Moral Knowledge through Imagination

Rãzvan Sofroni is a PhD student at the Philosophy Department of the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. He is currently working on conceptualizing the different roles imagination plays in achieving moral knowledge as well as thinking about how cinema, among other art forms, can contribute to this by engaging the imagination.

Rãzvan Sofroni is a PhD student at the Philosophy Department of the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. He is currently working on conceptualizing the different roles imagination plays in achieving moral knowledge as well as thinking about how cinema, among other art forms, can contribute to this by engaging the imagination.

A post by Razvan Sofroni.

It has been only a few years since the idea that imagination might be a source of non-modal knowledge started to be taken seriously again. Up until now, however, the focus has been almost exclusively on non-normative knowledge (Kind 2016, Kind and Kung 2016, McPherson and Dorsch 2018). In this post, I’d like to explore the idea that imagination might be a source of moral knowledge and address possible reasons to resist its appeal.

A good way to start teasing out the various ways in which we make use of the imagination in order to answer the question of what to do is to start by thinking about examples. Here is one: you are at a party, the mood is somewhat stiff and sure enough you feel the impetus to tell a mildly outrageous joke in order to loosen things up. You pause, however, realizing that you run the risk of offending someone, creating misunderstandings and ceasing to be taken seriously by those who do not know you well enough. And so you ponder, trying to imagine how things would actually pan out if you told the joke as well as if you refrained from it. Finally, you choose to remain on the safe side. As the description suggests, part of what you did in order to find out whether it would be a good idea to tell the joke was to imagine telling it, imagine other’s reactions and how your joke would affect their opinions of you, imagine how you would feel during and after the episode and so on. It seems plausible that these are some of the things we do in order to find out whether potential courses of action are morally or otherwise appropriate. (One can easily imagine a context in which the question whether telling a particular joke is appropriate or not takes the character of a moral question.)

So far, so good. But although cases in which we deploy our imagination in an attempt to answer the question what we should do might not be hard to come by, many will feel that this does not suffice to establish the claim that imagination can be a source of moral knowledge. At most it can achieve this if “source” is understood so broadly as to make any mental capacity the exercise of which contributes to achieving knowledge of what to do a source of such knowledge. I believe that such broadening of the scope of the concept of a source of knowledge is not necessary, but I do not want to let too much hang on the use of the term. This is because I think there is a better way to express and motivate skepticism about the source-of-knowledge claim.

Another way, thus, to motivate the suspicion that imagination is only deserving of a supporting role in moral epistemology, comes from attending to the concept of a moral intuition. If one thinks that moral justification bottoms out in some sort of non-inferentially reached cognitive state with moral content (let us call such a state “moral intuition”), then one might also think that the epistemic role of the imagination is best understood as providing the descriptive material needed to trigger such states. To clarify this point, one only needs to look back at the situation described above: while imagination may be instrumental in helping you assess different aspects and consequences of potential courses of action (in this case telling the joke or refraining from doing so), it is the moral assessment of these circumstances that justifies, in the last instance, the decision to tell the joke or to refrain from doing so. Imagination might help you realize that telling the joke would offend one of the guests, but it cannot tell you that this is a reason not to do it. Furthermore, moral assessment of this kind either consists in or is based on the non-inferentially reached cognitive states that we broadly called moral intuitions. To the extent that the imagination merely triggers these moral intuitions (as, in an analogous case, experience could be said to do, see McGrath 2011), it is misleading to call it a source of moral knowledge.

While I agree that this contrast faithfully expresses one aspect of the interplay between imagination and moral intuition, I would contend that this is not the whole story. More precisely, I think that there are good reasons to believe that the output of the imagination is not as unblemished by considerations of moral relevance as this picture paints it to be. In other words, the imagination contributes to moral knowledge above and beyond triggering moral intuitions. Here is a sketch of the train of thought which I take to bear on this conclusion:

  • When one considers a (real or a merely potential) situation with a view to answering the question what to do, one will spontaneously imagine primarily the morally relevant aspects of the situation as opposed to just any (not to mention all) of its features. When pondering the moral reasons for and against a course of action, one will primarily imagine who will be helped or harmed by it as opposed to whether someone will find the action funny or elegant.

  • The best explanation for this is that the working of the imagination is guided by considerations of moral relevance which are prior to any conscious judgment that we may make in reaction to features of the situation as reproduced within the imaginative simulation. This hypothesis would explain why some features are represented and some are left out, why some are particularly salient and others remain in the background. (To get a grip on this contrast, imagine you are at the aforementioned party and consider whether to tell the joke. Now ask yourself: how is the lighting in the room? How many windows does it have? Is there any music playing in the background? If the goal of your imagining is to find out whether it would be appropriate to tell the joke, features such as these which are not relevant to answering the question will hardly, if at all, be a salient part of what you imagine.)

  • That this should be the case is not surprising: consider the analogous case of perceptual awareness, which is also driven at various pre-conscious levels by considerations of relevance. For instance, the higher relevance of human faces as opposed to ordinary objects is a principle embedded in the very functioning of our perception. This leads to a much greater level of detail in the perception of faces as well as to the effortless capturing of attention by their presence  in the visual field (Langton et al 2008, Kanwisher and Moscovitch 2000). More importantly, other uses of the imagination which are oriented to solving problems or answering questions can be taken to function similarly: imagining how my boss will react if I come in for work two hours late will focus on things like his facial expression and the things he might say or think and less on where exactly in the office will he be standing at that moment or whether his shirt will match his pants. And even if some of these details are supplied by the imagination, they will be understood as generic and having at best a claim to verisimilitude rather than to representing how things will actually pan out.

  • To conclude this train of thought: if the imagination does its work well, it will supply deliberation with a representation of the situation which primarily contains the latter’s morally relevant features and will have rendered these salient. Another, perhaps more controversial way to put this is to say that the exercise of the imagination affords us knowledge of the various reasons for and against different courses of action given the characteristics of the situation.

Should these claims be true – and I am aware that more needs to be said, conceptually and empirically, in order to render them both intelligible and plausible – then one should conclude that the picture according to which the job of the imagination is merely to provide purely descriptive representations which in turn trigger the moral intuitions on which we base our deliberation is incomplete. It needs to be completed with the idea that the exercise of the imagination is guided and structured by considerations of moral relevance. But the former picture was, to my mind, one of best ways of spelling out the motivation behind skepticism about the claim that imagination can be a source of moral knowledge. Surely there are bound to be other motivations, as well as other things to be said for this motivation, which I have not taken into account in this post. I nevertheless hope that these thoughts have convinced the reader that this is a field still very much worth exploring.


Dorsch, Fabian and MacPherson, Fiona (ed.) 2018. Perceptual Imagination and Perceptual Memory, Oxford University Press.

Kanwisher, Nancy and Moscovitch, Morris 2000. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Face Processing. An Introduction. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 17(1-3), 1-11.

Kind, Amy and Kung, Peter (eds) 2016, Knowledge Through Imagination, Oxford University Press.

Kind, Amy (ed.) 2016, The Routledge handbook of philosophy of imagination, Routledge.

Langton, Law, Burton, and Schweinberger 2008. Attention capture by faces. Cognition, 107(1), 330-342.

McGrath, Sarah 2011, Moral Knowledge and Experience. Oxford Studies in Metaethics 6:107.