The Moral Imagination and Public Life: Raising the Ethical Question

The Moral Imagination and Public Life: Raising the Ethical Question

The Moral Imagination and Public Life: Raising the Ethical Question

The Moral Imagination and Public Life: Raising the Ethical Question


Thomas E. McCollough explores the relationship of personal values to public policy, and he poses the concept of moral community as the vital link between the concerned citizen and the body politic. He delineates a collective vision of the public good that might be brought to bear on policy issues such as health care, education, civil liberties, and the environment.


Ethics as a discipline has an academic history. For the teacher of ethics, the shared enterprise of dialogue and discussion with colleagues and students is vital to the way in which ethical theory is conceived, as well as practiced. Early in my classroom experience I came to see the need for developing an interdisciplinary approach to political ethics, which at that time was largely confined to philosophy. a year at the London School of Economics in 1967-68, which was made possible by a Crossdisciplinary Fellowship from the Society for Religion in Higher Education, enabled me to work in the social sciences with a view to developing a political ethic that would be coherent, realistic, and constructive. Since then, I have come to appreciate increasingly the role of moral imagination in public life.

In thinking about the way we make moral decisions, it is easy to overlook the part that moral imagination plays. Moral imagination is energized and expanded as we remember and reflect on those experiences in which we empathize with others and try to find ways to meet their needs and take action on their behalf. When such moments are shared by a group, they may become part of a community's moral heritage. It was so with students who joined in a vigil in 1968.

The spring of 1968 will remain in the memory of many Americans as long as they live. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, then Robert Kennedy. Those two deaths symbolized the trauma and tragedy of Vietnam abroad and the civil rights struggle at home. For Americans living abroad at the time, it was painful, yet somehow not quite real.

My family and I were in England for the year. Early that spring, I received a letter from a student who had been in my ethics clan the previous spring, She said she was writing from the quad in front of the university chapel, where she was sitting in silence, along with 1500 other students and a few faculty members. They were calling on the university . . .

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