Awakening the Moral Imagination: Excerpts FROM THE PANEL ON OCTOBER 3, 2012


Niva Tro

Nivaldo J. Tro, Professor of Chemistry

The Road Ahead and the Moral Imagination

At the same time that STEM education [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] is getting renewed emphasis in the U.S., educational technologies are changing the educational landscape—from top to bottom—like never before. At Stanford University last year, 100,000 people signed up for an experimental online course on applied machine learning, a course offered on the internet for free by a Stanford computer science professor. That professor has gone on to start a company called Coursera, which now offers over 200 courses from 33 universities online for free. At Harvard, students check into Professor Mazur’s General Physics course the way you would check into an airplane. A computer algorithm monitors students' understanding throughout the class and automatically pairs struggling students with those around them that understand for peer-to-peer instruction. . . . Globally, an estimated 50 million people do not have electricity at home but do have a phone. In Africa and other underdeveloped countries, the cell phone revolution and computer revolution are happening together, right now. Imagine how access to educational resources on the internet might impact a family who can pool their resources to buy one smartphone.

We might view these developments as a threat to places like Westmont—and maybe they are—but my hunch is that the kind of education that we offer here is unique, and I don’t know how it can be replaced with technology. Nonetheless, online technology can educate, especially in areas like science that are heavy in content and skills that can be evaluated relatively easily because they have a correct “answer.” I am guessing that even though a purely online education will never be the best kind of education, it will be better than no education. In the U.S., only about 30% of adults have a college degree, and in developing countries of course the percentages are much lower.

The confluence of the push for STEM education and the technology to do it more cheaply provides some challenges and opportunities which might invoke what our provost is calling the “Moral Imagination.” Let me address one of these. The major focus of the push for STEM education is largely utilitarian—we need STEM education so that our economy can produce more goods and services to compete on the world stage. What is missing from this is the value of scientific understanding for its own sake. Many of the major triumphs of science have not been the result of the search for a specific technology, but the result of men and women who valued knowing about the world around us.

Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t understand anything about chemistry, they are missing an important source of happiness.”

John Henry Newman, in his 19th century book The Idea of a University, says, “Hence Physical Science generally, in all its departments, as bringing before us the exuberant riches and resources, yet the orderly course, of the Universe, elevates and excites the student, and at first, I may say, almost takes away his breath . . ..” This part of science—the part that enriches our lives through the understanding of our world—is lost on many people today, because we have a narrowly utilitarian view of science. Unfortunately, the push for STEM seems to only exacerbate the problem—I am not hearing anyone in Washington saying students should learn chemistry because it will make them happy.

Ironically, it may be this highly utilitarian view that is responsible for the apathy towards science that has created the STEM crisis. If the point of science is just to make a better shampoo, or a more durable plastic, then why should I care to learn it? Let someone else do it. Maybe this is why a large fraction of Americans would rather clean a toilet than solve a math problem . . . the inherent value of understanding science and math has been lost. Maybe it is time to engage the moral imagination to counter that trend.


Eileen McQuadeEileen McMahon McQuade, Associate Professor of Biology

Deeper Questions

Conversations on ethics are such a rarity at large research institutions. Indeed, scientists' often complete lack of interest in ethics caused the National Institutes of Health to require some ethics component in graduate school curriculum. They require a two-hour workshop, but I can quickly sum up their three main messages: 1. Don’t falsify data. 2. Follow the laws protecting human and animal subjects. 3. Treat colleagues with respect and integrity.

These points are well and good, but considering the audience was full of grad students, postdocs, and well-educated people in general, I felt that these rules were the scientific equivalent of rules on a poster in a 2nd grade classroom: 1. Don’t lie. 2. Don’t hurt anyone. 3. Be kind.

I was left with the feeling . . . is this it? It this the depth of our discourse on this important topic? Instead, let’s really talk about animal research and why our protections for primates are different than those for rats, which are different from those of sea urchins. Let’s talk about the funding levels for biomedical research and whether the gains justify the spending. Let’s talk about monetary compensation for tissue and cell donation and why we pay a man to donate sperm for research but don’t pay someone to donate bone marrow to save someone’s life. . . .

Expectations on scientists to think about these issues are very low and the scientific culture itself causes scientists to opt out voluntarily from these dialogues. . . I truly believe it is students like ours here at Westmont who can change this attitude and this institutionalized system. There are two lessons I hope my biology students learn. First, to gain a thorough and technical understanding of the issues and be able to explain these clearly to non-scientists. Bob Wennberg was such a beloved philosophy professor here. . . . He emphasized that the first step in any ethical question was "to get the facts straight." In a technical field like biomedical science, this is not trivial. If you are trying to decide if a particular genetic test should be mandated by law for all newborns, it probably matters if the disease is preventable or treatable, if it is fatal, and if the presence of the gene is completely determinative or if it simply increases risk. And if the latter then how much? 25%? 50%? 85%? Too often in bioethical conversations facts are used selectively or an issue is oversimplified or exaggerated to make a point. We need scientists who can offer unbiased translation, who can interpret these complex and technical issues for a lay audience. There is not a culture of doing this in science and many scientists, in my experience, lack the discipline and patience to do this because it is hard! We need many voices to weigh in on these issues—scientists, ethicists, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens who are called to navigate this brave new work of biomedical technology and possibilities . . .

Second, to resist any mindless seduction of new technology but to embrace innovation that provide creative solutions to ethical tensions. I have had the experience of seeing others compelled to give up ethical commitments in light of a new innovation, in light of a new medical breakthrough. . . Innovation in stem cell research has largely solved much of the ethical tensions involved embryonic stem cell research, as we can now use stem cells without destruction of the embryo. My greatest hope is that my students can be full participants in finding the innovative solutions we need most.


Warren Rogers

Warren Rogers, Professor of Physics

Humility, Awe and Basic Knowledge

What I would like to address is how my field of physics provides fertile ground for the moral imagination. A lot of the findings of physics certainly stir our imagination, often in ways that are profound and far-reaching. There are two basic areas in which physics does stir our moral imagination. One is the sense of humility and awe that physics continues to develop in those who are keeping track of our universe and our place in the universe. And the other is how physics, purely out of the pursuit of knowledge, has helped promote moral activity—if one understands moral activity as relieving suffering and increasing the quality of life—in ways that are accidental, serendipitous, marvelous and miraculous. . . .

The universe is built out of twelve particles and four forces. If you were given the charge to make a universe out of twelve particles and four forces, would you ever come up with something as rich, and as complicated, and as inspiring and deep and as miraculous as this current universe in which we currently live? Therefore, our humble sense of awe is one way in which the fertile ground for the birthing and sustenance of a moral imagination can develop. And the other addresses the issue of utility versus basic research. I am often asked what justifies the research that I do. And I say that we are pursuing basic knowledge. Many people often ask: “What is the use of spending tax dollars on pursuing basic knowledge when we have the poor to feed, the suffering to ease, and the quality of life to raise in the Third World?” I usually go into this metaphor about a tree. The fruits of the tree are the technology, but the branches give life to the fruit (the branches are like research and development), the trunk is like applied research, and the roots are the fundamental basic pursuit of knowledge. Without watering those roots, you won’t develop the fruits that we benefit from.

I'll bring up some examples of discoveries made in the pursuit of knowledge which bore fruit later on that would not necessarily have been anticipated. Nuclear magnetic resonance was discovered in the 1940's—we could spin little nuclei on their axes and it was very peculiar—but out of that several decades later was born the technology of magnetic resonance imaging. We can now peer inside the body in seemingly miraculous ways that we would have never anticipated nor developed without this basic pursuit of knowledge. Semi-conductors were developed with the knowledge that you could apply a small voltage to a material and a current would flow, and now we have computers that fill nearly everything from our coffee makers to our cars. . . . So I would say today that we are in a place where Psalm 19 rings more truly than ever: "The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim His handiwork." We are coming to see that borne out every day in the discoveries of physics and the natural sciences—that the beautiful world in which we live is filled with miraculous evidence of God's creative handiwork and they benefit us in ways that are really born out of the pursuit of knowledge.



Deborah Dunn

Deborah Dunn, Professor of Communication Studies

Reconciliation and Imagination

I want to start by saying something that some of you have heard me say before, and that was a turning point and a calling in my own professional life and life of faith. It occured while visiting a reconciliation center on the north coast of Ireland and spotting a poster that said: “If the Church has nothing to say about reconciliation, the Church has nothing to say” . . . How can we prepare our students to be effective agents of reconciliation in whatever church roles, societal roles, or family roles they come to occupy?

John Paul Lederach’s thesis in The Moral Imagination is that “transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination.” Don’t get comfortable and think I’m referencing violence in far-off places. We have violence here—on our own streets, in our own towns, and in our own schools . . . How to transcend the violence that permeates our lives? According to Lederach, we need to practice four disciplines, to build four capacities.

First, we must build the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies. There is the story of the professor and the Tajikstan warlord, who come to a place of relationship and dialogue via poetry and philosophy. Eventually the warlord asks if the professor can guarantee his safety. The professor tells him the truth:  he cannot.  Then he says, “But I can guarantee this.  I will go with you, side by side.  And if you die, I will die.”

Lederach suggests that the second capacity is the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity. . . . How do we practice paradoxical curiosity?  Fred Craddock, known for his advocacy of narrative preaching, says no one can preach without an empathic imagination, because otherwise he will be hurling words at strangers. Craddock knows that we get at empathic imagination via stories.  We have parables and fables and myths and epics—they’ve endured for centuries because they engage the empathic imagination.  Stories are primal.  Powerful.  Entering the lives and heads of characters in stories help us build our capacity to think of multiple things being true at once, of persons as having multiple goals operating simultaneously, of being neither wholly good nor wholly evil. 

We also know, however, that at some point we must narrate our own lives, we must create our own space for action. This is Lederach’s third capacity:  the fundamental belief in, pursuit of, and space for, the creative act: “The moral imagination takes form and expression through an act. . . . Theologically this notion is found in the Word that becomes flesh. . . .” Writing on the “prophetic imagination,” Walter Brueggemann observes:  “Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.  It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” . . . As James Carey writes, "For all the vaunted capacity of the computer to store, process, and make available information in densities and quantities heretofore unknown, the pervasive tendency to monopolize knowledge in the professions and data banks continues unabated".   This resonates for communication scholars.  We know our history all too well.  In a free and open society, rhetoric is a creative act—in a totalitarian society, rhetoric becomes style, ornamentation, or beautiful letters. . . .

In a truly Christian liberal arts environment, our students are free to act creatively, whether on the canvas or in the laboratory.  But this leads to Lederach’s fourth and final discipline or capacity—the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.  And the need to explore both the “deeper implications of risk and the long-term sustenance of vocation.”


Tremper Longman

Tremper Longman, Robert Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies


The imagination doesn’t get good press in the Bible (Isa. 65:2; 66:18; Ezek. 13:2, 17), but of course, these texts speak to moral and theological imagination unconstrained by God’s revelation. Jeremiah calls on the faithful to “not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer. 23:16).

Christian tradition acknowledges God’s revelation in the Bible as canon, the standard of faith and practice, and therefore the ground or perspective through which we are to think about the solutions to today’s problems and issues. However, the Bible does not simply provide direct statements that address today’s problems. Don't get me wrong; it does provide on occasion some very direct statements. Take the Ten Commandments, for instance. "Thou shalt not murder" is a pretty direct statement. However how that applies to today's problems is not as easy as you might think. Indeed, in the Old Testament you had the case law, which takes the principles of the Ten Commandments and applies them to the specific situation according to the sociological and redemptive historical context of the people of God at the time. So in Deuteromony, for instance, there is this interesting law that you must build a fence around your roof. Why? Because roofs were living spaces in the day and it was a way of protecting life. So the case law, in one sense, is an act of the imagination in how to apply the principles of the Ten Commandments in specific situations at that particular time. . . .

Indeed, within the Bible itself we see development in its moral vision on such issues as food, women, slavery, and sexuality—the first three becoming more open and what we would call progressive, while in the latter more restrictive (divorce is harder and polygamy is discouraged). Thus, the Bible provides a moral vision that calls on his followers to apply to our contemporary context through the use of our sanctified intellect and imagination to a modern context. Indeed, I would suggest that the Bible’s term for moral imagination is wisdom, the ability to interpret the ancient text, read the modern situation, as well as to understand ourselves as we wrestle with the moral and social troubles of today.

Just to give you an example of what I mean, I'll mention these two interesting proverbs in Proverbs 26:4-5. The first one says "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will become like him yourself." The next one says "Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will become wise in his own estimation." Well, if you take those as direct statements that are always applicable, then you can say "thanks a lot for the help!" But the need to read the situation is characteristic of the genre of the proverb. I remember my grandmother on Thanksgiving Day, when my mother and aunt would come into the kitchen and say "Mom, let us help you with the turkey. And she would say "Too many cooks spoil the broth," which means "Get out of my kitchen, I'm doing it myself." And then afterward, when all of the dishes were piled up, she would come bustling into the room and say "Many hands make light work." And so the point is that she is reading the situation and applying the principles through her moral imagination, or wisdom. . . .


Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor, Professor of Philosophy

Wise Use of the Moral Imagination

An ideal philosopher—a lover of wisdom—will want to be wise in every respect and thus will want to be theoretically, practically, and productively wise. I’d like to suggest that practical wisdom – wisdom about how to become the best kind of person you can be and how to put into practice the best kind of life—includes a wise use of the moral imagination. And since practically wise people will know how best to exercise their moral imaginations, ideal philosophers will desire to be wise about how best to be morally imaginative. But what would a wise use of the moral imagination look like?

Well, for a start, I’ll say what’s obvious: a wise use of the moral imagination will be both moral and imaginative. To be moral an exercise of the imagination must be consistent with the will and law of God; it must conduce to the glory of God. And the person who seeks to be morally imaginative must love God’s law—ideally with the cluster of attitudes expressed by the author of Psalm 119. To be imaginative a person’s moral thinking must be innovative and open to unexplored and unactualized possibilities. Imaginative moral thinkers must seek new ways to bring the world into conformity with God’s ideals. They must strive to imitate God’s creativity.

Moreover, if a wise use of the moral imagination will be both moral and imaginative, a practically wise person will avoid the extremes of unimaginative morality on the one hand and immoral imagination on the other. Avoiding these extremes is easier said than done. People who value morality can be fearful of the imagination. And people who value the imagination can be critical of morality. That’s because morality entails limits and the imagination seeks to transcend limits. The history of Christian attitudes about the arts illustrates this tension. But moral thinkers need to be imaginative. They need to be imaginative to be maximally effective in serving the needs of others. And imaginative thinkers need to be moral. They need to be moral to be most protective in honoring the dignity of others.

How can the ideal Christian philosopher be wise in the use of the moral imagination for the purpose of serving others in a way that brings glory to God? I’ll end my remarks by suggesting an imaginative picture as an answer to this important practical question: Wise thinking that is both properly moral and properly imaginative is analogous to expert falconry. Left to its own sinful devices, the imagination can be like a wild falcon whose flight is motivated by a desire to satisfy its appetites. And without the imagination, moral thinking can be like a falconer without a falcon who is not able to catch his or her intended quarry. But when falconer and falcon work together – when the falconer has skillfully taught the falcon and the falcon is obediently restrained by training and sometimes by tether, a beautiful partnership can develop. The falcon can enable the falconer to do things the falconer could not do alone. And the falconer can keep the falcon from pursuing improper prey. In the same way, practically wise people will train their imagination to obey their conscience. And then they will use their imagination to explore new moral territory. As a result, practically wise people will be better able to address the needs of a hurting world. And they’ll be able to do so in ways that respect the integrity of God’s creation and the dignity of God’s creatures.



Edd Noell

Edd Noell, Professor of Economics

Economics as a Moral Discipline

My sense is that there are actually reasons for a tempered optimism that economics is returning to its roots as a moral discipline.

Economic questions about limited resources (supply side) and unlimited wants (demand side), i.e., the problem of scarcity, were originally asked in the context of moral philosophy. Consider how Genesis frames the challenge of stewardship to humans made in God’s image. Keeping the earth and tending to God’s creation is not merely a matter of fulfilling one’s desires; it is to honor God in creative activity and to exercise moral imagination in cultivating the garden (being a steward of creation). . . .

The exercise of our moral imagination remains relevant because there is a consistency to creation in which we engage in stewardship of resources. Accordingly, it is perhaps the task of the Christian economist to uncover the proper elements of a social order which contribute to the genuinely godly life, and then pursue the right institutional practices that promote that life.

How does this moral vision work itself out in economic relationships? For the Scriptures, the solution to the economic problem of scarcity is to work at the demand side of the problem by having people realize the virtue of a simple life. The Christian Church has largely followed this emphasis by focusing primarily on this problem of human desires rather than on the production side of the economic problem.

For example, the medieval Scholastics said genuine human flourishing in servitude to God was not found in the fulfillment of unlimited wants. Indeed, the difference between wants and needs is recognized by the exercise of a moral vision. Excessive satisfaction of wants means avarice, a deadly sin.

Yet, there is also the realm of the adiaphora that is recognized by moral reflection, the realm of indifferent things where one’s economic behavior is neither sinful nor virtuous. Yet the Scholastics stressed the realm of moral virtue in the marketplace, an example of which would be earning profit in the marketplace but also sacrificing that profit to help the poor.

As a Christian economist I love the notion of challenging students in class to join this kind of inquiry engaged in by the Scholastics. This can be done by consideration of how modern economic issues might also be examined in light of a Christian moral vision. Consider the phenomenon of the payday loan. How might we think about the moral obligation of the lender to the borrower in an economic bind (who has lost his or her car, or faces an unexpected medical bill)? How does the exercise of our moral imagination, guided by the resources of the Christian tradition of moral reflection on usury, speak to the possible economic compulsion involved here? Where do the moral responsibilities of each party lie? Might our students be called to further research and action to aid low-income borrowers, to help provide greater financial literacy and transparency or direct them to better sources of funding?

By the time of the 18th century, the Scholastic legacy had faded somewhat, yet the father of economics, Adam Smith (a moral philosopher) continued the pattern of moral reflection. Smith affirmed that instincts, fellow-feeling and sympathy each contribute to economic choices individuals make. He speaks of an impartial spectator that calls us to consider the perspective of the Divine Judge in our market activities. Moral sentiments can channel economic activity to the social good. Still, Smith clearly believed markets could manifest human malevolence as well as benevolence. Some of the manifestations of the vices of commercial society he discusses include the combinations of employers to suppress the wages of laborers and combinations of laborers and the corruption of moral sentiments through domination exercised in the enslavement of Africans in the British colonies.

After Smith, for over 100 years, economics turned to the example of the natural sciences and pursued the fact-value distinction. Economic models of human behavior were formulated to explain and predict rational choices by consumers, investors, and producers. Given prices and their budgets, consumers rationally choose the optimum consumption basket – the one that maximizes their utility. More utility is always preferred to less. But economists deliberately shied away from making value judgments about their particular consumption choices. Many modern economists continue to follow this path.

Yet there remains hope that economics will turn away from value-free analysis. It takes the form of behavioral economics, which challenges the dominance of the rational choice framework. Behavioral economics moves economics away from positing complete rationality on the part of consumers, investors and others. My sense is this presents an opportunity for further exercise of the moral imagination in economics.


Chandra Mallampalli

Chandra Mallampalli, Associate Professor of History

History and Moral Vision

As I reflected on Mark Sargent’s notes on the moral imagination in his most recent Provost’s Report, I wondered how the notion of a moral imagination applies to the writing of history. Aren’t historians supposed to be objective and free from any sort of agenda, even a moral one? If we take on the role of being imaginatively moral, do we not run the risk of saying things about the past that will steer moral agendas of the present, and does this not compromise the commitment to truth telling that lies at the heart of the historical profession?

Take for example the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to which Mark refers in his report. I certainly agree with the writer he cites that a “moral imagination” is required to forge new strategies for peace in that region, and create alternatives to the polarized rhetoric that seems to perpetuate conflict. What role, though, would historians play in bringing a moral imagination to Israel-Palestine? Historians writing about the conflict tend to lend legitimacy to one set of group claims or another, with little room for neutrality. . .

On the other side of the equation are histories of marginalized, victimized, or forgotten peoples. These histories seek to give others a sense of "presence" in our collective memory. Without historical memory, there can be no identity and without identity people are easily ignored, passed over, or mistreated. Hence, writing about Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, Native Americans, African slaves, women, or the English working class clearly assumes a moral dimension. History in this instance retrieves the stories of the marginalized, and places them on the map of our consciousness.

So where exactly does a moral imagination have room to operate for a historian? We historians are indeed good storytellers, and this requires a good bit of imagination. But our stories have to be backed up with lots of facts! I believe that the common tie that links our projects, and the real moment of moral imagination lies in the types of questions that we bring to the table. Good questions are the beginnings of redemptive inquiries. As historians, yes, our narrations of past events need to be objective and honest. At the same time, whom are we kidding? We want our renditions of the past to further worthwhile causes, without necessarily engaging in “advocacy scholarship”. The topics we choose and the questions we pose more often than not are guided by moral concerns and can inform conversations with moral vision. This awakens a moral imagination in history writing.


Jane Wilson

Jane Wilson, Associate Professor of Education

Telling Stories

Recently, I gave two career presentations at a local junior high. While discussing teaching as a possible career we examined a quote by Albert Einstein, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” I then asked the students to write down what teachers could do to awaken their creative expression and curiosity . . . and in particular, ways that helped them make wise, ethical, and moral decisions.

Not surprisingly, the junior highers shared some poignant wisdom for teachers who hope to awaken moral imagination and curiosity: 1) Take a day off from worksheets. 2) Tell stories of people—to inspire us. . . .

When I began my doctoral studies, my mind was spinning with questions about education. My dissertation adviser helped me focus my intellectual curiosity and he did so in a rather gruff and commanding voice, “Enough with all the questions”—he barked, “Where is the fire in your belly?” I began to recognize that I cared deeply, even passionately, about how teachers can structure learning to promote intrinsic motivation to learn. And that fire in my belly still burns. MORAL of the STORY: Our passion for focused intellectual curiosity lies within our heart, mind—and maybe our belly.

An Irish immigrant named Sybs sparked my moral imagination. During my twenties Sybs and I led a Young Life Bible study for high school girls. Many discussions ended up revolving around moral dilemmas the teens faced daily. Sybs, in her Irish brogue, would often repeat, “You’ll never be sorry for being kind.” And she was right. I regret not always following her simple wisdom. MORAL of the STORY: Our kind actions hold no regrets.

My moral imagination for education was deeply inspired by a man who served Westmont College as president for 25 years, Dr. David Winter. Towards the end of his presidency, Dr. Winter lost most of his eyesight, but he never lost his vision for the importance of a moral education. After retiring Dr. Wilson guided a local Christian high school, Providence Hall, to its feet, where I served as his right hand person. We had numerous conversations in which he fueled my imagination about the possibility of education in which students pursued learning by seeking to understand God’s perspective on truth, beauty, and excellence. MORAL of the STORY: Our quest for quality education does lies within our moral imagination.

Today I could have chosen to talk about the field of education by imagining flipped classrooms, textbooks on ipads with videos replacing images, or the rising rigor and relevance of the new Common Core Standards.

Instead I took inspiration from Frederick Buechner who wrote, “it is precisely through (sharing )our stories in all their particularity, ..that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally... to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

May we be like preschoolers—full of questions and wonder. May we find the fire in our belly—the passion for having focused intellectually curiosity. My we remember that “we will never be sorry for being kind.” May we pursue learning with a passionate desire to understand God’s perspective on truth, beauty, and excellence.

These are my prayers for us all.