Image from Moral Imaginations Lab, with the Watchet Community, February 2021. By resident artist Reilly Dow

The Manifesto for Moral Imagination

Using imagination to bring three pillars — future generations, nature and ancestors — alive and embedded into policy, practice and design — by Moral Imaginations (June 2020)

Phoebe Tickell
Moral Imaginations
Published in
11 min readApr 12, 2021

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.

Photographs taken by Craig Burrows under UV light

“The Great Flattening” and what is lost

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.

However these systems have also led to what we could call The Great Flattening. We see ourselves as separate from the complex, thriving, thrumming system of the world. Our systems of measuring value, while so useful, have changed the way we perceive the world irrevocably.

Furthermore, 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.

To grow up and thrive within the world, we numb ourselves to the 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 Great Unflattening” to re-embody a full sense of being

If we have been living through The Great Flattening, then what we need is A Great Unflattening. We can keep the things that have proven so useful, and necessary for this next stage of our civilisation — there is no need to throw what is useful away. But the important task for the 21st Century is to re-inhabit a full body of feeling, the capacities of intuition, imagination, warmth, creativity and a sense of what is important to us — perhaps even sacred.

The core values of being a human

What is at the core of the human experience? Societies built on religion have known this intimately: values, morals, meaning and virtue. They have been left out of the great project of our modern civilisation, along with spaces for cultivating imagination, uninterrupted play and enchantment. The entertainment industry provides us with non-stop 24 hour digitally administered entertainment — but not 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, Virgil 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 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 the age of 18.

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. But the kind of thinking required on a massive scale to get out of them isn’t 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, 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.

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.

Still image from The Impossible Train Story — by resident artist Reilly Dow

Rigorous imagining for moral futures

Moral Imaginations is a humble community, a kernel of something bigger, 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 power of the imagination towards what is moral. It involves embodying and exploring the unseen, the unfelt, and the adjacent possible and bringing 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 Moral Imagining practice is three pillars

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.

Moral Imagining 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 Imagining 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 Imagining 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 Imagining is felt.

We have to feel the future into being, it is not something that can only be 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 must be invited into full-scale Moral Imaginations.

Moral Imaginations is a growing community and practice of rigorous imagining for moral futures.

We invite in the weird, wyrd, strange and liminal. What comes out of these sessions is beyond what we can rationally understand and capture and quantify. We create shared portals into new dimensions of being. These portals belong to everyone. Join us.

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This work has been supported by Unbound Philanthropy, Onion Collective, Foresight Institute, and supported/inspired by countless others.

Some of those names, in no particular order, including but not limited to: Will Somerville, Sarah Cutler, Alice Sachrajda, Alex Evans, Joanna Macy, Reilly Dow, Pietro Marchesi, John Collins, Sasha Care, Reilly Dow, Elisabeth Davies, Wendy Schulz, Nora Bateson, Kate Genevieve, Tony Lai, Jacob Huehn, Tantek Celik, Dougald Hine, Imandeep Kaur, Daniel Blyden, CIVIC SQUARE and Dept of Dreams, Lucia Pietroiusti, Ella Saltmarshe, Beatrice Pembroke, The Long Time Community, Pat McCabe, Georgie Grant, Jessica Prendergrast, the Watchet Moral Imaginations group, the crew at 05 Collective, Rob Hopkins, Richard Couldrey and the Bounce Forward team, Christine Lai, Melinda Varfi, Felix Marquardt, Lou de Kerhuelvez, Allison Duettmann, Anja Blaj, Cat Ainsworth, Annie Legge, Brett Scott, Eirini Malliakari, Grant Jarvis, Heather Love, Kaa Faenson, Ann Badillo, Lynne Davies, Melina Mitsotaki, Felipe Viveros, Liam Kavanaugh, Hannah Close, Gil Friend, Emily Stewart, Petronella Tyson, Lindsay Alderton, Michael Sillion, Bram Arnold, Dorothy Zablah and many more.

To watch a video talking about Moral Imaginations, see this talk at the Re_Festival by Department of Dreams:

The first 20 minutes of this panel on Cultivating Everyday Imagination at the What If? Bounce Forward Summit:

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Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.



Phoebe Tickell
Moral Imaginations

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

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