Phoebe Tickell

Moral Imaginations

We need a new rigour - a rigour of feeling. To change systems and culture we must feel differently, and not just change the map of where we want to go. If the ways of thinking with which we are familiar are leading us to dead ends, we must go via a different route.



Perception determines our map of the world

If you’ve read the story Flatland, you’ll know about the idea that we are limited to perceiving the world with the senses we have available to us. The 1884 novel tells the story of a square existing in a two-dimensional world, alongside other two-dimensional objects. When the square encounters a three-dimensional sphere in its world of two dimensions, all it can see is an expanding and retracting circle as the sphere moves, up and down through Flatland. 

We know other organisms can perceive things we cannot; bees perceive UV light, platypuses perceive magnetic fields. The world exists in far more complexity than what we can ourselves observe. The brain and our sensory organs have evolved to perceive a slice of reality which allows us to navigate the world without getting completely overwhelmed.

Unflattening to re-embody a full sense of being

We live in a world where we have stopped perceiving the full spectrum of who we are, what a good human life is made up of, and the magic and possibility of a human life and the world that surrounds us. Most people are living a life that is a shadow, or a small segment of the life they could be. By that we don’t mean they could be living more in terms of material wealth. We are talking about the kind of life many of us imagined when we were younger — one that is rich with meaning and builds itself around what is important, or even sacred.

There is so much that is wrong with our world, and to grow up and thrive within it, we numb ourselves and our perception to what is wrong. We tell ourselves that the world - as it is - is normal and that we need to grow up and that the world and lives we yearn for are impossible and implausible — that we are just naive.

The core values of being a human

Economics and science have brought us so much; our telescopes see distant parts of the Universe, our microscopes bring us close to vistas of the inner workings of our own cells. Economic systems have allowed cooperation on a global scale, and boosted much creativity, increased the quality of life for many, and enabled construction of new realities.

But the core parts of being a human: values, morals, meaning and virtue, have been left out of the great project of civilisation, along with spaces for cultivating imagination, uninterrupted play and enchantment. The thing that many of us start our lives as cherishing most deeply — the natural world — we pollute and destroy. Instead of building a civilisation around these things that are sacred to us, they are left as an add-on. 

Yet the people that make it to be wealthy end up seeking to live their lives in in the most beautiful and pristine natural parts of the planet, living lives that are full of play and imagination, and seek meaning through philanthropy — giving back, and doing what is moral and virtuous.

Re-inhabiting moral imagination

In the Western tradition, morality is seen simply as a system of universal laws dictated by reason. We make ethical decisions by applying universal laws to concrete situations. But as with a lot of areas, cognitive science is beginning to undermine the view that our sense making and meaning making happens by rational thought and deduction alone.

We have intractable problems and as a species we have driven ourselves and the majority of the other species on this planet into dead ends. What if the new way of making sense of our world and deciding what is right requires more than rational reasoning and thought, but imagination?

The moral imagination as a concept has been alive since the time of Plato, Vergil and Dante. Over the centuries it has been periodically re-expressed, for example by Edmund Burke in 1790, and then others in more recent years. We became interested in how to develop a practice and community to bring it alive in a way that is relevant for this current moment and generation.

A new rigour of feeling

Spaces for deep and radical creativity are few and far between. Imagination is largely reserved for those who are paid to imagine for us — film-makers, entrepreneurs and fiction writers. The school system largely squeezes out the creativity of children by age of 18 years.

The kind of thinking required on a massive scale to get out of the complex problems we find ourselves in is not accessible to the majority of people. We’re asking for boldness, collaboration, courage, creativity and imagination, but we don’t acknowledge that those are not things that can suddenly occur — they take space, cultivation and practice — and communities that can tend to those things.

They are also not cognitive capacities only — we need a new rigour, and that is a rigour of feeling, to change systems and culture we must feel differently, and not just change the map of where we want to go. I am convinced that to shift the future we need to feel into it differently — if the ways of thinking we are familiar with are leading us to dead ends, perhaps the only way to circumvent them is to go via a different route. 

If we wanted a space to play with these new modalities of feeling and imagining, what would that look like?

Launching in a pandemic

Last year in April 2020, a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, we invited people into an imaginal play space, which purposefully blurred the boundaries between the real and the surreal and invited them to practice the art of a liminal form of imagination, which involved exiting the matrix of linear, reductionist and categorised thinking and inhabiting a deeply playful and perception shifting space.

Over 6 weeks, we hosted over 160 people through a collective imagining process that shared a unique methodology we had been developing over the course of the year before. It takes a rigorous approach to imagining and shifts perceptions of time, space and self to allow creative explorations of a better world for people, all life-forms and planet. It’s informed by complexity theory, warm data, systems thinking, deep ecology and mythology, and can be experienced as a group or accessed alone. 

Since then there have been more labs exploring the imagination and taking a total of just over 400 people through the collective imagination practices. The Moral Imaginations Labs use multi-media experiential journeys, sound, live artwork, group work and embodied imagination practices to create a shared, immersive experience. 
Image by Reilly Dow during "The Impossible Train Story", 24 February 2021, Watchet Moral Imaginations Lab

The Impossible Train Story

The invitation was through a story and metaphor — of an Impossible Train — a train that has never stopped, and cannot stop. One day a fire breaks out in one of the carriages, and the unthinkable happens — the train that nobody thought could stop, pulls the breaks and stops. People get off the train and can hear birdsong and smell trees for the first time — and discover a world outside of the train. When they look ahead of the train tracks, they see a canyon and the tracks lead to a cliff edge. The train was hurtling towards its own destruction, but the people can only see that now.

Rigorous imagining for moral futures

Moral Imaginations is a humble community, a kernel of movement, a core set of practices, and a commitment to living in and enacting a world from a place of moral imagination. It is about de-numbing our perceptions and senses to perceive what was always already there, but we do not usually include in our understanding of value, perspective or virtue.

Moral Imaginations is about using the imagination to embody and explore the unseen, the unfelt, and the adjacent possible and bring an embodied imagination to new possibilities. It is about using imagination in a completely different way. 

Imagining new possibilities comes from first throwing off the solely rational, linear and reductionist categorisation and conceptions of what we are used to recognising as ‘valuable’.  The space beyond default perception, beyond our understanding of time, beyond the rational rules of who can speak on behalf of what — we call this the “liminal space”, and the muscle we grow in Moral Imaginations is the muscle to inhabit, navigate, and create from, that liminal space.

The core of the work of Moral Imaginations is about coming together to develop the embodied practice, deepened empathy and playful creativity to foster a human sensibility of who we are and what we are here to do. The work centres on ‘three pillars’ — which serve as portals to accessing our moral imaginations. These are:

-- The perspective of future, unborn generations
-- The perspective of the more-than-human world
-- The perspective of deep, evolutionary time, and ancestors

 It is a practice and set of living methodologies that can be used to cultivate a renewed moral imagination. It is a community of people who are committed to working with moral imagination to develop a new human sensibility, access new vistas, new ways of being, new ways of seeing, and who create new portals to adjacent possibilities. Embodied imagination and expanded empathy lead to new internal territories and perception, which open doors to different decision making, direction and action towards more moral futures.
Image by Reilly Dow during "Letters from the Future," 26 February 2021, the Watchet Moral Imaginations Lab
Moral Imaginations is a practice.

Moral Imaginations is a lucid dreaming practice into a better future. The world we are working to manifest into reality doesn’t exist yet. We must inhabit that space with our imagination, feel it, dream it, and then bring it down to ground it in reality.

The practice is to be able to find our way into these other-worlds, and practice perception through new eyes that we wouldn’t normally have access to. Just like in a lucid dream, there are methodologies that allow you to trigger your entry into a lucid dreaming state. Just like in a lucid dream, maintaining that state takes rigour, focus and practice, and doesn’t always work. Unlike a lucid dream, we go into that space together.

Moral Imaginations is a portal.

It is an emergent space, a space where the end goal is possibility. We entertain that if our current perception and ways of thinking about the world are fundamentally dead-end, and create realities we do not want, we need to find ways to throw off the psychic machinery that keeps us in a dead reality. The portal is into new vistas within ourselves, and into a community that supports further development.

Moral Imaginations is vital.

Moral Imaginations is an invitation to speak up on behalf of all Life. It’s a moral responsibility that we do so in a time when the future of our planet and species is endangered. It is a vital practice that allows us to connect with the more than human world, our own ecologies, lineages, identity, and expanded ecological identity, to shift perception, and from that action, on behalf of all Life.

Moral Imaginations is felt.

We have to feel the future into being, it is not something that can be done only with thought. Moral Imaginations invites full-body intelligence, embodied perception and heart and gut-based knowing to join the powers of the intellect to imagine better futures. We believe that your microbiomes must be welcome too, and all of the other organisms, nerves and neurons in your body for a full imagination. Returning to the bumblebee or platypus who perceives UV light and magnetic fields, human beings can perceive new imaginaries by engaging the whole body’s perception and intuitive feeling.

Moral Imaginations is a growing community and approach to rigorous imagining for moral futures.

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Photographs are by JR Korpa

Words by Phoebe Tickell
Phoebe is a renegade scientist, systems designer and social entrepreneur, passionate about creating opportunities for transformation of people - and through that, transformation of society, and the planet.