Chapter 3: Generative Morality: Acts of Creation
In business as in life, the moral imagination is a fertile source of creative ideas. Of course it is not our only source of creative ideas— almost any flight of fancy can lead somewhere if we are prepared to follow it up properly—but the moral imagination is a source that has exceptional staying power. Backed up by our deepest beliefs, an idea generated by moral imaginings cannot easily be beaten down. We go to the mat for it, amid doubts and criticism. We take risks that otherwise might seem unbearable, because we have faith in the fundamental worthiness of the idea. In the face of daunting skepticism, this kind of persistence is exactly what is needed to see a bold new concept to fruition.
Both entrepreneurs and managers draw creative new ideas from their moral imaginations, the generative dimension of business morality. As with all of the moral dimensions, the consistent use of generative morality can give companies unmatchable advantages in the marketplace. Entrepreneurs generate creative ideas that help develop better products and services; managers generate ideas that help them build stronger organizations. And many business leaders wear entrepreneurial and managerial hats, using their moral creativity both to generate new concepts for products and services and to invent new solutions to tough personnel problems. In this chapter, I discuss the uniquely valuable contributions of moral imagination for both these business uses.
What Is the Moral Imagination and How Does It Work?
Much of our mental life is ruled by habits, routines, and “scripts” that we learn and fix in memory. When we sit down in a restaurant, we don’t need to figure out what a menu is or how to get the waiter to bring food; we just rely on what we know from past experience. Perhaps 90 percent of our thought processes—perceptions, judgments, reactions, choices—derive directly from ways of knowing that have become habitual and more or less automatic. There are differences among people in this regard—some people rely more than others on
fixed mental habits in responding to events—but even the most original and creative people experience most of life through stable thought patterns that have been gradually built over time.
This is usually a good thing: when a person’s mental reactions are unpredictable and in constant flux, we fear for the person’s sanity. But there are some breaks in the routine that are welcome, representing real progress over what was known before. These creative breaks are all the more remarkable when viewed in the context of the mental system’s normally high degree of stability.
The mental system is self-protective and resistant to change, with a natural—and adaptive—aversion to too much disruption and distraction. Consequently, the stakes are high for any attempt to introduce genuinely new ideas into the system. This means that the source of such ideas, if the ideas are to be taken seriously and acted on, must be something in which the person has faith. The great traditions of human culture—science, religion, art, philosophy—offer sources of support for new ideas that inspire just this kind of faith.
Moral imagination is the capacity to generate creative new ideas that spring from one’s moral sense. Morality itself is a great tradition of human culture, although it is by no means a stand-alone tradition: it overlaps with all of the other dimensions in some way. There is a morality of science (truth-seeking and other ethical concerns), a morality of art (truth and responsibility), and of course both religion and philosophy concern themselves with the definition and meaning of morality. Morality is also a matter of intuition and feeling. Studies of moral development reveal that even young infants experience moral emotions such as empathy, shame, and guilt, and that these natural inclinations play a key role in one’s moral conduct all through life.
In generating new ideas, the moral imagination draws on any and all of these sources of moral tradition, insight, intuition, and feeling. To be “imaginative” generally means having a rich fantasy life. We value this capacity for many reasons, including its contribution to playfulness and recreation. But to be imaginative in the service of one’s work requires a special sort of creativity, a creativity grounded in a sense of reality and constrained by a sense of discipline. The flight of fancy must have a purpose that it springs from and returns to if it is to accomplish something worthwhile. Ensuring the “return flight” is the job of mental discipline, but there can be nothing to return to without an original sense of galvanizing purpose.
In the introductory chapter of this book, I discussed the importance of purpose in a business life. Purpose is at the heart of generative morality, an enabler of the creativity that marks distinguished accomplishments and successful careers. It provides food for the moral imagination. Now there are many kinds of purpose that inspire people in business, and only some of these are moral in nature. Most accomplishments are produced by mixed motives, as I noted in the Introduction, and the drive to make money is always part of the mix. But no mind ever dreamed up a winning new concept for a business product or service by dwelling on moneymaking alone. At some point, there must be a focus on the product or service itself. The more intense and sustained the focus, the more likely it is that the new concept will be original, sound, workable, and of recognized value to consumers.
This kind of purpose-driven focus offers an advantage to businesses of every type, no matter how small or ordinary. An auto- repair shop with mechanics who believe in their work will come up with more creative solutions for broken cars than one with mechanics who merely put in their time. As one reviewer of this book manuscript wrote about her own dedicated mechanic, “Because of my mechanic’s pride and passion in his work, he may notice things about my car that others would overlook, or he may take extra time to train his junior mechanics to exacting standards, or he may implement innovative new practices.”
Moral imagination creates this kind of intense and sustained focus. It is not the only means to this end—for example, scientific and aesthetic imagination work in much the same way—but it is the mental tool among all the others that has the greatest reach and staying power. Its domain is the entire range of human needs that every entrepreneur thirsts to fill. An idea formed through moral imagination engenders a special kind of commitment, because it is an idea that reflects the deepest beliefs of the person who thought it up. So, for example, when Sir John Templeton turned his belief in the universality of human talent into a family of global mutual funds, as I described in Chapter 2, he was not about to give up on the idea after a few reversals. He was a believer, highly resistant to discouragement.
The business leaders interviewed for this book used their moral imaginations in a variety of ways. For some, it was a matter of directly extrapolating a new business concept from a moral (and often spiritual) worldview. For others, it was a sensitivity to what consumers need and a determination to respond effectively to that. For still others, it was a commitment to a caring and ethical manner of doing business that required inventive approaches to organizing employees. And for a few, it was all of the above. Examining a number of these cases provides a concrete sense of how moral imagination works in all its varieties.
W. Damon, “The Moral Development of Children,” Scientific American (1999): 281, pp. 72–88.
Brenda Fink, personal correspondence.