The Moral Imagination

Many years ago when I first wrote this post, a comment was made by someone calling himself “Auth” in which he (or she) characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year.” I thought at the time that the comment, such as it was, deserved an extended response. So I wrote the following piece.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. Don’t think of yourself as the exception; we are all morally equal. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked empathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy, for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

Highly Specialized

In the spirit of sharing what went before and hoping that the topic is still relevant I post here a previous effort from many, many years ago.

I am reading a history of early Rome that is well done but painstakingly detailed and slow reading. It’s title is Through The Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. Yes, that’s just the title. The book is by Peter Brown an Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton. Not long ago I was wading through another history book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood. I never made it through Wood’s book even though I am downright compulsive about finishing books I have started to read. The book is ponderous, provides much more detail than I require, and is not well written. So I gave up on it. The Peter Brown book, on the other hand, exhibits better writing and was recommended by a friend, so I will probably work my way through the 530 pages (with 200 pages of notes and index, which I will skip). It reminds me of the fact that we suffer from over-specialization in this country.

The phenomenon results in books written by professionals in the field for other professionals — I dare say historians would appreciate the details and copious notes in both of these books. I speak here of history, but the same thing can be said of books in other disciplines (reading philosophy is like swimming through glue). Even novels are now written by writers who seem to be writing for other writers, not for the average reader who just wants a good read. The novel has to be clever and in the latest postmodern fashion.

Music is composed that can only be appreciated by professional musicians. For the rest of us it sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the car door. Much art has become specialized as well as artists experiment with their media and try to discover new ways to say the same old things. This is not such a bad thing in the plastic arts, since they are more readily appreciated by the unsophisticated viewer and new ways of seeing things can be exciting. The plastic arts may survive the trend toward overspecialization, though there is always the lunatic fringe who create works that can be appreciated only by others on the lunatic fringe — like those artists who place a urinal in the museum on the grounds that it is “art.” In so many of the arts sophistication has become the key to appreciation.

In any event, the phenomenon of overspecialization has infiltrated our colleges and universities where there are now specializations within specializations. As Michael Polanyi said 60 years ago,

“. . .it is a rare mathematician, we are told, who fully understands more than half a dozen out of fifty papers presented at a mathematical congress.” 

And that was then! This has resulted in a hodge-podge undergraduate “education” where students take bits and pieces of this and that until something strikes their fancy or someone convinces them that they can find work in that field when they graduate — or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their entire undergraduate years and get trained but not educated. Neither of these alternatives amounts to a coherent education that broadens as well as deepens perspective. But that’s what we seem to be stuck with as the specialists, separated as they are from one another by discipline — and often by geographical location on campus — don’t (can’t?) talk to one another and cannot come to any sort of agreement about what kinds of things make for a defensible undergraduate education. From the faculty’s perspective, it’s all about protecting their turf. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of us suffer as well when we want to know a bit about the history of humankind and we are faced with ponderous books that are deep in detail and shallow in writing skill and readability. The curious layman (and student) has been forgotten in this age of specialization where walls between schools of thought cannot be conquered even by the most determined climber.

D.I.C. (Revisited)

In the spirit of saving myself the trouble of repeating myself, and given the wealth of new readers of this blog 😆, I reblog a post that may be of some interest.

One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that these folks are living in a shrunken world and they shrink as a result.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts.

If only the teachers would..