Moral imagination is not a term I latched onto right away. I’m still not sure I completely understand it, but here are my attempts.
At the Postmodern Conservative blog Jonathan Jones defines moral imagination as “a uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.” There is much more to his definition, but this is the part that got me thinking. When I interact with someone else we are interacting on several levels: economic, emotional, aesthetic, educational, biological, I don’t even know how many, but we also affect each in other in a moral way. I think this dimension is best described by C. S. Lewis, and he does it so exceedingly well I am going to quote him at great length:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. (“Weight of Glory”)
And even though nations, cultures, arts, and civilizations are mortal, they interact with and shape immortals, too. I may build a building, and it may eventually crumble, but in the intervening years it matters very much what kind of building it is. And certainly civilizations shape immortals for better or worse. While we need to be ever mindful of the immortals that we marry, snub, and exploit, we also need to be mindful of the culture that we create. We need to make things fit for the immortals we know.
That to me (so far) is moral imagination. Being able to see the moral dimension, invisible to the naked eye, and taking it into account in all of our affairs, with everyone we meet. I am terrible at this. But I am practicing.