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Moral Imagination

We constantly adjust our moral values based on our ideas about the world. That can be a tool for kindness, cruelty—or just for survival.

By D. Watkins

The Baltimore riot of April 1968 was an outpouring of rage and frustration following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. (Credit: Flickr/Creative Commons)

Survival supersedes morality, at least where I grew up. Phrases like “fight or flight” become privileged because, well, where are you really going to go? I was a victim of bullying with few to no options.

Back in ­­1989, a nine-year-old me used to blast to the corner store in East Baltimore, carrying two fistfuls of quarters to buy Lemonheads, Now and Laters, Boston Baked Beans, Laffy Taffy, and Jolly Ranchers in every flavor. From there I’d run straight to Ashland Avenue, with all of the joy anyone can imagine washed across my face. And I’d proudly share my candy with any and everyone who asked, because that’s just who I am.

On one of those hot summer days, I exploded onto the block where my friends were as usual, pocket full of candy, ready to damage my own smile in addition to the teeth of everyone around from the loads of processed sugar. Burger and Troy, two of the guys I spent most of my time with, were already posted, as happy to see me as I was to see them.

“D, what took you so long?” they’d ask.

“I had to get the candy!”

I never claimed to be a super gangster, a killer, or anything like that, but I didn’t have a choice in this situation.

Burger, one of the most vicious bullies on our block, who seemed to be as thick as he was tall, was spooning chunks of seafood salad from a Country Crock margarine container into his mouth, while Troy’s small fingers clicked away at his Game Boy, making a pat-pat-pat sound like a stenographer. I ate Lemonheads.

It was 1989, a key year in the explosion of crack cocaine. The drug was everywhere, and children who were just a few years older than me, like Burger and Troy, were making thousands of dollars on the corner. Imagine 13-year-olds pulling $5,000 bundles of cash out of their tiny pockets to buy a lollipop, a 25-cent juice, and a bag of hot fries. Crack, which was a cooked-up rock form of powder cocaine, caused its users (who were mostly our parents, uncles, aunts, and older family members) to effortlessly trade in their morals to experience that 11-minute high.

Even if us kids grew up and decided to never touch a drug, our moral compass would still be guided in part by the actions of elders who were hooked and the sacrifices they did and didn’t make. Especially since we didn’t have the ability to understand the difference between the sickness of addiction and a person who just doesn’t care about you. How could we ever imagine the moral choices actually open to us in such a difficult, complex, and morally challenged world?

Burger, being Burger, snatched away Troy’s Game Boy just as he was about to beat Super Mario.

“Come on, man!”

Burger would always do things like this­­, agitate just for the sake of agitating. Dude was only a little older than Troy and me but he was big as an adult, so big that no one was surprised when he pushed his gym teacher down a flight of stairs, destroyed three kids who tried to jump him, or ran up on the bus and overhand-righted the driver into deep sleep because someone dared him to. It took an ambulance crew to wake that guy up.

Troy was the polar opposite: bookish, thoughtful, and always in pristine Air Jordans. He was the only kid I knew with braces on his teeth, a clear sign of wealth in our crumbled section of Baltimore. We were also the only kids I knew enthralled by sneakers, with mountains of Nike boxes in our rooms before sneaker culture was a thing, and the only kids with Game Boys. He and I were just alike. I think we gravitated toward Burger because we didn’t want to be on the wrong side of his mitts.

“Come on, man! I was about to win Mario!” Troy repeated, but did nothing.

“I should sell this shit,” Burger scoffed.

Troy protested to no avail. His eyes were becoming glossy wet slits as he pleaded and then stopped.

“Lemme give your li’l game back,” Burger said, approaching Troy on the steps. “You look like you gonna cry, like a li’l bitch. Why you always around him, D? He a bitch!”

“He ain’t a bitch,” I pushed back.

Burger eyed me while forcing that Game Boy into his pocket. Troy tried his his best not to let that tear fall.

“Burger, why you gotta be so extra all of the time, man?” I said with my shoulders hunched and face twisted. “Give his fuckin’ game back!”

Burger used his tongue to dig out a piece of a shrimp shell from the seafood salad he was eating, looked at me, slowly turned his head toward Troy, and then spat that slimy shell onto Troy’s forehead. It slowly slid down his face. Troy did nothing.

I screamed at Burger as if we were physically equal, then swiftly found myself aimed at the heavens and buried into the concrete. Before I could move, Burger beat on my head like a congo drum and took every piece of candy from my pocket. Without getting a punch in, I was able to gather myself and bolt home, where I hid in shame for more than a week.

I never claimed to be a super gangster, a killer, or anything like that, but I didn’t have a choice in this situation because school would be starting soon. That meant I would have to walk every day past Burger and the rest of the kids who were out when he beat on me. So I decided to retaliate the only way I knew how: lock-n-da-sock.

My dad pulled a pen out of his pocket and placed a 1 in front of the 500, and now it looked like he had been approved for $1,500, the number he watched her key in.

Lock-n-da-sock is just what it sounds like. Literally you take a Master lock (or any brand, it doesn’t matter), put it inside a sock, tie the open end in a knot, and just like that, you have a deadly weapon. I angrily returned to that corner, weapon in hand, spotted Burger over in a dice game. Troy, who was back on the block to my surprise, took a look up from his Game Boy with widened eyes as I walked past.

I wound up the sock, aimed, and cracked a healthy chunk of meat out of the back of Burger’s head. POW! He slapped the pavement like a sack of trash. After the first blow, I hit him again, this time harder, hard enough to redden us with his blood as I whipped again and again, basking in the carnage. I didn’t hear anything—a silence blanketed my surroundings.

Some older kids pulled me off him, and almost instantly the story became legend. I was able to return to the corner as if I’d never left, and Burger even treated me with a kind of respect. Don’t get me wrong, he still kicked my ass on a few occasions in the following weeks, months, and years, but he gave me respect. I stepped up and became the hero in my own story, so why did I feel so terrible? Why did visions of him dying, bleeding out right there on the block, fill my mind weeks and even months after the incident?

Seeing him there left me so shook I purposely tried to avoid conflict. But I couldn’t, because avoidance was not permitted in my neighborhood. The unspoken rule was that failing to defend yourself gave the bully in that neighborhood a right to whatever you had.

I have countless horror stories detailing what happens to the guys who don’t fight back: They’ll steal your shoes, they’ll steal your leather jacket, they’ll snatch food out of your hands, they’ll ask your girlfriend on a date in front of you, they’ll call you bitch as if it was your first name. I once saw a bully steal a houseplant from a dude’s porch in broad daylight, in front of the dude; he set that stolen plant on his porch and watered it every day. As traumatic as the situation was, the only thought that stuck in my mind wasn’t the act of bullying but the consequences you can’t shake, and well, who in the hell steals a houseplant?

These are the rules.

Acting one way and feeling another creates true cognitive dissonance, upending the way we traditionally imagine right and wrong. Many became familiar with the term “moral imagination” when Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009: Achieving peace and prosperity in the world requires “the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share,” he said.

Obama was seeking common ground in a world rife with conflict, but he was speaking from the podium at Oslo, on high. The first person to coin the phrase was likely the Irish writer Edmund Burke in his book Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). He, too, described the need for seeing all sides of an issue to find the ethical solution when at war. Burke, too, was speaking from a place of privilege—far from the fight itself.

But I was inside the rumble, a street soldier on the ground. “Like most things, moral imagination should be viewed within one’s context,” says Nia Johnson, a social work professor at West Chester University near Philadelphia and an expert on social justice in the context of race. “For example, a prescribed societal perspective is that fighting is an immoral behavior. Therefore, physical retaliation as a response to bullying could be deemed as inappropriate. Conversely, someone’s immediate social context could demand a tangible display of retribution,” she says.

And this is where moral imagination on the street differs from the ideal. I do not believe in violence. Even before I became a person who experienced all kinds of pain, I never wanted to see others deal with the same. I think most people feel this way. Part of me thinks Burger would have agreed. But violence and intimidation were his only currency. He didn’t have clean sneakers and new Game Boys like Troy and me. He had his fists. He was wealthy in domination, and nothing else. As years passed, we became as popular for having nice things as he became for taking them.

“The moral code of one’s primary group—family, neighborhood—often overrides the definition of morality assigned by the larger society,” Johnson explains. “The consequences of not adhering to a moral code are more dire for some than others, particularly when survival is paramount.”

I was dealing with the consequences that come with surviving in the streets. Busting Burger’s head made me feel more depressed than him bullying me and forcing me to hide out. I’d stepped away from my own belief system in an effort to protect myself, and there was nobody else to blame.

And I couldn’t tell myself that I’d stepped over the line once but wouldn’t do it again. My actions were part of a learned behavior. I easily abandoned my moral compass because my father did, too.

“We deserve a big screen,” my father said to me, my mother, and everyone else repeatedly. “I’m sick of them hustlers talkin’ bout they big screens all the time; we gonna get a big screen!”

Back at 440 N. Robinson, we had a small television encased in a carved-up slab of wood. The picture was basic, but the sound was good and my friends and I loved crowding around it to watch shows like Good Times and The Simpsons. I never complained about that old TV.

The year was 1990, and a lot of the families in our neighborhood had started getting huge packages delivered to their front doors. The boxes were brown and read “Sony” or “RCA” in heavy fonts, always accompanied by sketches of huge televisions.

“Shit, if they can get them, I’m grabbing one too,” my dad proclaimed. He liked to make these plans over a bottle of Crown Royal, usually talking to me or some of his friends from the neighborhood who sat out front with us at night. “Them TVs can’t cost that much if all of these fools have them!”

Sick of talking, my dad went up to Circuit City, applied for credit, was approved, and about a week later a huge Hitachi TV was dropped off in front of our home. My dad and my Uncle June who lived across the street forced it through the front door. After angling it and hurting their backs, they finally made it work.

For years, securing that television was one of Dad’s biggest accomplishments. Then in high school, some friends and I cut out early to smoke weed and romance our girlfriends over at my place. I went long for a pass across our tiny living room, leaping, catching a football that my friend Silk hurled like a bullet. Upon landing, I tripped and smacked my shoulder right into the side of the big screen, cracking it. The television wasn’t completely broke, but I wished it was.

Everyone laughed. Even I giggled a little, knowing that my dad was going to kick my ass for breaking his prized possession. The TV he worked so hard for, the living room–filling contraption he always ran straight to when he got out of work and kept shining with Windex. When the weed burned out, I kicked everybody out of my house so I could figure out the massive kind of lie needed to deliver me from this situation.

Did robbers break in and try to steal the TV but it was too heavy to move? Was I so hungry that I tripped, stumbled, and fell into the TV? Or maybe I didn’t know what happened and it was already cracked when I got home from a long day of school?

“What the fuck!” was what I heard around 11:30 p.m., the time my father normally got in from work. I pulled $275 out of my sock drawer and went upstairs to face the music. How mad could he get? I asked myself. I hadn’t done it on purpose.

Our brains can invent made-up situations where an immoral act in one context becomes moral in another.

“Dad I messed up,” I said, settling on the truth, kinda. “I slipped and fell right on top of the TV. Take this cash, and I can get together the rest so we can fix it or buy a new one.”

Survival wasn’t an issue in this instance, which allowed my basic morality to kick in. I knew my dad wasn’t going to kill me for breaking the television. At most he’d be mad, and I’d get a chance to make it right in some way. I did not come up with an outlandish lie or try to deflect away from what happened, because there was no reason to.

Now let’s say, instead of breaking the television, I’d crashed up his car while driving foolishly and acting like a child. Let’s imagine that he needed that car to drive to work every day so he could make money, pay bills, and take care of our family. If that vehicle was a key tool for survival in our household, and if I damaged that vehicle, then I would be threatening our survival. In that case, I would have been so scared and ashamed that there’s a good chance I would have gone against my basic morals and lied about the reason for the accident.

“Clumsy ass!” my dad laughed. “Keep ya money. That old-ass thing outdated anyway. Have I told you how I got that TV?”

I told him that I remembered when he traveled to Circuit City, picked out an affordable model, and had it delivered—but he cut me off, saying it wasn’t that simple. “You didn’t break my TV; you broke your TV.”

“I don’t understand.”

My dad said he went to Circuit City that day knowing that his credit was so bad the store probably wouldn’t even take his cash. So he planned on laying away a TV and just paying 20 to 40 bucks out of each of his paychecks until he put a big enough dent in the price to bring it home. “I figured I would hit a pick three or bust a card game and be able to pay that thing off.”

“So, what happened?”

My dad proceeded to tell me how his hunger to get his family the little extras, or achieve the standard of living everyone else seemed to have, superseded his morality. Apparently he got to the store and the prices of televisions were far higher than he had expected. He went to work feeling defeated that day, thinking we would never have a big-screen TV. A coworker noticed his long face and asked, “What’s wrong?”

My dad told his sob story and the coworker responded with an easy fix: “Put it in your kid’s name.” Many of my friends were surprised to find out they had delinquent accounts from Macy’s, the electric company, and all kinds of auto-financing places when they turned 18. Turns out I was in this group.

Dad went back to the store and put in a financing application using my Social Security number. This was the ’90s, and technology wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now. Since I was a little kid, I had no credit––but they approved me for $500 anyhow.

Then the clerk who completed the application walked over to someone else, leaving my dad’s paperwork right in front of him for a minute. My dad pulled a pen out of his pocket and placed a 1 in front of the 500, and now it looked like he had been approved for $1,500, the number he watched her key in. He used that credit to finance the television that I had just cracked open.

“That’s your TV,” Dad laughed. “Thank you!”

My father defaulted on the loan. Not because I broke the television; he had a history of defaulting on loans, which was the reason he had to use my name in the first place. Years later, I would apply for my first car loan and find that Circuit City charge in addition to JCPenney and Macy’s charge cards and two gas and electric bills, all sitting comfortably on my credit, waiting for me.

“The good news is that you have a long history of credit for such a young guy,” the finance guy at the dealer said. “The bad news is that it’s all bad. You’re going to have to pay these charges off if you want this loan.”

Some of us are fortunate enough to start out with a surplus, while others, like myself, start out in the hole. Should we be forced to subscribe to the same rules?

Truth is, there’s nothing particularly unusual about what we did in the East Baltimore hood. Taking moral leaps of imagination is an especially human act.

Reporting in Memory and Cognition in 2022, the social psychologists Beyza Tepe and Ruth Byrne explain how people can cognitively use imagination to justify actions so that the seem more and more acceptable over time. In a series of experiments, the researchers showed how people could create counterfactual alternatives in their minds to justify an act by others that nominally went against morals they held themselves. Bit by bit, they’d transform unacceptable actions to less unacceptable ones—suggesting how people like my father might make a similar kind of cognitive shift.

In one scenario, study participants were asked to consider a passenger reluctant to sit next to a Muslim person on a plane. What could justify that passenger asking for the Muslim person to be moved? Study participants might imagine a scenario in which the Muslim passenger was rude, thereby justifying the request.

“People can readily imagine, in a matter of seconds, alternative circumstances in which an immoral action would have been moral,” the authors found. Here, the test subjects were responding to a hypothetical situation, then coming up with their own scenarios. “Unreasonable actions can also come to be considered less irrational when people imagine how they would have been rational, just like immoral actions,” the authors note.

It seems that our brains can invent made-up situations where an immoral act in one context becomes moral in another. From there, it’s a small leap to accept the act as moral in the original situation as well.

I see a bit of this shift in my father, in his quest to simply survive. We’re good at telling ourselves stories that make less extreme challenges seem like matters of survival, too. What my father did was illegal, it was fraud, but so many people from my neighborhood did it that the moral compass was completely lost. Committing fraud has long been a part of our poor-American experience.

I think that says more about our country than it does about the individuals who perform these acts. Which leads to a bigger question: How can we subscribe to the same moral code, Obama’s universal moral imagination, if we have completely different social contexts?

Under President Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill, the Veterans Administration backed home loans for returning American soldiers who fought in World War II. Owning real estate sets the foundation for wealth in this country, so many people who previously couldn’t participate in that part of the American dream had their reality shift for the better—if they were white. Black men who fought in World War II were supposed to have access to the same government-backed loans, but their applications could disappear under mysterious circumstances, and the loans disproportionately went to white vets.

“The Veterans Administration and the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] operated on the misguided, unfounded, and racist belief that property values of white neighborhoods would decline if African Americans were permitted to integrate and therefore financed entire suburbs as white enclaves, refusing to insure loans to Black families and veterans,” according to testimony from the NAACP.

How can we subscribe to the same moral code if we have completely different social contexts?

Instead, Black families often found housing through a different federal program, housing projects­­. Postwar, the projects were typically built as large, isolated apartment complexes, with individual units that were as small as they were confined. You couldn’t buy them, so there was no equity or overall financial benefit to your family. The only guarantee Black men received was an opportunity to pass poverty down from generation to generation.

This is a clear example of how our country offers different sets of rules to different sets of people, which leads to different ideas of morality. Imagine if my grandfather, who was an army veteran, had actually benefited from the G.I. Bill and was able to be educated and purchase a home. Then maybe my father wouldn’t have had to commit fraud in order to get a television set; maybe bullies like Burger wouldn’t have had to pummel people who had the things he could not afford.

America has given Black people a different set of rules from the beginning, so why should we be expected to play the same game? My father didn’t raise me to bust Burger in the head, just as his family didn’t raise him to be a scammer and a thief. The streets made us that way.

“Society defines stealing as immoral,” Johnson says. “Society also places a high value on material gains. This forces many of us to manage a level of cognitive dissonance, the internal conflict of navigating contradictory thoughts.” It’s hard to have a moral compass in a society where the rules themselves are often immoral, and where breaking the rules is often the only way to survive.

Moral imagination, tapped wisely, could still lead us home. If there is a path to anti-racism and equity, it runs right through that territory, where seeing things through others’ eyes leads to empathy, ethics, and benefit to all. But it’s not simple. We’ve got to root out the dissonance and counterfactuals—and those things are as rife up and down society as they were around 440 N. Robinson.

This story is part of a series of OpenMind essays, podcasts, and videos supported by a generous grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.

November 15, 2023

D. Watkins

is the New York Times bestselling author of The Beast Side, The Cook Up, Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised, and We Speak for Ourselves. His newest book, Black Boy Smile, was released in May, 2023. Watkins is Editor-at-Large for Salon. He is a writer on the HBO mini-series We Own This City and hosts the show’s companion podcast. He is also a college lecturer at the University of Baltimore, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing. 

Editor’s Note

In "Moral Imagination," author D. Watkins takes a hard look at the moral contortions required to survive his childhood in East Baltimore. Actions that seemed heroic to him in his youth look very different from an adult perspective. But D. looks back on his young self with compassion and sympathy—essential attributes for understanding the moral complexities that we all face, and for cultivating genuine empathy that helps lead people toward kinder, more generous behavior. This essay is part of OpenMind's series on misinformation in brain and behavioral science, supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center

It has taken the dedicated efforts of many people to produce our series of investigations into the biggest questions and controversies about the human mind. For this article, we would like to acknowledge the crucial work of researchers/fact checkers Meg Duff and Margaret Hetherton, along with our long-standing copy editor, Elise Marton.

Don't miss our associated podcast and Q&A with D. Watkins and social work researcher Nia Johnson, in which they talk honestly about the challenges of morality and self-assessment. We also created a related TikTok video on the ways that people can change their moral values.  

—Pamela Weintraub and Corey S. Powell, co-editors, OpenMind

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