Notes on Anthony Weston’s How to Re-Imagine the World

Anthony Weston‘s How to Re-Imagine the World: A Pocket Guide for Practical Visionaries is, like Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination and Johnson’s Morality for Humans, a book about moral imagination and its importance for our decisions about how to live. Unlike either of those books, though, there is not a whit of philosophical theorizing about ethics in this book. As Weston puts it in his opening words, “This book is a guide to creative thinking in service of radical social transformation” (p. 1). And that it is. In its small 142 pages it covers a wide variety of exhortations, strategies, and tips for creative thinking about our lives and our world.

Weston is relentlessly positive, perhaps even Romantic, without coming across as utopian in an out-of-touch, unconstrained idealism sort of way. The emphasis of the book is on vision and ideas. This is not a guide for practical activism on the ground, though there are tips and suggestions here and there about how to bring visions and ideas to life. No doubt, those truly hardened by Realpolitik and incrementalism, and many others besides, would find this book hokey and unrealistic. I see it as an invitation to be perceptive about the actual, and bring the imagination to bear in order to discover the possible. One of the best parts of the book is that it is constantly fleshing out its advice with examples that are fleshed out enough to be suggestive, but brief and sketchy enough so that you don’t get bogged down in the details. Again, some may find the style off-putting, but I liked it.

The book is organized into 23 very punch chapters (plus an exhortatory introduction and a brief afterword). The chapters are organized into five sections that are labeled with a few sentences describing major themes or strategies rather than section headings. The first section deals with the importance of working from a big-picture vision of the social reality one is aiming for. Visions inspire, bring people together, give us something positive to strive for, rather than merely a problem to fight against. The second section deals with strategies for creative or generative thinking, different ways of coming up with creative ideas that could drive social change. The third section goes in a somewhat more practical direction, providing suggestions for how to look for “tipping points” and other dynamics that make radical change achievable. Here I was reminded of Fesmire’s discussion of moral imagination as “creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities.”

The fourth section of the book discusses the way that cultural institutions, practices, norms, and world views can act as barriers to change, but also can be shifted and reconstructed to make change possible. The final section deals with more practical issues of how to build momentum behind idea, make alliances, and achieve goals. (This, for me, was the least satisfying part of the book, in part because it didn’t seem to disclose very concrete possibilities for change.)

As an aside, I think there is a bit of the book where Weston neatly captures, in plain, easily digested language, the valuable insight from Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” (At least, the take-away that I find valuable enough to keep teaching the essay.)

Let us adopt the term Resourcism for the worldview (assumption or ideology) that the Earth is essentially just a set of resources for our use. Trees are just standing lumber; rocky hills are just gravel pits waiting to happen; other animals are just living meat, and even you and I may be reduced to customers or ‘Human Resources.’ Take all of this to its logical conclusion and of course we have environmental crisis, an Earth being sucked dry. But it is hard to recognize the root cause when we don’t have a word for it Resourcism shows this world-view for what it is: a relentless, single-minded, narrow value-system, and certainly not the only one possible. (p. 115)

In sum, there are a few good reasons to read this book. If you’re in need of a boost to your moral imagination, if you’re hungry for social change but dissatisfied with the binary, oppositional terms of contemporary debate, or if you want to teach your students to think creatively about ethics and political philosophy, in terms of possibilities rather than abstract theories and criteria. Don’t expect a lot of philosophical depth or intellectual rigor, though; that’s not what this book is trying to do.

Notes on Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans

Mark Johnson‘s Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science is another book, like Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination, that I am hoping to use as a background for Science and Moral Imagination. In the book, Johnson provides a broadly naturalistic, Deweyan pragmatist account of morality centered on moral deliberation and the role of imagination in moral deliberation. Johnson’s book complements Fesmire’s in much the way that I was hoping, i.e., it makes good use of Dewey’s distinction between “valuing” and “valuation” (though I thought Dewey called the latter “evaluation” — something I’ll have to check), and it discusses at length the relationship between science and ethics, not only the influence of science on ethics, which is a central part of Johnson’s story, but also the sense in which moral deliberation is a kind of empirical inquiry.

Johnson is probably most well-known for his long-term collaboration with cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and their work on embodied metaphor theory in cognitive semantics and its philosophical implications. It is no surprise that Johnson so adeptly reviews the empirical literature and draws implications for our understanding of morality. Johnson does not limit himself to embodied metaphor theory, but draws on the affective neuroscience of Damasio, the moral psychology of Haidt, the neurophilosophy of the Churchlands, the feminist developmental psychology of Carol Gilligan, and many other scientific sources as well as philosophers’ insights from a variety of traditions, in a way that is satisfying and provocative without becoming reductionistic or scientistic.

Chapter 1, “Moral Problem-Solving as an Empirical Inquiry,” provides a powerful argument against the idea that there is a special realm of “moral experience” and against the Kantian idea that there is a peculiar kind of “moral judgment” distinct from our ordinary repertoire of problem-solving strategies. Chapter 2 canvasses the various sources of our values, including biology, kinship, social institutions, and cultural sources. Johnson points out that some values will be universal or near-universal simply due to the necessities biological functioning and the requirements of any functioning social interaction or institution, though there will also be a lot of cultural variation. In this chapter, Johnson builds on and critically assesses Damasio’s affective neuroscience and Haidt’s moral foundations theory.

Chapter 3 reviews the popular two-process account of moral psychology, which posits an intuitive-level, affect-driven process of moral evaluation that rules most of our moral lives, and a process of moral reasoning whose main function is post-hoc justification of intuition. Johnson argues for either a third process, or another version of the second process of moral reasoning, which he calls moral deliberation, and the theory of moral deliberation occupies Chapters 4-5. Johnson does not dispute dual-process theory per se, but argues that there is another important process in our moral lives that it ignores.

Johnson’s account of moral deliberation is fully Deweyan. Moral deliberation is problem-solving inquiry that addresses a particular situation in which our habits, desires, and values are inadequate to the conditions of the particular situation. It involves gathering information about the situation and dramatic rehearsal in imagination of various possible courses of action. Johnson adopts whole hog Dewey’s view that this process is regulated by qualitative considerations, and that the goal of inquiry is to transform a situation characterized by an indeterminate, perplexing, problematic quality to one that is determinate, stable, allowing us to move forward in a satisfactory way. The process of moral deliberation as inquiry is “reasonable” if it actually transforms the situation in a way that resolves the problem or perplexity that occasioned deliberation. This process changes not only our values and our perception of the world, but the world itself and ourselves via a new structure of activities and interactions. (If anything from Dewey’s view of inquiry is missing here, it is his emphasis on “experimental testing” prior to judgment, but I must admit I am also unclear how this would work in the case of moral deliberation.)

The last three chapters held relatively less interest for me, partly because I didn’t need to be convinced of most of these things, partly because it doesn’t serve my needs as much. Chapter 6 takes to task those moral psychologists who have been tempted to revive talk of a separate “moral faculty.” Chapter 7, “Moral Fundamentalism is Immoral,” takes on both religious and rationalistic forms of moral fundamentalism, taken as the idea that there are either universally binding moral laws or absolute and foundational moral facts. These views are both incompatible with our cognitive machinery and detrimental to the needs of genuine moral deliberation, and so both impossible for humans to use and immoral insofar as we try. Moral realism is treated as an absolutist, foundationalist belief in moral facts independent of the natural picture of the world. (While this is certainly a common view under the heading of “Moral Realism,” I think Johnson is mistaken to treat this as the only way one could be a moral realist.)

Chapter 8 discusses the nature of moral experience and the moral self. Continuing the metaphysical discussion from the previous chapter, Johnson posits a pragmatist process metaphysics about values and norms, in contrast to both the objectivist metaphysics according to which values or principles are discovered, and a relativist metaphysics according to which they are arbitrarily made up. According to the pragmatist process view the metaphor of “creative transformation of our experience” and the moral deliberator as artist are much more apt. Johnson also defends Dewey’s view, which I have always found puzzling, that the ultimate end of moral deliberation is growth, on the grounds that moral deliberation requires a willingness to revise the values and habits that constitute the self to deal with ever new situations. This chapter also includes a detailed, and fairly satisfying, example of moral deliberation, about the ethics of gay marriage.

I think there is one major missed connection in Johnson’s account that connects very closely with my own interests. On the one hand, Johnson appears to hold a basically realist (if critical and fallibilist) attitude towards the science he relies on in his account. On the other hand, he denies moral realism because it is supposedly absolutist and foundationalist in untenable ways. However, Johnson himself denies that there are distinctive types of experience and inquiry. It is the first major argument of the book. Presumably, this would require us to reject the dichotomy between scientific and moral experience and inquiry, and to see his pragmatist process metaphysics as applying broadly to human knowledge, not just to values and norms. If this still permits a realist attitude about science, which I think it does, why can it not permit a realist attitude about the valuations that result from reasonable processes of moral deliberation?

My notes on Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans

Update: I had a brief email exchange with Mark Johnson about the question at the end of the post, and he basically agrees with me. He just avoids talk of “realism” in this context because it has become associated with problematic views that are absolutist, fundamentalist, and foundationalist.

Notes on Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. Fesmire reads Dewey together with Martha Nussbaum on Aristotelian practical wisdom and emotion in ethics, and Lakoff on Johnson on embodied metaphor in cognitive semantics, to set forward an account of moral deliberation in which moral imagination plays a central role. (Havelock Ellis, Alisdair MacIntyre, and James T. Farrell all play supporting roles as well.) Typical of much Dewey scholarship, Fesmire’s approach is to think-with Dewey about the topic of moral imagination, rather than to simply provide an interpretation of Dewey’s work. The approach has costs and benefits, but for my purposes, it was a useful one.

The brief introduction starts with a silly quote from Havelock Ellis about “The academic philosophers of ethics” and their “slavery to rigid formulas” being “the death of all high moral responsibility.” It proceeds to identify a shift in the center of gravity of ethics, exemplified by the work of Nussbaum, MacIntyre, Nel Noddings, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Owen Flanagan, and Mark Johnson. The shift is away from ultimate moral criteria towards practical wisdom, character, narrative, caring, moral luck, pluralism, and psychological realism. Rules and principles have a role to play in ethics, but not as ultimate criteria or as decision-procedures.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of three chapters and reviews pragmatist philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and epistemology. The focus is on character, habit, belief, reason, and intelligence. A nice summary from Chapter 2:

Classical pragmatism situates reason within the broad context of the whole person in action. It replaces beliefs-as-intellectual-abstractions with beliefs-as-tendencies-to-act, pure reason with practical inquiry, and objectivist rationality with imaginative situational intelligence. (p. 28)

Bain, Peirce, and James play a big role in this first part along with Dewey. Given her focus on ethics and social issues, I wish that Jane Addams had played an equally central role, but she’s rarely given adequate treatment. Nothing in this section will surprise those familiar with classical pragmatism and the way this diverse cast of characters are usually put together into a unified (Dewey-centric) narrative, though Fesmire’s presentation is helpfully clear and concise.

Part II is the account of moral imagination in the context of pragmatist ethics. The first chapter provides the context for pragmatist (Deweyan) ethics more broadly. Some of the key features are: pluralism of ethical principles, factors, or values / value-types; moral deliberation as reconciliation or integration of these often-conflicting factors through inquiry; the value of moral ethical rules or principles is in making salient these independent factors or values. This chapter also introduces the two key ways that imagination plays a role in moral deliberation: empathetic projection as the imaginative adoption of values, perspectives, and attitudes of others, and creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities by imaginatively exploring different aspects of the situation and the dramatically rehearsing the possible courses of action they afford. (The latter, Fesmire holds, is Dewey’s main focus.) This kind of imagination is the ability “to see the actual in the light of the possible” (p. 67, quoting Alexander).

Chapter 5 discusses the role of imagination conceived as dramatic rehearsal in moral deliberation. (For Dewey, it is so central that sometimes he just refers to moral deliberation as “dramatic rehearsal.”) Dewey thinks of moral deliberation as a kind of problem-solving inquiry, where the conflict arises from the conflicts between currently held values in particular situations. For Dewey, deliberation or inquiry requires that rather than just acting in the face of a problem, we step back and withhold immediate action, channeling our conflicting impulses into dramatic rehearsal of possible courses of action. Exploring these possibilities through careful examination of the facts of the situation, bringing prior knowledge to bear, along with dramatic rehearsal is what intelligent moral deliberation requires; and finally, action is treated as an experimental test of the chosen hypothesis, whose success or failure will modify future conduct. Finally, Fesmire incorporates George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s work in cognitive semantics to argue that the imaginative process depends heavily on metaphor, and these metaphors are in fact central to our cognitive and linguistic machinery. These metaphors are, of course, embodied, in a way that fits well with Dewey’s emphasis as organism-environment-culture interaction as the scene of human mind.

The last two chapters constitute an extended exploration of the metaphor of “moral deliberation as art.” I was pretty skeptical of the value of this analogy at first, but I was convinced of its utility. One value of the metaphor is that it can help overcome the more dominant metaphor of morality as accounting, according to which well-being is wealth, duty is debt, and moral deeds are transactions. Another valuable feature of the metaphor is that it centers the importance of perceptiveness, creativity, skill, and the response of the Other (the audience) in moral deliberation.

I found myself disappointed in only a few ways. First, there was not enough attention to Dewey’s central distinction between what he calls valuing/evaluation, prizing/appraisal, satisfying/satisfactory, or desires/value judgments. It is there (notably on pp. 96-7), but it doesn’t play a huge role. Second, there was very little discussion of the relationship between science and ethics. Third, there wasn’t much engagement with other contemporary theorists of moral deliberation or practical ethics, besides those (like Nussbaum) who are clearly working a similar vein of thought as Dewey.