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!


11 thoughts on “The Moral Imagination

  1. Dr. Curtler,

    Over the years, I am sad to report, I have heard many people who have made the same argument that it is wrong to help others.

    The Categorical Imperative makes no sense to people unless they are inclined toward compassion a priori, as Schopenaur attested.

    As a species, humans appear to tend toward innate compassion, a “moral sentiment”, as Adam Smith would have it, but this is not so in each individual: (1) Some appear to just be wired differently from the beginning, which is the basis of psychopathy; (2) others have learned to be numb to the needs and feelings of others, which leads to sociopathy — very generally speaking.

    As a result, we routinely encountered those who would make a virtue of selfishness, not to mention the pitiful efforts of some (usually male college sophomores, in my experience) to refer to Ayn Rand as a philosopher.

    To the average person, such willful lack of compassion can be shocking. Sadly, it is all too common. even among those who refer to themselves as “good Christians”.

    The Categorical Imperative is built upon a highly rationalist philosophy; the Golden Rule, which translates from many languages, cultures, and religions, is based upon common compassion.

    Either is preferable, either as an individual ethic or as a social ethos, to a viewpoint that denies the equal humanity of others and ignores their suffering.

    Indeed, having read the works of Hannah Arendt, I am convinced the essence of evil itself lies in the denial of the equal humanity of other people.

    Once again, thanks for an interesting post.

    Regards and respects,

    Jerry Stark

  2. Hugh, thanks for the revisit. I may have said this before, but let me highlight a few comments, based on my work as a Boardmember of organizations that help working homeless families.

    – people living paycheck to paycheck can find themselves homeless with a medical or car emergency, loss of a job or reduction in hours, etc.;
    – poverty is the absence of money; it is not based on lack of moral character or the absence of hard work;
    – helping people climb a ladder improves their chance at maintaining self-sufficiency;
    – their is a psychic income to those who help others.

    We all need help at some point. And, we have likely benefitted from a helping hand without full realization of it.


    • You make fair points.

      1. Most of the people in this society, even those we might consider well off, are but a few paychecks from financial disaster. Living in a society with no national health insurance system makes our lives more financially perilous than most would like to believe.

      2. One’s financial circumstance — be that poor or rich — is no reflection of one’s moral worth. The tortured arguments made in defense of the notion that social circumstance is a reflection of moral worth are unworthy of any name but that of ideology.

      3. Even if one begins with the notion of self-interest, one can quite readily argue for helping others on the basis of either social reciprocity, social investment, or social quality arguments. Three related questions help guide us in that direction:

      (1) What happens if I fall into need? Here is where social reciprocity makes sense. Families and communities often operate this way. The next question becomes whom we regard as kith and kin. That can be tricky. From what I can see, most major religious texts define kith and kin, in the moral sense, in very broad terms.

      (2) How do we help those in need become self-sufficient? This is where social investment comes into play.

      (3) What kind of society do we want to live? This is where the importance of social quality comes to bear.

      Each of these, among others, come easily under the category of enlightened self-interest.

      • I have always thought that one can manufacture a decent ethical system on the grounds of enlightened self-interest. The key is “enlightened.” If we take others into account, consider the long term, and realize that “there but not the grace of God I go,” we would end up with the Golden Rule.

  3. Years ago, I worked as a paralegal at one of the largest law firms in New York State, processing foreclosures. That’s all this law firm did. I hated my job; I didn’t last long there. I hated them & they hated me. I was working for the bad guys. What did me in was an altercation with a young secretary in the lunch room. She lived in one of the rich suburbs with her parents and she was going on about “people who refused to pay their bills” and how they “deserved to lose their houses”. At this point in my life, I was forty years old & had been through two divorces & had lost a LOT; I also knew people who had lost houses, as well as nearly everything else, due to loss of jobs & medical issues that nearly bankrupted them. So I told her off. I told her that her youth, her rich suburban life, all the help she was getting from her parents, made her unable to understand what it was like to be unable to pay your bills when you had kids to feed & clothe. She reported me to my superior & I defended myself … & then I was out of a job. Soon I was out of my apartment. But I don’t regret that at all. I was, indeed, working for the bad guys.

    It’s true that some people have no imagination. But they don’t even TRY. Nor do they listen when people tell them the truth about their situation & the situation of other people. I have no use for these people.

    • Very interesting. The young man I mentioned came from a very wealthy family as well! And I do wonder if folks like these simply cannot admit that they might be the ones in need. It may be some sort of defense mechanism?

    • The recognition that a person’s political / ethical perspective is based directly upon their own life experiences often yields considerable insight.

      This recognition does not negate their arguments, but it does make them understandable in context.

      Good point.

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