Cultivating an Ethical Imagination in the Current Climate of Hopelessness

By Dion Forster

 On the 16th of August 2022, I was privileged to deliver my professorial inaugural lecture as a full professor of Public Theology and Ethics at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa. The tradition of an inaugural lecture is that a newly promoted professor should have something to “profess” after having spent years reading, listening, reflecting, teaching, and writing. Yet, as the philosopher Richard Fleming notes, writing one’s thoughts for others to read is often difficult, since we try to mean what we say using words that are not our own. We find our life fated in the language of our ancestors, in the language we inherit from them … Hence to understand what words mean we must understand what those who use them mean.

So, this blog post may be a bit more personal than usual. I hope to share something of myself so that you might better understand what I mean.

An ethical paradox

My lecture engaged a strange, South African “veridical paradox.” A veridical paradox is a claim that seems absurd yet appears to be true regardless of the absurdity. In this case, I recognized that while 92.3 percent of South Africans indicate that they are religious (in fact, 85.6 percent profess to be Christian), the country continues to struggle with the individual and systemic injustices of racism, sexism, poverty, violence, and environmental destruction.

Of course, these problems are not unique to South Africans. A large percentage of the world’s population claims to adhere to the moral and religious teachings of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (among other religious traditions). Yet, our beliefs and values often appear incapable of making the world a better place.

As a result, many people seem to be losing hope in the future. I’m sure that you have recognized this in conversations with family, friends, and colleagues. And of course, a measure of alarm and hopelessness is present in news reporting and on social media.

So, I will confess that I really struggled to work out what might be good, right, and wise to profess in this context where religion seems somewhat ineffectual to foster realistic hope.

Hopeful virtues

Since spending time at Duke Divinity School in the early 2000’s, my work has been significantly influenced by the ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. He writes, “to be a hopeful person means you rightly will want the world in which you find yourself to be a better one . . . But you’ll have to be patient, courageous, and imaginative for that hope to be more than a fantasy.”

Taking my cue from Hauerwas, I focused my lecture on three virtues that people can develop to cultivate realistic hope. I began with the virtue of “active patience,” which serves as an antidote to apathetic resignation on the one hand and violent action on the other. Next, I discussed “courage” as a virtue for “everyday life” that helps us to overcome the inconsistency between our beliefs and actions. It enables us to embody and profess the truth rather than accepting or perpetuating lies. Finally, I spent some time discussing the importance of cultivating an ethical imagination that leads to “hopeful agency,” the hope that empowers persons for constructive action.

A diseased social imagination

I argue that a great deal of present injustice and hardship is founded upon fantasy: the fantasy of human uniqueness, the fantasy of racial supremacy, the fantasy of patriarchy, the fantasy of cultural superiority, and the fantasy of national exceptionality. Yuval Harari rightly points out that human beings are the only species (that we know of) that is capable of imagining impossible or improbable things and of ordering our lives according to these fantasies. Take the current tragedy playing out in the Ukraine as an example. Things that are imaginative constructions and do not really exist, such as national borders and national identities, are now reshaping things that actually do exist, like the safety of people and animals.

Charles Taylor calls this phenomenon the modern “social imaginary,” which shapes “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” From childhood, we learn that the world works in certain ways (and not in others); we learn what is good and right, and what constitutes “the good life.” However, so much of our modern “social imaginary” is malformed yet it goes largely unquestioned.

For example, in the introduction to his book, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, Mark Fisher suggests that for most people it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” That is deeply concerning, since we can see how certain forms of capitalism are contributing to increasing economic and social inequalities, poverty, environmental destruction. Yet, we struggle to imagine alternative economic arrangements that could lead to greater equality and human and planetary wellbeing. Similarly, Yale theologian Willie Jennings notes that religious persons (he focuses on American Christians) “live within a diseased social imagination.” Our faith, indeed, our morals have been “captured” and taken over by contemporary fantasies related to race, social class, religion, etc. These “diseased social imaginations” shape how we believe the world “really” works and how we should live.

Cultivating an ethical imagination

One of the roles of the contemporary ethicist, indeed any ethical person, is to identify and unmask this “diseased social imagination,” which Hauerwas calls the “unacknowledged stories” that shape our everyday lives and mis-shape both our beliefs and our actions.

How does one do that? We can begin by distinguishing imagination from fantasy and ideology. The kind of imagination that we need in order to address some of the major challenges of our time is an ethical imagination. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggests that an ethical imagination is one that can imagine “a good life, [lived] with and for others, within just institutions.”

The fantasies of racism, sexism, greed, and violence that shape our current “diseased social imagination” are not a way of living “for others,” and they are not serving us well. They lead individuals and societies into competition and conflict with one another. They suggest that it is acceptable to disregard the needs and concerns of the vulnerable as long as their own needs and the needs and intentions of their communities are met. Such fantasies cannot contribute to a hopeful world since they do not serve the common good or a lasting good for all of humanity and the rest of nonhuman creation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu serves as a wonderful example of someone who embodied this kind of ethical imagination in his life and work. In 1988, during one of the darkest periods of South Africa’s apartheid history, he addressed the racist and violent government saying, “Your cause is unjust. You are defending what is fundamentally indefensible because it is evil.” Then, with great imaginative power, he urged them, “we are inviting you to come and join the winning side!” His statement proclaimed the truth that the fantasy of apartheid was doomed to fail. But it also signaled that there was hope for the future of South Africa, even hope for the oppressors, if they were willing to change.

So, as I professed my inaugural lecture as a theologian and ethicist, I committed myself to embodying a set of virtues for more hopeful living. I hope to live and work with a form of patience that works for radical change without resorting to violence or collapsing into despair. I hope to speak, write, and act with a kind of courage that unmasks the lies and fantasies that deform our common life. And I want this work to be informed by an ethical imagination that conceptualizes a “good life, [lived] with others, within just institutions.” Finally, I hope that you may consider joining me in cultivating an ethical imagination that can restore a sense of hopeful agency for our world.

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Dion Forster is Professor of Ethics and Public Theology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is the author of numerous books and articles in theology and ethics. His research focusses on social ethics, economic ethics, and political ethics. Dion is the director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology. See: http://www.twitter.com/digitaldion.


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