to think interactively and examine moral behavior in light of its effects on relationships.
Habits. Habits are formed from immersion in environments that provide feedback on
what works to get aims or needs met (Hogarth, 1999). Immersion trains up implicit knowledge
and automatic responses. So it is best to choose environments that shape intuitions and habits one
wishes to have (Narvaez, 2006). During moral action and reflection afterwards, people gain a
wealth of experiential or implicit knowledge to use in similar moral situations in the future
(Narvaez and Lapsley, 2005).
Creative integration. Creative individuals draw on the experiences and successes of
others. Exceptionally moral individuals are able to see the “bright spots” of what is currently
helping individuals, and make connections to how they can use this knowledge to help people in
new and larger ways (Heath & Heath, 2010). For example, members of a non-governmental
organization (NGO) with a very small budget found that families in one community had the
same amount of money as other communities but unlike the others did not suffer from stunted
growth or malnutrition because they took advantage of a few key foods and cooking techniques.
The NGO noticed this “bright spot,” imagined its application elsewhere and worked to educate
other communities about the same techniques. Drawing on prior successes in cooperating with
people with different and conflicting values, imaginative individuals are capable of using a
number of values as they reason about issues (Tetlock, 2005), reconciling multiple
considerations (Wallace, 1988), and taking into account their responsibilities (Frankfurt, 1993).
Both triune ethics theory and Dewey’s theory of moral imagination address the
importance of community and individual autonomy and of finding harmony between competing
values (Fesmire, 2003; Narvaez, 2008). During the highest forms of moral imagination there is a
double aim of valuing community-wide interests and maintaining respect for individual
autonomy (rather than pitting one against the other; Rest et al, 1999). Frimer, Walker, Dunlop,
Lee, and Riches (2011) found that moral exemplars who were especially altruistic and influential
were able to act in accordance with values of agency and communion in the same actions, rather
than favoring one or the other. Individuals who develop moral complexity and imagination are
able to see a greater number of values as relevant to a situation rather than letting one override
the others (see Baron & Spranca, 1997). They reason with complexity and see opportunities to
fulfill multiple values at onceperceiving ways that values can be harmonious rather than in
conflict (Narvaez, 2010; Narvaez & Mrkva, forthcoming).
Reflection. Reflection abilities develop from guided practice within particular domains.
Taking time to consider routine behavior or analyze chosen actions facilitates further
understanding. Through continued reflection the growth process continues well after an action is
completed. As implicit knowledge develops, action can become more automatic. People make
attributions of responsibility and blame, evaluate the quality of decisions (Blum, 1994), and
make sense of self-identity in light of behavior (Wainryb & Pasupathi, 2010), altering
perspectives for the next time a similar situation occurs. Throughout the reflection process,
imagination allows individuals to see opportunities to shape self-identity through action, to act in
accordance with deeply held values, and establish a more developed self as a result. MET posits
the ability to frame behavior and establish a life narrative based on one’s goals and behavior as
an aspect of the moral imagination (Narvaez, 2010).
Creativity, intelligence, and moral imagination
Individual goal preferences are influenced by early experiencehow open to others, how
self-protective, how capable of thinking and reflecting, and so on. Even beyond childhood,
individuals are influenced by their culture and social context, and many seek out and reflect on
the aspects of culture and the environments that influence them (Pizarro, Detweiler-Bedell, &
Bloom, 2006). However, other individuals do not reflect a great deal but stay with learned habits
and traditions within a small sphere, relying instead on others to tell them how to think or
behave. In a morally-pluralistic society, some individuals select moral goals, principles, and
virtues that they wish to enact from a large variety of possibilities. Individuals modify their
views through interactions with others, whether parents or acquaintances, and whether the idea is
mainstream or radical. Pizarro (Pizarro et al, 2006) has described how individuals often do not
passively accept the moral views of culture or parents, and how even a book or an interaction
with a stranger can lead to a dramatic change in moral beliefs, especially among children who
are reflective or imaginative.
The opportunity to step outside of the usual boxes of habit or intellectual detachment can
engage the imagination, opening up attention so that one can look at the world with fresh eyes, as
if for the first time (Hadot, 2011). For communal imagination, it means adopting a ‘heart’ view,
engaging a sense of emotional connection to others (right-brain dominant view), rather than
using the filter of ‘utility’ to narrow it (left-brain dominance). Reliance on rigid formulas,
inflexible rules, or impersonal reasoning is, in Dewey’s view (1908/2009) and ours, “the death of
all high moral responsibility” (page 60). Instead, moral imagination requires an avoidance of
simplistic thinking and a degree of ideological complexity rather than rigidity. In both research
on creativity and political ideologies, thinking that includes a strong need for closure, ambiguity
intolerance, and dogmatism leads to less adequate decision making. For example, need for
closure has been linked with both lower creativity and more conformist, authoritarian moral
ideologies; ambiguity tolerance is consistently correlated with creativity and is also important in
generating a morality that is not overly simplistic, reductive, and idealistic in viewing values as
never conflicting (Tegano, 1990; Yurtsever, 2000).
In several studies, the present authors have examined explicit adoption of characteristics
representing safety, engagement or communal imagination ethics. Unlike the few (to this point)
findings linking creativity and moral behavior, communal imagination ethical orientation
positively relates to a variety of moral characteristics and behaviors. These include honesty and
integrity, empathy, perspective-taking, prosocial moral identity, action for the less fortunate,
humanism, openness to experience and growth mindset (Narvaez, Brooks, & Mattan, 2011;
Narvaez, Brooks, & Hardy, 2013). It should be emphasized that the first pair of these
relationships (between communal imagination and both honesty and integrity) reveal a different
picture than that portrayed by Ariely (2012; Gino & Ariely, 2012). Even if some measures of
creativity are linked to cheating and poor integrity, communal imagination orientation is clearly
not. It is also notable that communal imagination is linked not only to judgment and personality
measures (e.g. integrity) but also behavior ones (e.g. action for the less fortunate), and not only
thinking measures (humanism) but also emotional ones (e.g. empathy). Further investigations are
needed to determine whether these relationships are causal.
Creative Moral Exemplars
It is clear that moral creativity does not matter much unless an individual is able to
choose one of the most useful ideas from those generated and act on it. Capacities for moral
sensitivity, moral motivation, and follow through must also be cultivated (cite Rest, 1983, 1986;
Narvaez & Rest, 1995). James Rest (1983, 1986) perhaps best captured the complete picture of
moral functioning in his four-component model. He argued that moral sensitivity, moral
judgment, moral motivation, and moral action each play important roles in moral decisions.
Moral reasoning alone does not capture the whole picture. Moral sensitivity entails moral
perception and interpretationthe ability to notice and identify the important ethical aspects of a
situation, Moral judgment entails involves choosing the morally ideal course through reasoning.
Moral motivation comprises prioritizing the moral action over other options. Moral action
involves having the ability and character to act, through will and knowledge, on one’s moral
goals and judgments.
The creative moral exemplar possesses a vast variety of skills that function as a toolkit.
The skills mentioned throughout this paper each fit into one or more of Rest’s components.
Among those already discussed, some fit best into the category of moral sensitivity. These
include using emotion to feel with others and perceive their needs. Abilities to select goals and
values to endorse, integrate numerous values into a single decision, and generate several ideas
about how to act seem to fit best into the moral judgment category. Skills involving the use of
emotion and regulation techniques to maintain motivation and focus on a problem and perhaps
forming one’s identity in light of actions are skills of moral motivation. Finally, skills of moral
action include cultivating good habits and selecting among the opportunities for moral action or
among the values one can apply.
Individuals high in moral imagination are more likely to extend regard to individuals in
their environments who are members of outgroups or strangers (Mrkva & Narvaez, in press).
They are less likely to stigmatize the homeless based on information suggesting responsibility
for their condition, more likely to favor policies which promote greater respect for each life (e.g.
whether in the US or abroad) and less likely to blame victims or ignore individuals in need
because of their status as strangers or an “other”.
Many of these components are included in the right-brain capacity for mindfulness, a
flexible engagement in the present, and ability to see connections, be sensitive to context, and
notice new elements of a situation. Mindfulness requires creativity but does not stop thereit
also requires that one be engaged in the present moment, sensitive to others in their immediate
environment, and willing to interact with and help others if the feelings and actions of others
suggest that they are in need or could be assisted in some way. Mindfulness entails the ability to
empathize with others and experience their emotions, but imaginative moral functioning must
also use this experience to guide changes in thought. In this way, mindfulness can influence
moral reasoning, judgment, and action as much as sensitivity, in a type of bottom-up correction
(Pizarro, 2000). We can see this in a recent trend identified by Ray and Anderson (2000). They
describe the emergence of “cultural creatives.” These individuals appear to blend morality and
creative imagination, as is visible from the set of characteristics listed in Table 2 (ten or more of
these are indicative of being a cultural creative).
**Place Table 1 about here**
Conclusion
Imagination (as a mental faculty), emotion (as a psycho-bio-social faculty), and morality (as an
internalized mental frame) interact developmentally in different ways based on the experiences
of a person. These differential interactions can result in different dispositions and types of
imagination: Detached (little emotional engagement with the world), Vicious (aggressive
emotional interaction), Engaged (present-focused positive interaction), and Communal (extended
collaborative positive interaction). There are different amounts and quality of creativity
demonstrated in each of these types of moral imagination. Although high levels of both
intelligence and creativity may be demonstrated in Detached and Vicious imagination, these
forms are more self-focused forms, limited in their scope of care and consequences for others,
and lead to intentional or unintentional harmful outcomes. Communal imagination, in contrast,
maintains an all-inclusive sense of caring relation in pondering and taking action as a creative
collaboration (John-Steiner, 2000), demonstrating the highest form of ethical sensitivity.
Morality is “the ongoing imaginative exploration of possibilities for dealing with our
problems enhancing the quality of our communal relations, and forming significant personal
attachments that grow” (Johnson, 1993, p. 209). Current cultural practices do not well serve the
development of the more positive forms of moral imagination. There are more supports for
Detached and Vicious imagination than for Engaged and Communal imaginations, including
societal (e.g., undercare, priority of monetary success) and educational (schooling that sets aside
emotional and social aspects of life) forms. Engaged and Communal moral imaginations require
good beginnings, with nurturing caregiving and empathic relationships during sensitive periods.
These experiences foster right-brain, present-oriented capacities (including self-regulation,
behavior inhibition, empathy (Narvaez, Wang et al., 2013). Engaged and Communal
imaginations may also require ongoing safe and supportive environments. Creative moral
imagination allows individuals and communities to grow in their virtue, deepening and extending
moral regard and sensitivity to a greater circle of life.
Footnotes
2 Creativity has been defined as the ability to generate ideas which are original and unexpected,
but are considered useful or important (Sternberg, 1999). Moral imagination involves not only
the ability to generate useful ideas, but also abilities to form ideas about what is good and right,
and to put the best ideas into action for the service of others. This involves sensitivity to the
people and lifescapes at hand.
3 However, we must not overplay our cards and descriptively assert that imagination is used in
all moral decisions. There are many occasions when we make moral judgments based on habit or
expediency; failing to consider the uniqueness of the situation. If we are correct about the
significant role creativity plays in our moral lives, imagination and especially social imagination
deserve more attention from psychological researchers and ethical theorists.
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Table 1. Basic Mindsets in Multi-Ethics Theory
Basic Mindsets
Deliberative Elaboration
Socially self-protective
Safety: Bunker Morality (aggression)
Safety: Wallflower Morality (withdrawal,
appeasement)
Vicious Imagination
Detached Imagination
Socially-open
Engagement (relational attunement)
Communal Imagination
Table 2. Characteristics of Cultural Creatives (Ray & Anderson, 2000)
Care deeply about the natural world
Awareness of and desire for action on planet-wide issues (global warming, poverty, etc)
Activism for positive social change
Willingness to pay higher taxes for the benefit of the environment
Value developing and maintaining relationships
Value helping others
Volunteer for good cause
Value spirituality (but fears fundamentalism)
Value spiritual and psychological development
Value equality for women in all spheres
Concerned for the wellbeing of women and children
Want government to focus on education, welfare and sustainable living
Unhappy with left and right politics
Optimistic about the future
Desire to create better way of life for all
Concerned about corporate profit motives and destructive side effects
Unlikely to overspend or be in debt
Deplore emphasis on consumption, status and monetary success
Enjoy exotic people and places
Figure 1
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