Noticing, Responding, Thinking

In the first days of classes, this week, I provided students something of a gloss on the learning objectives of my courses in practical ethics, which are stated formally in the syllabus of each.

I told them the aim of the course is for each of them to cultivate a richer moral imagination, which comes down to a particular set of cognitive skills or capacities:

  • Noticing aspects of a place or situation that are relevant to a given project, either as opportunities or as constraints, with awareness of the connections among them;
  • Responding to other people and other living things who are caught up in that situation and its various connections, and to aspects of the situation itself that seem especially important, to elicit concern or special attention;
  • Thinking about what’s important in some sort of organized way when others elicit responses that pull in different directions or otherwise come into tension with each other.

These three aspects of moral imagination don’t line up precisely with the three main learning outcomes – contextual awareness, critical consideration, theoretical understanding – but as a kind of intuitive first approximation, they work pretty well.

The two that are farthest part are responding and critical consideration but, I would say, both involve an awareness of and sensitivity to a wide range of basic values in their concrete particularity. It’s just that critical consideration puts a stronger emphasis on analysis while responding emphasizes the appeal valued make to our attention and concern.

My gloss on imagination also does not line up precisely with other typologies of moral imagination; I may have more to say about that in due time.

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