Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 333-336
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Social Justice and the Moral Imagination

Robert Craig
In a society that emphasizes autonomy and individuality, many individuals, including today's youth, have difficulty grasping the ethical dimensions of social justice issues (Bellah et al. 1985). The development of the moral imagination will lead to a healthier society in which social justice can thrive. The development and use of the moral imagination, in fact, is one of the major ingredients that helps students become sensitive to social justice issues. Social action begins with the individual and we can teach social justice by encouraging our students to enter imaginatively into the experiences and feelings created by social injustice.
Murdoch (1983, 89) argues that in doing ethics...all one can do is to appeal to certain areas of experience, pointing out certain features and using the imagination to use suitable metaphors and inventing suitable concepts where necessary to make these features visible.
In essence, Murdoch suggests that human imagination and the moral imagination overlap and interrelate because the moral imagination is a subprocess of the imagination. That is, the moral imagination uses specific moral and ethical contexts to develop metaphors and symbols imaginatively that help explain the nature and reality of their inherent moral dilemmas and principles.
Likewise, Hall (1986, 51) includes the moral imagination as a specific aspect of imagination in general. He notes that the imagination is the cluster of human skills that allows individuals "to fantasize and to imaginally entertain as to imaginally relate various aspects of experience." Ricoeur (1977) argues further that the moral imagination has three functions: the imaginary reconstruction of events, situations, and experiences; deducing moral rules or principles from imaginary episodes; and using metaphors or symbols to motivate or stimulate action.

Students may not be morally sensitive to social justice issues because they don't understand the difference between pragmatic and moral reasoning. For instance, many communities throughout the United States have instituted recycling programs based on pragmatic, not moral, reasons-e.g., there are not enough natural resources to go around, or the community will make or save a certain amount of money by recycling.

A moral argument for recycling, like a pragmatic argument, would also include consequences. The consequences in a moral, utilitarian argument, however, would support such ethical criteria as promotion of the greatest happiness or the greatest good. Or, the consequences of not recycling may be used to argue that specific moral principles-such as "do not actively harm others" (Craig 1991)-are being violated.

Moral arguments are not necessarily more valid than pragmatic arguments. By using merely pragmatic arguments, however, students might miss an opportunity to develop ethical sensitivity because if moral issues are reduced to pragmatic concerns they lose their moral force. A pragmatic argument will not sufficiently describe a process by which students can become morally sensitive to the social justice aspects of various moral issues.

For instance, people seem to think that moral decisions are personal decisions. Consider the issue of a quality education. People realize that lacking a quality education will affect them and their children; the social dimension of this moral issue becomes, essentially, a personal moral issue. When I taught a course on death and dying, my students viewed moral decisions, such as the removal of nutrition and hydration, in light of the patient's suffering or that of the patient's family.

The students' views do not suggest that such decisions are not crucial moral issues. The students' initial moral assessment, however, lacks consideration of the social dimension of medicine and the moral problems inherent in medical practice, such as the physician-patient relationship and the trust following from this wider consideration (Craig 1988). For instance, when strong lobbying groups such as the Hemlock Society pushed the state of California to develop proeuthanasia legislation, most of the rhetoric focused on the patient's right to a peaceful death or on the patient's right to end the misery and intolerable suffering of their sickness or disease. I do not want to minimize the ethical difficulty here. On the other hand, social dimensions are part of such euthanasia legislation, and students were initially completely unaware of the slippery slope argument: Who controls the criteria for what quality of life means? Would this include the retarded? the elderly?

Let me give a final example. Unemployment affects individuals and their families. Information on unemployment statistics is reported often on nightly newscasts, testifying to the enormity of this social problem. Seldom, however, is unemployment described in moral terms despite its profound effects on the self-worth and dignity of individuals. To grasp the issues of human dignity and worth is to note that unemployment is a serious moral crisis.

A relationship, sometimes tense, certainly exists between private beliefs and public behavior. Confronted with the above examples, however, my students showed a complete lack of sensitivity to that relationship indicating that moral and social justice issues such as recycling, quality education, the removal of nutrition and hydration from dying patients, euthanasia, and unemployment have become private matters. Developing students' moral imagination will help them become cognizant of and capable of responding to the moral dimensions of social justice issues at the same time shedding light on the tension between private beliefs and public behavior.

Moral Imagination and Today's Youth
Moral experience is directly related to moral education. That is, if students do not have experience of social immorality (or what is referred to as structural or institutional evil), they cannot understand that significant social issues have a moral dimension. A mere abstract presentation of social injustice, therefore, is not sufficient.

In my classes I ask students to write a personal story centered on a conflict of values or morals-a real-life situation in which their values or moral principles were compromised. Students share their stories as a means of discerning the various processes inherent in the functioning of the moral imagination and as a vehicle for discussing moral and social justice concerns. What follows is a story a high school student wrote about social injustice.

Jane's Story
All my life I have been compared to my brother, who is two years older. Bill gets these grades; Bill is captain of this team; Bill is popular; Bill is on the student senate; etc. No one ever said exactly, "Why aren't you like Bill?" but I knew that was the issue.
Whenever Bill introduced me to his friends he referred to me as his "little sister." I remember growing up and not being allowed to play certain games, such as climbing trees or sports, because I am a girl.
Whenever relatives came over (or really anyone), I was expected to help with the meal, set the table, do the dishes, etc. Bill didn't even have to be present-after, of course, everyone recognized all the good things he was into.
I never wanted to be Bill, nor even to be like Bill. All I wanted was to be liked and valued because I am me. Even today at club meetings, they ask me or some other girl to make coffee, get the cokes and chips, etc. I resent this so much that I simply refuse, and call the boys spoiled, lazy brats. I suppose this is not the best way to deal with sexism.
Yet, I constantly feel put down. My parents have saved enough money to put Bill through college (plus whatever scholarships he will get). I was told I'd have to work my way through college, although I could stay at home for nothing. Isn't that nice??? I realize now these comparisons and attitude are perpetuated by my parents, and even by the school I attend. The male teacher who directs the club I belong to has done nothing about the sexism, except to say, "Work it out among yourselves." We (the girls) do not have the power to do that. And the teacher must know that.
I feel good about being female, but I think social values and structures need to change before I, or any other female, can begin to value myself as myself.

Moral sensibility and sensitivity are developed primarily, although not exclusively, through the functioning of the moral imagination. As previously mentioned, Ricoeur (1977) argues that three functions are involved in the use of the moral imagination one of which is to reconstruct, among other things, events, situations, or individuals involved. In the above story, Jane imaginatively reconstructs the experience of being compared to her brother. She notes that others have commented on Bill's popularity, his athletic and leadership abilities, and so on. She also imaginatively reconstructs situations in which she was introduced as Bill's "little sister," and in which she perceived gender inequities.

The second function of the moral imagination, according to Ricoeur (1977), is to draw moral principles imaginatively from particular situations (as opposed to imposing moral principles onto situations, an aspect of deductive logic [Kelly 1990]). Although Jane does not phrase the moral principles this way, she is saying that she discovers deontological principles through an imaginative reconstruction of her experience. Kant (1959) defines one such deontological position, noting that when individuals are treated as a means to another's ends, such treatment is immoral. Jane suggests this position when she expresses her desire "to be liked and valued because I am me." The examples she presents of being put down by her parents and teachers also display the moral imagination grappling with injustice. The moral principles, then, are found deep within Jane's imaginative reconstruction of her experience of sexism. They are not imposed on the situation from without.

During classroom discussion I help students make the connection between their language and specific moral principles, categories, and rules. Jane did not automatically induce the Kantian moral principle of respect for persons from her experience of having her feelings hurt; I needed to facilitate the discussion in which Jane expanded on the relationship between her hurt feelings and sexism. Although the moral principle is implicit in her story, I asked questions to make the principle explicit: How does it feel to be put down? Can you be more specific about why you think this feeling is related to unjust treatment? Why do you indicate that the unjust treatment is pervasive and is perpetuated by social institutions such as the family and the school? Can you say more about why you feel social values and structures need to change? These questions help students develop an understanding of the moral imagination and the relationship between events, feelings, and social injustice.

The final function of the moral imagination Ricoeur (1977) mentions is the moral force of symbols and metaphors. It is the symbol of sexism that leads Jane to action. The reference to sexism is symbolic because it is the product of Jane's imagination. It is through the symbolic reference that Jane feels strongly enough to "feel good about being female."

Although she voices a sense of powerlessness (" not have the power to do that. And the teacher must know that"), Jane also notes that sexism is tied to social structures that "need to change before I...can begin to value myself as myself." She has not yet taken any steps toward this goal nor has she made any recommendations about how she might accomplish it. With its pejorative connotations and involvement of personal feelings, however, the symbol of sexism has made Jane more than merely aware of the existence of this social injustice. The symbol also begins to lead to action, namely, the recognition that social structures need to change. Jane admits that refusing to make coffee and calling the boys names "is not the best way to deal with sexism." The next step, then, is to direct her reason and imagination toward constructive ways of responding to the structural and institutional aspects of sexism.

Jane's story illustrates the power of the moral imagination at work. Jane's use of the imagination to reconstruct the experiences of sexism leads to the articulation of a moral position (through imagination and feeling). The power of the symbol of sexism then leads Jane to a heightened moral sensitivity and sensibility, which leads to action and encompasses the potential for further (perhaps more appropriate) action if directed properly.

Moral Issues within Social Justice: Providing Concrete Experiences
The types of experiences related to social moral issues are limited only by the imagination of teachers, students, counselors, administrators, community leaders, and parents. Social moral issues need to relate to the real world and experience of the child or youth. Much of this experience is not necessarily within a school setting.

Students need to meet and communicate with individuals from races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds different than their own. Socialization and play activities become a natural vehicle for improving understanding and acceptance. One day I substitute taught a 5th grade music class. Because my voice and ability to lead singing leave much to be desired, I asked some of the children to teach us ethnic songs. I could not help but notice white, black, and brown hands holding the song sheets for each other, smiling and laughing with each other, and enjoying the diversity. In another case, I taught an art class, again not one of my strengths, and asked a particular child to suggest an art project that related to something valuable in her culture or in understanding herself. The students' imaginations suggested using materials that made the art projects more relevant than my limited experience and ability ever could. The point is, we related the projects to a social, moral situation, conflict, or area that demanded deep understanding.

Relating the children's school assignments to conflicts and issues in their lives and within the school, I was able to use those assignments as a basis for discussing moral and social justice issues. For example, one girl in my class brought in a dead bird and asked why it had to die. Instead of attempting an answer, I asked the children to bring to class pictures from newspapers or magazines that showed dead animals. We then discussed moral issues related to the treatment of animals. I was amazed at the children's ability to share why the mistreatment of animals is a moral issue. Their moral sensitivity seemed to be heightened by this activity.

I have learned that children can relate to diversity and to moral issues as they appear in social contexts more honestly and readily than adults, who, after all, come to their experience armed with all sorts of social and racial biases and baggage. I have the feeling that such experiences can help children avoid all types of negative stereotyping as they grow and develop. What we need, I would argue, is to confront social and moral situations initially through the imagination.

Field trips-visiting hospitals, becoming involved in environmental concerns, and delivering food to food banks-can be an effective means of facilitating children's and adolescents' social-moral development. If we shelter children and adolescents from the real world of poverty, sickness, and alienation, they will never gain the experience necessary to develop the social, moral imagination.

Teachers need to guide students in discovering the issues of social justice that a particular field trip might raise. For instance, a visit to a nursing home can raise all kinds of questions, both moral and nonmoral. Teachers might ask their students to write down any questions they have (anything from the cost of the nursing home to specific treatment of residents) and put them into a classroom "question box." Students could investigate and reflect on questions for which the teacher did not have an answer, especially those involving moral and social justice issues.

Simulation Activities and Social Justice
Another way of helping students become sensitive to moral and social justice issues is through simulation games. Because children develop imagination skills through play, simulation games are a powerful source of developing the moral imagination-if the teacher properly guides and directs them.

As Piaget (1965) notes, children's games are important structures for moral learning and development. In fact, Piaget (1965) suggests that children view moral rules and obligations from either of two possible perspectives, depending on the way they answer questions about the rules of a particular game. Young children view the necessity of rules based on a model of authority. When asked, "Why do you play the game that way?" they might respond, "Because such and such a player does it that way." As children begin to mature, they move from this "morality of constraint," as Piaget (1965) calls it, to a "morality of cooperation." When asked about the necessity for particular rules, the child might respond, "Because if we don't follow those rules we won't be able to play the game." In other words, they begin to see rules as a cooperative contract or agreement necessary to the game.

Likewise, games usually demand the use of the imagination; games surrounding social justice issues require the use of the moral imagination. Role playing, for instance, can allow students to enter imaginatively into the world of the oppressed. Such a role-play might be followed by a dialogue about what kinds of rules students believe are part of being oppressed-that is, what kinds of social rules continue to reinforce forms of oppression. How do following such rules make people feel about themselves? What kinds of institutional or social rule changes might be necessary to begin to rectify the oppression? Notice that the use of the moral imagination is prominent in developing this moral sensitivity and sensibility. That is, the moral imagination is the vehicle students use to enter the world and experiences of oppression in its various forms.

We cannot develop the moral imagination through mere theoretical discussion of poverty or oppression. Taking on some aspect of the social injustice, however, allows students to have a strong imaginative connection with the injustice. A connection exists between one's attitude toward social justice and one's life-style. Symbolic gestures-such as missing one meal a week or not eating between meals two days a week-allow students to relate imaginatively their life-styles to the life-styles of others. When students engage in such a symbolic gesture, they voluntarily accept some aspect or degree of the evil, albeit in a small way.

Kohlberg (1982) has noted that the development of empathy is the sine qua non of moral growth. Likewise, Hall (1986) has suggested that a wide variety of interpersonal skills are a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for moral action. The various activities and processes leading to the development and functioning of the moral imagination help develop interpersonal skills and a moral sensitivity and sensibility, that, we hope, leads to action.

One could argue that giving up potato chips and soft drinks twice a week is minimal compared to the entrenchment of institutional or structural evil. It certainly is, but this is not the point. Since we live in a consumer-oriented, extremely wasteful society, changes will occur only if individuals' commitments and priorities change. That is, change will only occur if we change our attitudes and behavior regarding social injustice.

Real, valuable, and lasting moral learning occurs through the use of the moral imagination. The development of moral sensitivity and sensibility is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for such social change. The development and use of the moral imagination, then, is one of the prime components in helping our students become sensitive to social injustice. Moral sensitivity and sensibility is required to recognize that a particular act is strongly entrenched in the social structure. It is from this growth that commitment and moral action form their roots and grow.

Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.Craig, Robert. "The Development of Moral Imagination." Illinois School Research and Development 27 (Spring 1991): 122-26._____."Ethical Issues in Death and Dying." Values and Ethics 3 (Winter 1988): 3-4.Hall, Brian. The Genesis Effect: Personal and Organizational Transformations. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.Murdoch, Iris. "Quandry Ethics." In Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.Kelly, David. The Art of Reasoning. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.Kohlberg, Lawrence. Essays on Moral Development. 2 Vols. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982.Piaget, Jean. The Moral Judgement of the Child. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1965.Ricouer, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.Additional Sources
Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.Craig, Robert. "Ethics and Education Leadership." Texas Study of Secondary Education Research Journal 46 (Spring 1989): 20-24.Hauerwas, Stanley. Truthfulness and Tragedy. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.Robert Craig is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Studies at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas 77204-5874.