Summary of "The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

Summary of

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

by John Paul Lederach

Summary written by Kimberly S. George, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University (Note: We also have a longer, more detailed summary)

Citation: Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

In The Moral Imagination, Lederach builds on his previous work and presents an ambitious mode of peacebuilding that ultimately involves changing the ways in which people and societies respond to challenges. He believes that if societies can become better at employing the moral imagination in conflict situations, they can avoid violence altogether. He concludes:

"if we are to survive as a global community, we must understand the imperative nature of giving birth and space to the moral imagination in human affairs. We must face the fact that much of our current system for responding to deadly local and international conflict is incapable of overcoming cycles of violent patterns precisely because our imagination has been corralled and shackled by the very parameters and sources that create and perpetuate violence."

Lederach wants to change the entire system of human relations. He feels that we are stuck in our current system, including its resort to violence, because we do not know anything else. He points to the human imagination and ability to create as the answer to breaking out of this cycle. Morality is the motivation and innovation the mechanism.

Lederach's purpose in writing this book was to address the tension between "how we move from destructive violence to constructive social engagement." In that regard, he achieves the purpose of the book by explaining four ways of fostering the moral imagination in conflict situations in order to move beyond violence. According to Lederach, "...

the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence" (p.5).

In conflict resolution this means,

  • for one, that parties need to see the expanded network of relationships in which they exist, including their interconnectedness to their enemies.
  • Second, they need to have a desire to understand their enemies from their enemies' point of view. In other words, they need to recognize that the situation is more complicated than good verses bad or right verses wrong; they must, as business jargon puts it, "think outside of the box".
  • Third, parties must embrace creativity. They must recognize the potential for change - the existence of progress - and work to create a new social reality, even if they cannot yet envision the final product.
  • And finally, they must be willing to take great risks in the name of peace; peacemakers often risk being ostracized, outcast, or even killed by their own community.

This constructivist view embraces complexity and warns against over-simplification and dualism. For Lederach, a more moral community can be built by connecting the past, present, and future. It recognizes that peace needs to be imagined while still remaining grounded in the realities of the conflict. The transformation process has to start - parties need to envision a better future and begin to see their enemies as partners in getting there - while deadly conflict is still going on.

The major strength of Lederach's book is that, by challenging the status quo model of conflict resolution promulgated today, it makes a real contribution to the field. Traditionally, the peace accord is emphasized at the most significant step in achieving peace. Most agree that peace is highly unlikely without a framework agreement. But Lederach points out that a peace accord is just the beginning of negotiations. If it is to be carried out and peace is to be sustained, there is much more work that needs to be done. Lederach wants to get conflict resolution professionals to start thinking more about the post-agreement phase and to see it as critical for building a strong, yet flexible system that can hold up against challenges.

His critique, however, is not only about focusing on a different phase in the process. He also wants to redefine the process and change the way in which the entire field operates. He feels that, in the name of being scientific, conflict resolution has become too formulaic, methodological, and impersonal, all at the expense of innovation. He says that "the moral imagination requires conflict professionals to reach beyond technique and process management to the source of the creative act that responds to the hard realities of human affairs yet breaks beyond what currently exists and seems possible."

Lederach reclaims creativity as one of conflict resolution's greatest tools. He is not just repeating the idea that all conflicts are unique and responses have to address the particulars of each situation. He is going beyond that and saying that each situation requires its own creative exercise, as if a whole new branch of conflict resolution needs to be developed each time. Constructive social engagements require a never ending process of creation.

Adding to the credibility of the book is Lederach's decades of direct experience in some of the most protracted conflicts around the globe. The text is built around stories that he has drawn from his considerable experience in the field as a practitioner of conflict resolution Lederach uses a variety of literary tools to engage the reader and provide a rich understanding of the material. In addition to personal accounts and stories, he uses numerous analogies - such as how spiders' build their webs - to draw a picture for the reader of complex theoretical concepts. He is also able to turn the multifaceted reality of human relations into something comprehensible. Also, by repeating key ideas in different terms, the book becomes accessible to more people.

I was bothered, however, by the heavy reliance of analogies and wished that the book had more practical, contextual examples, which would make the theory more relevant and viable. For example, when talking about web building and the importance of understanding the social geography and locating strategic anchor points (84), it would be useful to have examples of what such "anchor points" might be. It is difficult to access whether Lederach's ideas are attainable without putting them in a conflict situation and naming types of institutions and actors.

Also, while Lederach repeats his ideas in different ways, they still remain vague. For example, he talks about the importance of linking unlike-minded people, but he does not elucidate on how that might be done and how, specifically, how peacebuilders can do so in a context of violence. Lederach talks about fundamental skills, but he does not talk about what it means to have those skills or how they are used. (This is an ironic critique, however, because it essentially calls for the provision of methods and part of Lederach's thesis is that such a focus distracts from creativity. Also, considering that the reality Lederach wants to see be born does not yet exist, he cannot be faulted too much for being vague. He is basically asking peacebuilders to imagine the unimaginable, to create something that cannot yet be defined yet. He is practicing what he preaches by stepping into the unknown while staying rooted in reality.)

Another critique is that, while no book can cover every aspect of a topic, two important questions go unanswered in Lederah's book. For one, it ignores the differences between being inside and outside of a conflict. How does his theory read differently for external practitioners verses actors in the conflict? What challenges do each face and how can the different perspectives be maximized to promote peace? Another question that is not definitively answered is whether there is ever a just war according to Lederach. His theory advocates for choosing a non-violent response to conflict; it finds that violent responses only perpetuate violence and rarely solve problems. Is war necessarily destructive though, or can it be constructive in some cases?

On the other hand, The Moral Imagination is extremely comprehensive in its proposal for a lasting peace. Lederach addresses conflict resolution on two levels. On the micro level, he presents ways to resolve current conflicts. At the same time, his theory wants to address the macro by building systems that respond constructively to conflict. He correctly identifies constant, never-ending work at humanization as the solution to preventing violence. He believes that humanization processes can be built into our systems of relating to each other. While the project he proposes might sound idealistic, unrealistic, and contrary to the human relations, Lederach is optimistic and recognizes that conflict does not need to be destructive and that large-scale change is possible. The potential to eradicate violence is found in humanity's inherent ability to imagine and create.