THE MORAL IMAGINATION: WITNESSES
This book is about moral intelligence, about how it is enabled through the moral imagination, our gradually developed capacity to reflect upon what is right and wrong with all the emotional and intellectual resources of the human mind. This book is about what it means to be a “good person,” as opposed to a “not-so-good person” or a “bad person.” This book is meant to offer some thoughts on how “character” develops in children, how their moral imagination grows at different moments of their lives; it is meant for those who are bringing up children, teaching them. In The Moral Life of Children, I examined moral thinking, as it gets shaped by influences outside the home: by class and race, by social events, by cultural forces—school desegregation, the presence of nuclear bombs in our midst, the particular neighborhood where a boy or girl lives, the assumptions it fosters. In this book, by contrast, I take up the issue of moral conduct, of the child’s lived life, as it develops in response to the way he or she is treated at home and in school. The book aims to show how moral behavior develops, a response to moral experiences as they take place, day after day, in a family, a classroom.
I first heard the term “moral intelligence” many years ago, from Rustin McIntosh, a distinguished pediatrician who was teaching a group of us how to work with young patients who were quite ill. When we asked him to explain what he had in mind by that phrase, “moral intelligence,” he did not respond with an elegantly precise definition. Rather, he told us about boys and girls he’d known and treated who had it—who were “good,” who were kind, who thought about others, who extended themselves toward those others, who were “smart” that way. Some children even at six or seven had an evident desire to be tactful, courteous, generous in their willingness to see the world as others saw it, to experience the world through someone else’s eyes, and to act on that knowledge with kindness. He told us stories of clinical moments he found unforgettable: a girl dying of leukemia who worried about the “burden” she’d put upon her terribly saddened mother; a boy who lost the effective use of his right arm due to an automobile injury, and who felt sorry less for himself than for his dad, who loved baseball, loved coaching his son and others in a neighborhood Little League team.
But I remember wanting more than a doctor’s tales. I wanted Dr. McIntosh to be precise, to give me a formulation, a categorical description that I could summon conveniently as I went about my life, went about the business of learning to be a pediatrician, a child psychiatrist, a parent, a schoolteacher—four ways I eventually ended up being involved with young people. Eventually I got from this beloved medical school professor only this folksy summation: “You know ‘moral intelligence’ when you see it, when you hear it at work—a child who is smart that way, smart not with facts and figures, but with the way he’s behaving, the way he talks about others, takes them into consideration.”
He could see that I still hungered for more. He looked at his bookshelf—all the volumes there, telling of the illnesses that afflict children, and telling, too, of their cognitive and their emotional development. Then, he looked back at me, an anxiously precise young doctor sitting opposite him: “All the time we comment about ‘smart’ children or ‘emotionally troubled’ children, but we’re not so quick to speak of good-hearted children, or the ones who upset us because we think they’re not very good at all—they may, in fact, have traveled, already, a long way toward badness.”
I could tell I wasn’t going to get what I then nervously wanted, a satisfying generalization that would enable me to be “smart” about a particular aspect of human behavior, goodness in children. Instead, a physician was teaching me by his own example—the way we teach children ourselves: we make them witnesses to our own behavior. Moreover, he did something else we can do, too: he resorted to stories, memories of moments observed in particular young lives. Stories from real life as well as stories from the movies, from literature, can stir and provoke the moral imagination. Didactic or theoretical arguments don’t work well; narratives, images, observed behavior all do.
“Moral intelligence” isn’t acquired only by memorization of rules and regulations, by dint of abstract classroom discussion or kitchen compliance. We grow morally as a consequence of learning how to be with others, how to behave in this world, a learning prompted by taking to heart what we have seen and heard. The child is a witness; the child is an ever-attentive witness of grown-up morality—or lack thereof; the child looks and looks for cues as to how one ought to behave, and finds them galore as we parents and teachers go about our lives, making choices, addressing people, showing in action our rock-bottom assumptions, desires, and values, and thereby telling those young observers much more than we may realize.
When I think of what I mean for this book to offer you, I remember myself as a young doctor, and as a witness to that elder doctor; I remember his “moral intelligence”—his respect for other people as well as himself, the deep awareness he acknowledged of our human connectedness. I was a witness to how he approached his patients, hurt and ailing children, but also their parents, and us interns, residents, nurses, and as well, the orderlies and nurse’s aides and volunteers and janitors, all of whom make a hospital run smoothly and all of whom he took pains to acknowledge with consideration, respect. In fact, I remember that doctor, a father to a generation of pediatricians who trained under him, going out of his way to thank an orderly for taking such good care of a child’s toys, a child’s room; complimenting a nurse on the way she spoke with a four-year-old girl who was dying; taking time to sit on the floor with a boy in order to look at a train set and help fix one of the tracks that had come loose. Here was a big-shot doctor who was also a psychologically solid and even-tempered doctor, and who was something else, too—a man of high character, of great humanity. He was respectful of others, no matter their station in life; he was “a good person”—courteous, compassionate, caring, warm-hearted, unpretentious, gracefully willing to stop himself in his tracks, his big and important tracks, in order to link arms with various others, to acknowledge them as his companions in a shared, daily effort to make a pediatric ward run well, so that some exceedingly vulnerable children might get a bit more out of life than otherwise would have been possible.
He didn’t give lectures and sermons as to how we interns and residents ought to behave with one another, with the hospital staff, with the children we were treating. Nor were we handed articles to read, guides to good behavior on those hospital wards, “self-help” books meant to boost our “moral intelligence” (our M.I. as opposed to our I.Q.!). “Not the letter, but the spirit,” this kindly old doc seemed to be saying to us. In fact, he said very little to us; he lived out his moral principles, and soon enough, we were witnesses to his behavior, to his ways of being with others, which we were challenged to absorb, as all young people are inclined to do, when they have learned to admire and trust someone older: try to follow suit.
On the other hand, he had mentioned directly the idea of moral intelligence, the specific notion, surprising and perplexing to us at first, that we ought to keep in mind a person’s moral actions as well as his or her intellectual caliber, emotional balance, or state. At first we got carried away with the idea, tried to make a list, with subdivisions: cognitive intelligence, psychiatric well-being, moral life or character. But he laughed when he entered our staff meeting room and saw these lists on a blackboard. To paraphrase from memory: “You folks—I just wanted to suggest that you stop and think about these kids we’re treating in such a way that you don’t always tell me how smart they are (or how they’re not too smart) or how calm they are (or how emotionally disturbed, troubled). Give me an idea about—well, to use an old-fashioned word, their conduct: Are they generous or are they selfish? Have they got an eye out for others, their situation, or are they all wrapped up inside their own world? Even among our sickest children, we get the whole range—kids who give thought to those around them, and kids who don’t have the time of day for others, including people in their own families.”
In that spirit I try here to offer what a book makes possible: stories and thoughts meant to inspire the shaping of the moral imagination; lots of words, but with the repeated reminder, learned from that doctor and others (my own parents, my wife, certain others who have in my life stood in loco parentis) that these words are not to be memorized for a test, graded by yet another teacher, but are meant to help trigger a lifetime of honorable human activity. Put differently, this book is meant to provide nourishment to the reader’s moral imagination, that “place” in our heads, our thinking and daydreaming, our wandering and worrying lives, where we ponder the meaning of our lives and, too, the world’s ethical challenges; and where we try to decide what we ought or ought not to do, and why, and how we ought to get on with people, and for what overall moral, religious, spiritual, practical reasons.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Coles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.