Building the moral imagination
Religion & Liberty Online

Building the moral imagination

“How many people know how to ride a bicycle? How many people can explain how a bicycle works?” asked Michael Miller, research fellow at the Acton Institute, during his lecture on “Moral Imagination” at Acton University.

Knowing how to ride a bicycle, yet not being able to explain its exact mechanics, is just one example Miller gives to explain “inarticulate rationality.” This concept, developed by the 20th century polymath Michael Polanyi, recognizes that there are things people ought to do, know how to do, and yet cannot fully explain why.

Inarticulate rationality was most severely threatened during the French Revolution when a “hyper-rationalist” worldview emerged. Miller explains that this child of intellectual hubris attempts to force everything into a rationalistic framework. In his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke warns that in such a world “all the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies…, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

Although these “superadded ideas” are the hardest to explain, they are also most central to our being. They include heroism, sacrifice, beauty, and fidelity; taken together they make up the moral imagination. The existence of such ideas only makes sense if there is an inarticulate rationality to account for the inexplicable yet undeniable human experiences that the super-rationalist cannot explain.

If C.S. Lewis is right in asserting that humans are composed of head, chest, and stomach, the moral imagination can best be thought of as filling the chest. As Miller acknowledges, the chest, which provides intellect with the strength to rule the passions, is never a vacuum. It is always occupied. If it is not filled with a moral imagination, it will be occupied first by an idyllic imagination, which attempts to create Heaven on earth, and then by a diabolic one, which settles to create Hell.

Miller offers 14 ways to build the moral imagination. One way he highlights is the importance of reading fairy tales, both for children and adults. Such stories allow us to enter worlds where good is good and evil is evil, worlds where actions have consequences. Ultimately, these aim to dare the imagination to aspire: to reach for courage when fear appears and for nobility when temptation arises. Taken seriously, they can strengthen our love for and awareness of the superadded ideas that have the potential to make us supernatural beings.

Photo: Wikimedia, an illustration by Warwick Goble for Beauty and the Beast, 1913