Moral Imagination and the Problem of Reception

Mavis Biss is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland. Her research focuses on Kantian ethics and conceptions of moral imagination.

Mavis Biss is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland. Her research focuses on Kantian ethics and conceptions of moral imagination.

A post by Mavis Biss.

Theorists interested in moral innovation have drawn attention to the ways in which agents, individually or collectively, may imaginatively modify conventionalized moral understandings to conceptualize their experience more accurately and reconceive their possibilities for moral action. Yet the actions of morally innovative agents may be widely interpreted as moral failures, and because shared intelligibility is tightly linked to moral justification, it seems that failed reception may undermine the moral innovator’s attempts to act virtuously. If, as some have argued, social uptake is partially constitutive of moral success, then failed reception entails moral failure. In contrast, one might hold that social uptake is crucial for psychological stability and moral assurance, but cannot determine the meaning or moral content of an agent’s action. I call the problem of explaining the relationship between social recognition and moral action “the problem of reception.” It is a problem for any moral theory that recognizes a role for moral imagination, understood not as a form of moral perception but rather as the capacity to revise or extend the criteria for expressing moral virtue in action.

Cheshire Calhoun has handled the problem of reception in a strikingly direct and compelling manner, arguing that in “ill-formed social orders” acting well according to an objective moral standard can actually produce a significant form of moral failure.[i] Specifically, in societies characterized by multiple systems of oppression, acting in accordance with correct moral standards may require acting in ways that will be unintelligible to many people with whom one interacts. The woman who openly embraces her lesbian identity and is read as exhibitionist rather than as self-respecting serves as a paradigm example of the problem of reception for Calhoun. Did she succeed or fail in expressing self-respect? What about a woman who, in trying to avoid misplaced gratitude, is perceived as rude? Because successful expression requires others’ comprehension, Calhoun argues, we may “do the right thing” and yet meet moral failure due to an inability to express virtue in action.

I disagree with Calhoun, partly because her argument depends on the notion of dual moral ideals. I believe that we can appreciate the “deep sociality” of morality without supposing that cooperating in a shared system of meaning is itself a moral ideal that can come apart from the ideal of doing right. In thinking through the limits and possibilities of moral imagination I have been particularly inspired by versions of Kantian ethics that “let the social in” by retaining core features of Kant’s conception of moral law and rational agency while emphasizing the conditions of socially embedded rational agency in a way that Kant did not (at least not consistently). This perspective on Kantian ethics takes seriously the fact that the practical efficacy of one’s moral agency, actually expressing one’s volitions in action and realizing one’s moral ends, is not completely within one’s control and requires more than a good and strong will.

So how might an unorthodox Kantian approach moral imagination and the problem of reception? Richard Eldridge remarks, “[I]ndividuals have a central role in creatively envisioning how to extend the requirements of principle to new cases,” however, “whether such creative extensions are apt will itself be a matter for others also to judge.”[ii] Moral innovators run the risk of “prideful misinterpretation” of principle if they ignore the actions and responses of others, so one cannot forgo concern for successful communication. Similarly, Barbara Herman warns, “Although through experience and reflection we may extend or modify our moral lexicon, we risk loss of moral intelligibility if we set out too much on our own.”[iii]

The morally imaginative agent risks moral error in the form of an interpretation of principle that others understand, but which they justifiably reject.  She also risks two forms of moral unintelligibility: unintelligibility to oneself, which entails unintelligibility to others; and, unintelligibility to others, or failure of reception, that does not entail erroneous interpretation of principle and does not fully undermine one’s ability to make moral sense to oneself. Herman does not distinguish between the two forms of unintelligibility and Eldridge does not reflect on the possibility of being justified, but wholly misread, in one’s imaginative departure from established moral understandings. These omissions may have a common source in the view that complete failure of reception inevitably calls one’s intelligibility to oneself into question. Even wide failure of reception will likely loosen the moral innovator’s grasp of principle in the sense that she may experience deep doubt and loss of confidence in the justification of her claims. Loss of moral confidence and moral confusion are both serious impediments to agency, which may lead to moral failures although they do not constitute forms of moral failure.

But failed reception does not necessarily undermine moral efficacy in the sense of expressing one’s volition in action. My sense is that an agent’s conception of her action determines the nature of the action just in case this conception involves an interpretation of principle articulated in terms that retain connection to the shared terms of an established moral discourse. An agent acting on a wholly idiosyncratic concept of self-respect cannot successfully express self-respect in action, yet an agent’s conception of the criteria for self-respect may be innovative without being wholly idiosyncratic.

I hope that this brief sketch is enough to show that theorizing moral imagination in its most radical forms requires an account of the social process of establishing and contesting interpretations of the requirements of moral principle and of exercises of individual agency within this process. More familiar meanings of the term ‘moral imagination’ include empathetic understanding and rich appreciation of and responsiveness to morally salient particulars. These forms of moral imagination are certainly also important to effecting cultural change, but I do not think that they encompass the moral excellence exhibited by agents who resist their own oppression through the rejection of distorted interpretations of moral principle or distorted criteria for the expression of virtue.

Attention to moral imagination (in the stipulated sense) and the problem of reception raises many issues that are fruitfully addressed in the growing literature on epistemic injustice. José Medina complicates Miranda Fricker’s analysis of hermeneutical injustice by stressing the fact that complex societies have multiple publics, which may both mitigate and amplify issues of reception. Medina also makes some intriguing but rather quick remarks about communicating with oneself, suggesting that individuals may create new interpretive tools. I suspect that some of what Medina calls “hermeneutical agency” I would call moral imagination.[iv] Though I hesitate to add to the confusion that may be caused by what can seem like a hodgepodge of conceptions of imagination at play in discussions of epistemic injustice – the social imagination, imaginative resistance, resistant imaginations, creative imagination – I do think it is worth noting that responding well to others’ incomprehension or willful misunderstanding may require additional exercises of moral imagination on the part of moral resisters.  In cases of failed moral communication in which moral resisters arguably have not done anything wrong or exhibited any character flaw the failure is still theirs to address. The choice of how to respond to others’ incomprehension is itself a moral choice that cannot be avoided.


[i] Cheshire Calhoun. “Moral Failure,” in On Feminist Ethics and Politics, Claudia Card ed. Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1999, pp. 81-102.

[ii] Richard Eldridge. On Moral Personhood. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, p.36

[iii] Barbara Herman. Moral Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p.144

[iv] José Medina. The Epistemology of Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, p.98.