Moral imagination as the foundation of ethics

Moral imagination as the foundation of ethics - Page 3

Instead of studying the ‘great evil man of the past’ it is important to study which groups and individuals where excluded by which (political, cultural, religious) system. The study of culture (anthropology) can also show what groups are discriminated against in different cultures. The main tool for this line of study and teaching is the Moral Imagination Switch: always try to imagine yourself to be in the worst off position and try to find out what can be done about that.

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Children tend to be morally imaginative when stimulated by explicit examples of moral evil or pity: children (and many adults too) cry when watching E.T.. They cry because they feel pity. That is a strange phenomenon: children feel pity for a creature which is alien. Children still have the basic competence for moral understanding: the ability to imagine to be in a position different from its own position, even if it is a creature alien from itself. The process of growing up and becoming socialized usually is a process of putting up moral blinkers in order not to feel pity and responsible for some kind of pain, agony or misery.

Children can have acute moral concern e.g. for a baby bird which has fallen from the nest. Grown ups usually do not care. Most children like farm animals. But most parents do not like to show their children how production animals are cruelly treated in factory farms. Probably because people are ashamed. The cruelty of factory farming is a public secret: everyone knows but as long as it is out of sight hardly anyone cares. Can the Moral Imagination

Switch help? Can you imagine yourself to be a cow which is held in a factory farm? Even without knowledge of animal psychology every child knows that these animals are not happy; not as happy as they would be in a green lush meadow. It is not hard to recognize suffering in animals. If I were a cow, I would not want to be maltreated in a factory farm.

It is important to keep in mind the evolutionary structure of organic nature. There is a scale of ability to suffer, depending on the development of the neural system and the brain. Mussels have a less developed neural system then apes; therefore the ability to suffer is less in mussels than in apes. To swat a fly (instantly killing an animal with a rudimentary neural system) therefore is different from torturing farm animals in factory farms (inflicting unnecessary continuous suffering to creatures that can suffer).

Moral imagination should be used in a coherent way. Here is an example of deficit moral imagination. Filmmaker Michael Moore writes in Stupid White Man (2001) that in one of his documentaries a rabbit is clubbed to death. This scene caused a lot of stir and an incredible load of reaction. Somewhat later in the same documentary a black man is shot.

This did not cause reaction. Several conclusions can be drawn from this anecdote. First, people do have moral imagination. They feel pity for the rabbit. Or, but this is a cynical interpretation, they do not care for the rabbit but they just do not want to see it. Second, the moral imagination works for a direct confrontation with animal cruelty, but not for humans. A crucial part of moral imagination has gone numb. This might be a result of the daily amount of cruelty, suffering and misery on television, both real and fictitious. Third, I do not suppose that all the people who where opposed to the rabbit scene were ethical vegetarians. Therefore, their moral imagination is weak. They do react outraged when confronted directly with cruelty against animals, but they do not care about the cruelty against animals in farm factoring.

The Moral Imagination Switch is a tool for moral reform. Using the tool can create solutions for many ethical problems, but not all problems can be solved with it. The Moral Imagination Switch can be used in a larger political and ethical theory of Universal Subjectivism. Universal Subjectivism is a form of social constructivism which uses a hypothetical social contract as thought experiment in order to look for a planetary ethics which has common ground with all humanity, and more.

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