Steven Fesmire (Siena College)


Moral philosophy has traditionally been thought to be a non-empirical discipline that ascertains how we ought to deliberate and act, or investigates the meta-ethical status of substantive moral theories and beliefs.  Meanwhile, the psychology of moral behavior has, with some notable exceptions, been taken by philosophers to be of little or no direct relevance to value inquiry.  The question "How ought I to live?" has been severed from the question "How do human beings actually make sense of their moral experience?"  Inattention to this latter question has spawned psychologically unrealistic theories.  A consequence has been to ignore moral imagination.

This paper explores the nature and function of imagination as it plays a role in moral deliberation.  What is said is intended to be relevant to deliberations about public policy and to environmental philosophy, though the primary focus is on day to day personal and interpersonal interactions that take on moral significance.  Since the rudiments of a theory of moral imagination are compellingly elaborated by Dewey, his work is used as a platform for the interrelated theses that moral deliberation is fundamentally imaginative and is well modeled on artistic creativity.

James urges in The Principles of Psychology, "There are imaginations, not ‘the Imagination,’ and they must be studied in detail" (PP, II, 50).)  His meaning was fairly simplistic:  for some people visual imagery is uppermost in their thinking whereas for others auditory or motor images may be predominant (PP, II, 57).  But he rightly implies there is no essential definition of the term, in contrast with no less an authority than Mary Warnock.[1]  Two "imaginations" recur as themes in this paper, each concerned only indirectly with the formation of familiar and unfamiliar mental images.  They are:

1. Empathetic projection.  Empathy, as a form of direct responsiveness, is for Dewey "the animating mold of moral judgment" (LW 7:270).  Taking the attitudes of others, as Mead puts it, stirs us beyond numbness so we pause to sort through others’ aspirations, interests, and worries as our own.  Dewey treats this as necessary but not sufficient for moral judgment (LW 7:268-69).

2. Creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities (vs. routine, habituated behavior).  This is Dewey’s central meaning, as when he cites Shelley’s statement that "Imagination [not established morals] is the chief instrument of the good" (AE, LW 10:350).[2]  Imagination in this sense, when wed to makings, results in expressive objects.[3]  A variant of this is highlighted in Peirce’s theory of abduction.

The Renascence of Imagination

The question "What is the imagination?" is loaded with the implication that there is such a ready-made thing.  Imagination is thus conceived as an autonomous mental power--a primitive force rather than a function--whose task is to do specifiable things like form images.  Such reification flowered in the faculty psychology of the eighteenth century.  Imagination’s job, the dominant story ran (with Vico as a notable exception), is to synthesize sensations from Perception into reproducible images (Kant’s "reproductive imagination") and relate them to the Understanding which classifies and schematizes the images (what Kant calls "productive imagination") as instances of universal concepts (a process called "judgment").[4]  Understanding then passes these on to Reason which decides, perhaps consulting Memory, what to do about the matter.  Reason orders Will to attend to it, hopeful that Will is strong enough to subdue the disruptions of Feeling. 

Imagination, on this view, is usually a trusty crafter of images but is given to mischief.  Thus Kant’s suspicion.  Imagination as free reflective play is essential to aesthetic judgment, for Kant, but in morals it is too self-indulgent.  It may sap moral strength, usurping Reason and yielding victory to Feeling.  If a person "surrenders authority over himself, his imagination has free play," Kant claims.  "He cannot discipline himself, but his imagination carries him away by the laws of association; he yields willingly to his senses, and, unable to curb them, he becomes their toy."[5]  Doing one’s duty does not require imagination; therefore for Kantians "its cultivation is at best a luxury, at worst a danger."[6]

Despite eulogizing of imagination by Adam Smith and David Hume,[7] Enlightenment faculty psychology is largely responsible for imagination being ignored even by those who urge that moral theories must be psychologically plausible.  As a  limited capacity prone to fancy and opposed to reason, imagination has little relevance to practical issues.  So it can be dismissed altogether as a pre-scientific relic or, transfigured by Romanticism, admired on a pedestal as a "godlike power that enters into the world on the wings of intuition, free of the taint of contingency and history."[8]  In philosophy, our flickering imaginations are thought at best merely to form a preintentional (i.e., not directed beyond itself) "background" for rational thought, as John Searle proposes.[9]  It is unfortunate that the mainstream of European thought ignored Vico’s elevation of the creative imagination as civilization’s source of renewal and direction.

Yet recent developments inspire hope.  According to the Philosopher's Index, over sixty books and articles in philosophy touched on moral imagination in the 1990s, compared to six in the 1960s.  There is a budding awareness among philosophers that imagination plays a vital role in moral judgments such that, in Mary Warnock’s words, "in education we have a duty to educate the imagination above all else."[10]  "No longer is it necessary," Yi-Fu Tuan says, "to contrast a moral but dour person with an imaginative but flamboyant and irresponsible one."[11]

Still, in this renascence of imagination there is a tendency to retain a residual split between self-contained faculties whereby reason without imagination is empty, imagination without rule-governed reason blind.  Charles Larmore, for example, explores moral imagination as a supplement to moral rules, needed to take up the slack of our limited objective rationality.  It is "our ability to elaborate and appraise different courses of action which are only partially determined by the given content of moral rules, in order to learn what in a particular situation is the morally best thing to do."[12]

This theme is oft’ repeated.  According to Oliver Williams in The Moral Imagination, moral imagination is essential to responsible morality.  It attunes us to the Good in a way codes of conduct or commandments cannot, enabling us (as a form of Aristotelian practical wisdom) to "more astutely recognize obligation and wrongdoing."  Meanwhile, following the Thomist tradition, the process of justification is carried out by human reason with reference to universal moral rules and principles.[13]  There is an antecedently established Good and Right, in no way constituted through imaginative engagement, and imagination schools us to see truthfully and "desire rightly."

In a well illustrated study of management decision making inspired by Mark Johnson’s Moral Imagination, Patricia Werhane agrees that imagination is essential to moral judgment.  "Moral imagination," she says, "is the ability in particular circumstances to discover and evaluate possibilities not merely determined by that circumstance, or limited by its operative mental models, or merely framed by a set of rules or rule-governed concerns."  Through imagination one can project novel ways to frame situations and thus "broaden, evaluate, and even change one’s moral point of view."  However, echoing suspicions of imagination cut loose from rule-governed reason, she questions the thesis that moral understanding is fundamentally imaginative and argues that "Without moral reasoning one may slip into moral fantasy."[14]

Edward Tivnan takes the opposite route by following Richard Rorty’s neopragmatic dismissal of all attempts at moral justification.  Given our lack of any substantive moral knowledge, when values clash we must learn to keep the peace, unstable as it must be in a democracy, by developing our empathetic ability to "imagine the world from the other side of the barricade."  Tivnan reduces moral imagination to the peacekeeping function of this type of empathetic leap hoping that this may stay our hands from throttling each other.  Moral imagination is a democratic substitute for a Hobbesian Leviathan.  Thus, says Tivnan, "by developing your moral imagination, you will be less likely to burn your adversary at the stake for fear that no matter how strongly you feel that the death penalty is right, say, or that affirmative action is unjust, you may actually be wrong."[15]

Thomas McCollough, in The Moral Imagination and Public Life, offers a more expansive view of imagination than Tivnan, closer to Dewey’s theory, who he unfortunately neglects.  He writes:  "The moral imagination may be understood as a capacity to empathize with others and to discern creative possibilities for ethical action.  The moral imagination considers an issue in the light of the whole. ...[It] broadens and deepens the context of decision making...."[16]

John Kekes, in The Morality of Pluralism, identifies moral imagination with "mental exploration of what it would be like to realize particular possibilities."  He contrasts this with imagination as image formation, problem solving, and fantasizing.  Moral imagination has two simultaneous functions, exploratory and corrective.  As exploratory, it gives breadth to forward-looking reflection.  By enlarging our field of possibilities beyond the provisions of tradition, especially through "exposure to other traditions--usually through history, ethnography, and literature," moral imagination provides "a basis for contrast and comparison" that lets us "view critically the possibilities with which we start."  This accords with Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (though Kekes’ conservative treatment of limits, discussed below, does not):  "[T]he moral imagination ...reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and best instructs us in our human variety.... [I]t is the human activity which takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, complexity, difficulty--and possibility."[17]  In its corrective function, moral imagination gives depth to retroactive assessment of past mistakes in evaluating possibilities.  By imaginatively re-creating past choices and identifying sources of error such as narrow-mindedness, sluggishness, fantasy, misplaced hopes and fears, and self-deception, we can more realistically estimate how "we can guard against their recurrence in situations we presently face."  Through these functions moral imagination makes us freer, though not free, by increasing control over possibilities.[18]

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh explore findings of cognitive science relevant to a theory of moral imagination.[19]  They focus especially on the inescapable and indispensable role of conventional metaphors--and by this they are not primarily concerned with idiomatic expressions, isolated remarks like "Richard is a Gorilla," or poetic novelties like "Juliet is the Sun."  The upshot of metaphor for moral imagination is that our sense of who we are, how we understand situations, the way we relate to others, and what we see as possible courses of action all depend significantly on culturally inherited metaphors.  Most importantly, courses become options for us in part because the metaphor(s) we use to make sense of a situation marks out these alternatives, so what is possible under one metaphor may not be possible under another.[20]  It is a practical necessity to ask whether the metaphors that shape our moral imaginations are trustworthy when activated. 

To take a straightforward example, in an argument, we may "gain" or "lose ground," "attack" or "defend a position," "win" or "lose."  Not only do we use this language; we actually experience arguments as battles.  If this metaphor is operative in a predicament where there is a conflict of opinion, truculent pathways may seem natural and inevitable while possibilities for mutual growth through communication may be obscured.  Our subconscious, unreflective, spontaneous tendency may, if unchecked, be prone to belligerence.  Research on metaphor advances Dewey’s project of "intellectual disrobing," enabling us to critically inspect intellectual habits to see "what they are made of and what wearing them does to us" (EN, LW 1:40).  Habits form our characters, so ignorance of them leaves character to haphazard development.  If we do not own our metaphors imaginatively, they own us mechanically.

Dewey’s Theory of Imagination

These are promising developments, yet Dewey's fecund insights on the subject remain largely untapped.  In Dewey scholarship, the import of imagination is often acknowledged but too seldom examined, resulting in an attenuated appreciation of his theory of intelligence as indirect exploratory action:  "Thought is, as it were, conduct turned in upon itself and examining its purpose and its conditions, its resources, aids, and difficulties and obstacles" (HWT, LW 8:201; cf. QC, LW 4:178).

On Dewey's view "imagination is as much a normal and integral part of human activity as is muscular movement" (DE, MW 9:245).  Peirce observed likewise that imagination is as inherent in humans as dam-building for beavers or nest-building for birds:  "the whole business of ratiocination, and all that makes us intellectual beings, is performed in imagination."[21]  This extends beyond Vico’s argument for the dominance of poetic imagination over logical intellect, and beyond the conventional dualism, echoed uncritically by Stuart Hampshire in Innocence and Experience, that imagination "leaps and swerves" while rational intellect advances "by rule-guided steps."[22]  Dewey agrees that we can distinguish reason and imagination, but he holds that the distinction is a functional one between phases of undifferentiated experience, not between restrictive versus liberating powers.  All active intellectual life, poetic or theoretical, is fundamentally imaginative to the degree that it "supplements and deepens observation" by affording "clear insight into the remote, the absent, the obscure" (HWT, LW 8:351).

To the degree that experience is narrowed by acclimation to standardized meanings, it is mechanical and unimaginative.  Pathways are so well trod that they seem the only ones available.  This is why imaginative products, in science, industry, art, philosophy, religion, or morality, are at first condemned.  Recall the skepticism that greeted the first personal computers, or the cautionary voices that provoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  "It is not merely in religion," Dewey declares, "that the prophet is at first stoned (metaphorically at least) while later generations build the commemorative monument" (AE, LW 10:274).  Imaginative experience ventures beyond restatements of convention to grasp undisclosed opportunities and to generate new ideals and ends.  Moral imagination is not limited to the de-clawed life Oliver Williams’ envisions for it, schooling us to recognize preexisting obligations filled in superempirically by an authoritative faith tradition or by transcendental reason.

Acknowledging the "verbal difficulties owing to our frequent use of the word `imagination' to denote fantasy and doubtful reality" (ACF, LW 9:30), Dewey cautions against the custom of identifying the imaginative, which is interactively engaged, with the imaginary, which is subjective.  The functional difference is enormous. Neither occurs ex nihilo, independent of a social matrix, but only the imaginative necessitates courage to engage the present and stretch.  In fanciful experience (Dewey is not referring here to expressive forms of play-activity which may go by the name of "fantasy"), as when someone sees a ghost, is abducted by an alien, or is mentally poisoned with paranoia, "mind and material do not squarely meet and interpenetrate.  Mind stays aloof and toys with material rather than boldly grasping it.  The material ...does not offer enough resistance, and so mind plays with it capriciously" (AE, LW 10:272).

Whether in art, industry, or moral conduct, imagination reaches deep into the "hard stuff of the world of physical and social experience" and seizes upon possible new relations for thought and action.  New aims and ideals emerge to guide behavior, "generated through imagination.  But they are not made out of imaginary stuff" (ACF, LW 9:33).  Far from a euphemism for frivolousness, the imaginative is "a warm and intimate taking in of the full scope of a situation" (DE, MW 9:244) imbued with sociocultural meanings and rooted in problematic conditions, whereas imaginary flights of "mind-wandering and wayward fancy are nothing but the unsuppressible imagination cut loose from concern with what is done" (DE, MW 9:245).

As Thomas Alexander notes, "imagination constitutes an extension of the environment to which we respond."[23]  This is true both of imagination as empathy and as creatively tapping possibilities.  Empathy (which Dewey discusses as sympathy, a subcategory of what Mead describes in morally neutral terms as taking the attitude of another) names a type of immediate responsiveness and sensitiveness without which not only would we be callous and indifferent, but there would not even be "an inducement to deliberate or material with which to deliberate" (LW 7:269).  For Kant, absence of sympathetic responsiveness, or better still coldness and indifference to others’ sufferings, best demarcates acts of the highest moral worth.  Empathy is on his view morally worthless since it infuses feeling into our motives for action instead of being commanded by reason alone.[24]  In fact, as Dewey recognized and neuroscience has confirmed, disaffective behavior is cold-blooded and morally warped.[25] 

Direct valuing such as empathy is complemented and expanded in deliberate, practical reflection, which requires tapping possibilities for action and forecasting the consequences of acting on them (LW 7:271).  Both aspects of imagination, empathy and rehearsal, operate simultaneously to focus us concretely on the present and to expand attention beyond what is immediately experienced so that the lessons of the past (embodied in our sedimented habits) and as-yet-unrealized potentialities "come home to us and have power to stir us" (ACF, LW 9:30).  Through imagination we see "in terms of possibilities, ...old things in new relations" (ACF, LW 9:34).[26]

Dewey’s theory of deliberation as "dramatic rehearsal" is his most protracted attempt to highlight this function of imagination as a "vicarious, anticipatory way of acting" (LW 8:200; cf. MW 5:293, LW 7:275, MW 14:132-34).  Contrary to its depiction in Jennifer Welchman’s Dewey’s Ethical Thought, this is not yet another "method" or "procedure"--differentiated by being a "scientific" and thus more trustworthy procedure--competing with other procedures to prescribe how we should deliberate.[27]  It is instead an experimentally testable theory about the psychology of deliberation.  In deliberation (moral, scientific, artistic, etc.), we hunt for ways to settle difficulties by scoping out alternatives and picturing ourselves taking part in them.  In a complete deliberation, we forecast altered conditions that would ensue if we opted for this or that route, until we hit upon an option that appears to integrate conflicting factors and restore equilibrium.

Dramatic rehearsal is one phase or function of the deliberative process, but this function --crystallizing possibilities and transforming them into directive hypotheses--is so essential that it lends its name to the whole process.  Dramatic rehearsal illuminates, opens up a situation so we see it in a new way.  A family pondering whether to buy a particular house imagines day-to-day life in and around the house, mortgage payments, repair costs, et cetera.  They must consider these in relation to their careers, economic circumstances, long-term goals, moral-social-political priorities.  This is seldom strictly an armchair affair.  Moreover, it is not a matter of prancing arbitrarily from one imagined scenario to another.  Effective imagination about this requires visits to the house, research, consultation with specialists, and most importantly, since democratic colloquy is more trustworthy than cloistered soliloquy, a great deal of communication with each other.

Alexander defines imagination as a capacity "to see the actual in light of the possible."  He explains:

It is a phase of which possible activities are envisaged in relation to our own situations, thereby amplifying the meaning of the present and creating the context from which present values may be criticized, thus liberating the course of action itself.  ...Imagination is temporally complex, an operation in the present, establishing continuity with the past, anticipating the future, so that a continuous process of activity may unfold in the most meaningful and value-rich way possible.[28]

As a capacity to engage the present with an eye to what is not immediately at hand, imagination is more than a niche for fictional embellishments, as when we speak of an "over-active imagination" or "imagining things."  Nor is it the exclusive possession of fine artists.  It is integrated with everyday life and learning.  Since "only imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual" (AE, LW 10:348), imagination is at the foreground of all thinking.

Imagination in Pragmatist Ethics

Moral theorists from the 18th century to the present, and Western religious traditions for over two millennia, have typically supposed the fundamental fact of morality to be our capacity to discern universal laws, rules, or principles.  We cling to the idea that we should apply universal laws of reason, divinely sanctioned laws, natural born rights, universal prescriptions, sets of prima facie duties, socially contractual rules, rules of common morality or the like to particular cases.  We hope this will tell us what we should do, or at least specify limits on what we can and cannot do. 

Some of these approaches are justifiably valued, especially when they forego the attempt to provide definite answers to dilemmas.  It would be preposterous to deny a role in moral judgment for the guidance of general principles, or a role in moral theory for critical reflection on rules.  We need all the help we can get to make judgment more reasonable, less biased by "the twisting, exaggerating and slighting tendency of passion and habit" (HNC, MW 14:169).  Thus the demand in ethics, championed most vocally by John Rawls (though at the needless expense of moral imagination), for consistency and impartiality.[29]  But by failing to place imaginative perception and empathy front and center, treating it at best as a minor supplement to a theory of rules, ethical theories too often sacrifice intelligent foresight in favor of a sort of contortionism.

Alan Donagan’s The Theory of Morality provides a helpful foil.  He writes:  "The theory of morality is a theory of a system of laws or precepts, binding upon rational creatures as such, the content of which is ascertainable by human reason."[30]  He derives a system of specificatory premises and precepts from the fundamental principle that we should always act so as to respect others as persons (i.e., as autonomous rational agents).  The derived precepts act as laws or rules to govern the permissibility or impermissibility of specified kinds of actions.  Ethical deliberation amounts to applying these laws to particular cases. 

When we take the pragmatist turn in ethics away from such rigid rationalistic abstractions to life-experience, we discover that situations are too unique for deliberation to be exhausted merely by subordinating situations as cases of sedimented classifications (HNC, MW 14:167-68).  What Abraham Lincoln said of dogmas applies equally to rules:  "The dogmas of the past are inadequate to the stormy present."  Just as you cannot put your foot in the same river twice, you cannot unproblematically apply a rule to the same situation twice.  It does not repeat or duplicate itself.  Yet imagination thankfully finds circumstances relevantly analogous so that general principles are useful as improvable tools to develop a situation’s individualized meanings.  Any system that pretends to determine once and for all the limits and conditions of moral action is out of step both with the existential world as we encounter it ("uncertain, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and hazardous" (EN, LW 1:43)) and with empirical work on the way we reason.[31]  It is not capable of meeting the daily challenges of human existence.

As a record of past moral experimentation, conscious intellectual rules are indispensable for "economizing effort in foresight" (HNC, MW 14:167).  Principles or rules can help open situations to inquiry if used as "intellectual instruments to be tested and confirmed--and altered--through consequences effected by acting upon them" (QC, LW 4:221).  Ethical theorists evince an admirable knack for rendering our often-conflicting rules consistent and coherent, sometimes bloodlessly so.[32]  But rules, whether products of common morality or of systematic theory, are generalizations.  Generalizations no matter how trustworthy cannot replace personal decision making by determining what someone ought to do, not even in applied sciences like medicine.  More controversially, moral rules cannot circumscribe with finality what is and is not permissible, come what may.  It also follows that no system can supply in advance a definitive procedure for determining what conditions justify (except a priori, internal to the system) violating a rule.  Rules overstep their function as idealized summaries of moral wisdom when they pretend to be more than guiding hypotheses.  The moralistic quest for a more prestigious role for them gags intelligence and amounts to a failure of nerve (see HNC, MW 14:164).

What is needed, Dewey realized, is to reject the quest for "a single, fixed and final good" and "transfer the weight and burden of morality to intelligence" (RP, MW 12:172-73).  When moral philosophy finds a new center of gravity in "specific situations that require amelioration" (RP, MW 12:175), tedious polemics about rules give way to urgent entreaties for habits of engaged intelligence and finely textured perception.  In "Three Independent Factors in Morals" Dewey notes that this leads people "to attend more fully to the concrete elements entering into the situations in which they have to act" (LW 5:288). 

Like Aristotle and unlike Kant, ethics is here approached not primarily as rational justification of an inherited moral system, not even an inherited system embodied in imaginatively constituted and applied rules and ideals, but as the art of helping people to live richer, more responsive, and more emotionally engaged lives.  This art acknowledges our inherited moral vocabulary, what Kant called "a disgusting mishmash of patchwork observations and half-reasoned principles."[33]  But it is not so driven by the rationalist obsession to forge a less repelling system of this mishmash by, for example, attempting to describe in advance a conclusive test, procedure, or formula to define what can count as rational or irrational action.[34]  This is not to say the creative endeavor of pragmatist ethics is free of obsessions.  It is by temperament fixated on the world’s qualitative ambiguity, fascinated by indeterminate, messy situations and the imaginative virtues that fund our more admirable dealings with them.[35]

Martha Nussbaum's re-introduction of Aristotelian practical wisdom is significant in this context.  In a poignant passage in Love's Knowledge, she observes that moral knowledge entails "seeing a complex, concrete reality in a highly lucid and richly responsive way; it is taking in what is there, with imagination and feeling."[36]  Moral decision making calls for refined sensitivity and immersion in events (in dialogue with what she unnecessarily calls a "rule-governed concern for general obligations").[37]  It is a matter of artistry.  "A responsible action," she writes in a passage reminiscent of Havelock Ellis's 1923 The Dance of Life, "is a highly context-specific and nuanced and responsive thing whose rightness could not be captured in a description that fell short of the artistic."[38]

Considered in this light, jazz improvisation arguably offers one of the best metaphors for ethical deliberation.  A jazz combo is a source for conceiving the empathetic and impromptu character of moral compositions.  Since we can never be fully prepared for novelties, we must be ready to improvise.  At our best, we skillfully respond to each other with the aim of harmonizing interests.  But coordinated impromptu thinking is difficult.  Jazz pianist Bill Evans discusses the challenge of group improvisation on new material, observing of his collaboration with Miles Davis:  "Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result."[39] 

A jazz musician takes up the attitude of others by catching a cadence from the group's signals while anticipating the group's response to her or his own signals.[40]  This is creative, social intelligence at its best and freest.  Drawing on the resources of tradition and long exercise, she plays into the past tone to discover the possibilities for future tones in the way moral imagination enables us to see the old in terms of the possible.

No "Right" way to do this can be spelled out, but it is far from arbitrary.  Only a novice would imagine anything beautiful could come from, on one hand, reposing in rules of composition, or on the other hand, arbitrarily imposing rhythms or tones on the rest of the group.  Beauty emerges as members revel in supporting others, not when they jockey for a solo.  The virtuoso is practiced in listening; she or he goes beyond simple recognition of a cue to perceive what it portends and signifies.  Yet even the virtuoso may misread the tone of a composition.  Discordance is always possible because the situation is existentially uncertain.  Jazz musician and poet Michael Harper explains:  "It's a matter of waiting for an opening rather than just rushing into what's happening.  It’s very much like a conversation.  ...The problem is that sometimes people don’t always understand what the tone of the conversation is, but that happens to all of us in life, too. "[41] 

Moral agents must respond empathetically to each other instead of imposing insular designs, and they must rigorously imagine how others will respond to their actions.  Only the immature, unexercised in thinking and uncultivated in perception, imagine anything enduringly good will come from unmediated satisfaction of stray, self-interested desires.  Simple recognition of cues that certain feelings or interests are at play--say, that someone is angry--is sufficient only for acting as customary propriety dictates.  Within certain limits such rule-governed behavior may serve.  But it falls far short of a "full perceptual realization" of particulars (AE, LW 10:182).  Like most everyday perception, it is incomplete.  It lacks deep perception of individual causes and purposes:  Why is she angry?  How does this fit into the history of the life she is composing?   Yet even the most patient and responsive moral agents will honestly misread the "tone" of situations.

Moreover and perhaps most significantly, the tradition of the art form structures group improvisation and is re-made through innovation.  This partnership between innovation and tradition is addressed by Nussbaum.  On her (unsympathetic) view, for the symphony player

all commitments and continuities are external; they come from the score and from the conductor.  The player reads them off like anyone else.  The jazz player, actively forging continuity, must choose in full awareness of and responsibility to the historical traditions of the form, and must actively honor at every moment his commitments to his fellow musicians, whom he had better know as well as possible as unique individuals.  He should be more responsible than the score reader, and not less, to the unfolding continuities and structures of the work.[42]

This neglects the role of imaginative perception in what Mary Reichling calls the "sonorous image of the [composed] work that the performer wishes to achieve."[43]  But Nussbaum rightly highlights that we can improvise, morally and artistically, only because we do not create in a vacuum.  Our styles, techniques, and visions are funded.  Harper sums this up in a tribute to John Coltrane’s influence:  "You’re never starting at ground zero.  Somebody took you to the place where you now are."[44]


In traditional moral theory, particulars must be scrutinized only when anomalies make subordination to a governing principle troublesome.  Faced with irregularities, the moral theorist adjusts lists of precepts and proposes new ways to apply them.  But it is increasingly recognized that this leaves moral imagination coarse and monochromatic.  What Dewey dubbed "the bleakness and harshness often associated with morals" is gradually dissipating as we become resensitized to aesthetic values of "grace, rhythm, and harmony as dominant traits of good conduct" (LW 7:271).  Calculation and disengaged judgment are not responsible enough.[45]  Replacing them are virtues of moral imagination:  empathy, sensitivity, perceptiveness, discernment, creativity, expressiveness, courage, foresight, communicativeness, and experimental intelligence.

[1].For a guide to European theories of imagination predating the current flurry of writing on the subject, see Mary Warnock, Imagination (University of California Press, 1976).  She identifies the "essence" of imagination as the creation of mental images (10).  Cf. Warnock’s Imagination and Time (Blackwell, 1994), which contains her 1992 Gifford Lectures.

[2].Dewey also frequently speaks of imagination not as a kind of cognitive activity but simply to locate activity as going forth in inner vision--"in imagination"--versus activity proceeding overtly, irrevocably, irretrievably.

[3].On this creative function of imagination, see Raymond Boisvert, John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time (SUNY Press, 1998), 127-29, 139.  On art and imagination, Dewey writes:  "Possibilities are embodied in works of art that are not elsewhere actualized; this embodiment is the best evidence that can be found of the true nature of imagination" (AE, LW 10:272).

[4].See Rudolf Makkreel, Imagination and Interpretation in Kant (University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[5].Kant, Lectures, 140.  On faculty psychology, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999), 427.  Lakoff and Johnson analyze this picture as embodying the metaphor of a "Society of Mind."

[6].Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 1990), 76.

[7].See Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3rd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 184, 227, 229n, 272; A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1978), 381-386.  See also Smith’s 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

[8].Jonathan Levin, The Poetics of Transition:  Emerson, Pragmatism, & American Literary Modernism (Duke University Press, 1999), 87.

[9].John Searle, Intentionality (Cambridge University Press, 1983).  See ch. 5, "The Background."

[10].Warnock, Imagination, 9.

[11].Yi-Fu Tuan, Morality and Imagination:  Paradoxes of Progress (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 4.

[12].Charles Larmore, "Moral Judgment," Review of Metaphysics 35:275-296 (1981).  Quoted in Werhane, Moral Imagination and Management Decision-Making, 92.

[13].Oliver Williams, S. J., ed., The Moral Imagination: How Literature and Films Can Stimulate Ethical Reflection in the Business World (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 6.

[14].Patricia Werhane, Moral Imagination and Management Decision-Making (Oxford University Press, 1999), 93, 90, 111.

[15].Edward Tivnan, The Moral Imagination: Confronting the Ethical Issues of Our Day (Simon & Schuster, 1995), 250-51.

[16].Thomas McCollough, The Moral Imagination and Public Life: Raising the Ethical Question (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., 1991), 16-17.

[17].Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York: Scribner’s, 1976), vii-viii.  Quoted in John Kekes, The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton University Press, 1993), 100.

[18].Kekes, The Morality of Pluralism, 99-117.

[19].George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999). 

[20].Phrase paraphrased from Johnson, The Body in the Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1987), 136.  Cf. Johnson, Moral Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[21].CP 6.286.  Quoted in Vincent Colapietro, Peirce's Approach to the Self (SUNY Press, 1989), 114.

[22].Stuart Hampshire, Innocence and Experience (Harvard University Press, 1989), 126.

[23].Thomas Alexander, "John Dewey and the Moral Imagination:  Beyond Putnam and Rorty toward a Postmodern Ethics" in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 29, no. 3 (1993), 387.  Cf. Alexander, John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature (SUNY Press, 1987).

[24].Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 11-12.  Cf. Heather E. Keith, "Feminism and Pragmatism:  George Herbert Mead’s Ethics of Care," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Vol. 35, No. 2 (1999).

[25].See Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens:  Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999) and Damasio, Descartes’ Error:  Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Avon Books, 1994).

[26].See HWT, LW 8:208-09 on the past and future in imaginative "suggestions."  Cf. J. J. Chambliss, "John Dewey’s Idea of Imagination in Philosophy and Education," in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter 1991, 43-49.

[27].Jennifer Welchman, Dewey’s Ethical Thought (Cornell University Press, 1995), 168-77.

[28].Alexander, "John Dewey and the Moral Imagination," 384-386.

[29].John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971).

[30].Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (University of Chicago Press, 1977), 7.

[31].For a survey of areas of ongoing empirical research relevant to developing psychologically realistic moral theories, see Mark Johnson, "Ethics," in A Companion to Cognitive Science, William Bechtel and George Graham, eds. (Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1998), 691-701.

[32].Anthropologist T. O. Beidelman perceptively notes that real life "is too diverse and manifold to be sustained by any entirely consistent system."  T. O. Beidelman, Moral Imagination in Kaguru Modes of Thought (Indiana University Press, 1986), 4-5.

[33].Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 21.

[34].See Bernard Gert, Morality:  Its Nature and Justification (Oxford University Press, 1998).

[35].Following is a sampling of pragmatist ethicists tackling issues in "applied" ethics:  Eugenie Gatens-Robinson, "The Private and Its Problem:  A Pragmatic View of Reproductive Choice," in Dewey Reconfigured, 169-92; Andrew Light and Eric Katz, eds., Environmental Pragmatism (Routledge, 1996); Glenn McGee, ed., Pragmatist Bioethics (Vanderbilt University Press, 1999); Rogene A. Buchholz and Sandra B. Rosenthal, Business Ethics:  The Pragmatic Path Beyond Principles to Process (Prentice Hall, 1997); Larry Hickman, "Making the Family ‘Functional’."

[36].Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge, 152.  Cf. Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination, 210-11.  Cf. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, 309.

[37].See Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, 157.

[38].Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge, 154.

[39].Bill Evans, liner notes from original 1959 release of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia Records).  Evans compares jazz improvisation to the Japanese art of calligraphy and implies that it is a form of communication in which deliberation can "interfere."  The gist of this point is compatible with Dewey’s broad, process-oriented conception of deliberation.

[40].George Herbert Mead’s theory of the self provides a useful framework for these insights.  See Mead, Mind, Self, and Society (University of Chicago Press, 1934), chs. 18-20.

[41].In Bill Moyers, The Language of Life (Doubleday, 1995), 173.

[42].Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge, 155.

[43].On imagination and compositional music, see Mary Reichling’s critical reading of Dewey’s aesthetic theory through the metaphor of three counterpoints of a fugue, composer, performer, and listener.  "Dewey, Imagination, and Music:  A Fugue on Three Subjects," in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall 1991, 61-78.  A classic work in this area is Aaron Copland, Music and Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1952).

[44].Ibid, 175.

[45].Larry Hickman cites Edwin A. Burt’s suggestion that "if he had to pick a single word to typify Dewey’s philosophical work, it would be ‘responsibility’."  Hickman, John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology, 196.  Cf. Boisvert, John Dewey, 26.