Review of:

Mark Coeckelbergh: Imagination and PrinciplesAn Essay on the Role of Imagination in Moral Reasoning
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke/New York, 2007

Much contemporary moral theory does not question the centrality of principles in moral reasoning, and those who challenge this assumption tend to put forward imagination at the expense of principles. Coeckelbergh’s aim in this book is to show that we need both imagination and principles, and for that purpose he develops a more comprehensive view of the role of imagination in moral reasoning and the limits of that role. His approach is to engage with three traditions in moral theory, which he connects with three discussions of a practical issue. Accordingly, the book is divided in three parts.

In the first part the author discusses pragmatist arguments for putting moral imagination at the centre of moral theory. In Chapter 1 He explains why talking about moral imagination is attractive, discusses Mark Johnson’s writings on metaphor and Steven Fesmire’s account of moral imagination, and shows the implications of their view for moral theory. In Chapter 2, however, he voices several objections, which involves a discussion of Dewey and Putnam. He argues that, rather than a ‘Copernican Revolution’ (Fesmire) which replaces principles by imagination, we need to study how both cooperate as equally necessary and important elements in moral reasoning. Coeckelbergh also suggests some bridges to the Kantian tradition, which he discusses further in the third part of his book. In Chapter 3, then, the author connects his theoretical discussion with issues in medical and engineering practice. He shows how imagination can aid offshore engineers to deal with crisis situations, and how it can help neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) to achieve integration in their decision-making processes.

In the second part of the book Coeckelbergh analyses the ‘moral sentiment’ tradition. In Chapter 4 he discusses the work of Martha Nussbaum and her sources of inspiration: Aristotle, Hume, Smith, and Rousseau to elaborate on imagination understood as putting yourself in the shoes of someone else (empathy). In Chapter 5 he points to problems related to empathy, criticizes Nussbaum for her nearly exclusive focus on literature, and discusses difficulties with the particularist account of judgment. In Chapter 6 Coeckelbergh provides an analysis of empathy in relation to violence on TV and in videogames.

In the third part, the author discusses the Kantian tradition, which allows him to further develop his arguments concerning imagination and principles started in the previous parts. Rather than stressing the contrast with pragmatism and the moral sentiment tradition, he searches for similarities in order to achieve a less one-sided view of Kant. He argues that some interpretations of Kant’s moral theory can accommodate an important moral role of imagination. In Chapter 7 he discusses interpretations of the categorical imperative for this purpose. He also uses the work of Lyotard and Arendt, and offers his analysis of Kant’s Anthropology, which is often neglected in the context of discussions about his moral theory. The author also shows that non-Kantian absolutist theories such as those of Murdoch and Levinas must involve imagination. In Chapter 8 Coeckelbergh connects the Kantian tradition with pragmatist and moral sentiment approaches by examining work by Rousseau, Arendt, and Habermas. This line of argument culminates in the last chapter: an attempt to reconcile Rawls’s and Nussbaum’s account of global justice, and a much-needed defence of cosmopolitanism as a moral theory by engaging with recent work by Nussbaum and Appiah.

The author concludes that both imagination and principles are, and should be, important, equally necessary, and cooperative elements in moral reasoning. He admits, and has shown, that there remain important difficulties and limits to both aspects of reasoning. Coeckelbergh calls for a further reconstruction of moral theory in order to elaborate their precise relation, and recommends more cross-overs between different theoretical traditions and between theory and practice to achieve this.

With his usual mastery of the literature and of the problem, Mark Coeckelbergh has delivered another book that is well written, illustrated with illuminating examples, thoroughly argued, and above all intelligently constructed. Impressive is the way in which the role of imagination is progressively extended from a mere movement to the other or to the future, over empathy and 'living with oneself', to the adoption of a cosmopolitan stance that turns out to be constitutive for a Kantian principled approach.

© Stefan Beyst, September 2007.


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