Each of us is ethically obligated and socially responsible to society. Our “moral imagination” is a very important tool that can be used to frame moral issues and link them to cultural and our own values. This involves picturing a variety of scenarios in the attempt to solve a certain dilemma, and throughout our quest for answers, we should always measure all possible solutions with regards to values we aspire to. Thus, moral imagination is simply being able to step outside of oneself and imagine a variety of solutions with regards to their moral content while analyzing a certain situation. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is perhaps one of the best pieces of literature in which moral imagination has been analyzed with eloquent depth. In his book, which is an account of his personal experiences of the time he spent as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl finds meaning in ordinary, everyday life and in the most outwardly desperate situations by using moral imagination.
Reflecting on Frankl’s beliefs and thinking, it is arguable that denying meaning even in the worst situations is equal to giving up on life. Frankl’s book is a lesson that we should never give up our search for meaning. Frankl’s book deeply affects its readers because it forces them to ask themselves what their reaction would be in such extreme situations and whether they would be able to keep their humanity intact. It is very inspiring and moving to learn how Frankl’s quest to search for meaning in each passing moment helped him in keeping his sanity, and how he survived with the help of his integrity. Every account and description of meaning in his book makes readers feel positive about life and supports some basic moral value. There are numerous life lessons in Frankl’s account, and he gives a view of human existence and the world that is not limited to the extreme situations of the Nazi concentration camps.
We cannot find our life’s meaning until we acknowledge that people are responsible for their own life, and that human existence revolves around that responsibility for ourselves. Frankl refers to this as “responsibleness,” and he instructs us to “live as if you were living already for a second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now” (Frankl, 2000, p. 114) whenever we encounter a moral dilemma. Of course, we cannot do this without moral imagination, i.e. we must have belief in moral principles and be aware that there is always the likelihood of acting “wrongly.” We need to choose the “right” course of action by imagining the outcome of every possible act. Frankl is quick to tell us that we need to “see” both ourselves and our very existence in terms of meaning. We cannot activate our moral imagination without believing that every action and every moment has some meaning behind it.
Our capability to make ethical decisions and our search for meaning is incomplete without moral imagination and perhaps even moral autonomy. Moral autonomy can be defined as a state that can be reached by making moral choices on the basis of what is right while balancing the general good with our own needs and the needs of others. Of course, this is not possible without moral imagination since “what is right” needs to be determined. Moral autonomy has been indirectly addressed in Frankl’s book when he refers to our conscience as the “prompter,” which points us in a certain direction” (Frankl, 2000, p. 146). When unable to decide whether to flee or to stay at the concentration camp with his patients, Frankl imagined what it would be like if he left them behind, and asked himself what it meant if he stayed. Although the important part of his decision to stay is that he found meaning as a caring human being, but it also ended up saving his life.
Thus, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is indeed an analysis of moral imagination based on what he observed during his time in the Nazi concentration camps and his years of experience. During that time in the camps, and in his life after, he saw how important it is for people to foster “the will to meaning” within them. This enables us to use our moral imagination and follow the guidance of our conscience, as a result of which we are able to lead a meaningful life. We should see every action we take from each passing moment in the terms of meaning, which makes us greatly aware of long and short-term goals. Frankl’s book teaches us that we are being who are able to perceive things, who can use their moral imagination to find meaning in their lives and the act upon that meaning, while keeping in mind that we are ethically and socially obligated to themselves and to their society.
Frankl, V. (2000). Man's search for meaning. (4th ed., Vol. 1). Boston: Beacon Press.