Find Mediators Near You:

Confessions of a Tamed Cynic — Review of The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace.
John Paul Lederach
Oxford University Press, 200 pp. 2005.

Even before reading this book, I admit to flinching at first sight of the title. I almost always experience a visceral tension and tightening of my muscles in response to words like: “moral,” “peace” and “soul.” My reaction was tripled by having them all together in the same title. The field of conflict management has always been a magnet to many with fuzzy, feel good, idealistic notions that well-intentioned beliefs anchored in a spiritual, if not religious, foundation can counteract destructive conflict and violence. Neither religious faith nor spirituality is a source of inspiration for me, and I admit to being skeptical of those for whom it is. As well, as one who has persistently ranted about the importance of making meditative strategies work in the real world, my worst fear was that this book would be just another of the many over simplified tracts that have proliferated in the field. Frankly, I had serious doubts about whether or not I could sidestep my biases long enough to read and review this book.

That said, I’m pleased that I took on the struggle. It has been well worth it both personally and professionally. I won’t go so far as to say that I have lost my cynical bearing, but, as the author, John Paul Lederach, suggests in this book, there is a place for my ‘constructive pessimism.’ I found this reassuring. And it helps that John Paul, himself a practicing Mennonite and an admitted optimist, says early on that his notion of a ‘moral imagination’ has little in common with any particular religion, morality or even ethics, for that matter.(p.28) His concept of a moral imagination is much broader and requires much more of us than merely meaning well. His writing models his principles. The text is built around stories that he has drawn from his considerable experience of being involved in some of the most violent conflicts that have occurred throughout the world, including: Ghana, Somalia, Nicaragua, Ireland and Tajikistan. He poignantly quotes a Tajik warlord on a basic principle that knows no geographic or context boundaries, and is as true in a personal injury case in Detroit as it is in a border dispute in Africa: “… you have to circle into the truth through stories.” (p. 18).

Lederach’s focus is that a certain kind of imagination is within reach and necessary to transcend long-standing conflict and 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)

The Moral Imagination struck a number of my most sensitive nerves. By the time I finished reading and had taken some time to consider the scope and depth of this work, I was appreciative (and not a little envious) of John Paul’s optimism, especially because it was not borne of naïveté or rooted in some ‘cockeyed’ ideology of how people should be. Rather, Lederach works with the realpolitik of the situations in which he is engaged without allowing his thinking to be constrained by fatalist notions that nothing can change.

Lederach sets out an approach to managing conflicts that moves beyond the narrowly focused and formalized mediation process. He looks at how we must all begin to more broadly use ‘mediative strategies.’ He has effectively begun to articulate a notion that is of relatively recent vintage. Related to my previously suggested ‘guerrilla’ negotiator that must use the resources of the immediate conflict terrain and perhaps the ‘protean’ negotiator that shifts in his or her approach, Lederach’s (p.119) ‘morally imaginative’ conflict strategist uses the resources of the immediate surroundings, “…constantly adapting to the difficult and shifting sands and tides they must face and survive….” This book presses conflict management practitioners to move beyond simplistic, linear and often times dualistic conceptual framings of issues — the ‘us and them’ renderings that are unhelpful — and instead to become mindful of the systemic and dynamic complexity present in most conflicts and especially in protracted matters. On a personal and professional level, part of the notion of a moral imagination requires ‘constructive pessimism’ as a “litmus test of authenticity.” Lederach refuses to allow the mere appearance of words and promises to substitute for an adequate measure of change.(p.57) He obligates us to think beyond the mere technical aspects of change. Constructive pessimism requires a good measure of distrust as a “reality check to assure that change is not superficial, Pollyannaish, or disguising other intentions … It is a form of “grounded realism that keeps things close to the hard reality….” (p.61)

Not surprisingly, The Moral Imagination notes that to reach the necessary probing depth of interaction that will allow for change to occur in conflict requires going well beyond the rational analytical thinking, techniques and skills of process management. While that skill base is not unimportant, it is insufficient in and of itself. Lederach notes that, in the professionalization of the field, we may well have lost the essential sense of art—“the creative act that underpins the birth and growth of personal and social change.”(p.73) Art, be it Haiku poetry, jazz, or visual arts, offers a critically important alternative lens through which one might more clearly visualize the scope and essence of a conflict. I am pleased to see Lederach actively encouraging the inclusion of the awareness of art and development of an intuitive sensibility in conflict resolution training. (p. 175)

The Moral Imagination is a book worthy of being read, studied and discussed. There is, of course, the risk that some will see this as an endorsement of the conflict practitioner as spiritual guide. These readers are asked to read more closely to appreciate Lederach’s pragmatism.

I must admit to being slightly disappointed that Lederach did not give more attention to what he means by ‘peace.’ The term does not appear in the glossary in any meaningful and definitive way, nor is it discussed. My constructive pessimism obligates me to ask why not? Notions of peace have been a place, for example, where artists’ have been helpful, as Lederach would surely encourage. One of my favorites is William Kentridge, a South African painter and set designer, who noted soberly that, “Mine is an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.” It is noted that the pursuit of peace for some is the source of conflict for others. There is always the question of peace at whose expense? Lederach’s comments on this topic would be very welcome, perhaps in his next awaited book.

Had I not read this book, the loss would have been mine. The Moral Imagination actively examines the core precepts of effective conflict management practice that has for too long been left unexamined in favor of an over emphasis on technique and problem solving. How do we as human beings effectively intuit and sense what is at the core of a conflict and connect enough with the people involved to support an encourage their effective management of the situation? Conflict management practitioners are grappling with the same age old question that, ironically, folkloric trickster figures have confronted since the beginning of time: resolving immovable objects and irresistible forces. Lederach has done a masterful job of sorting out many of the most critical variables and his story telling is in the best and ageless trickster tradition.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


7 Simple Practices for Staying Calm in an Argument

Tammy Lenski's Conflict Zen BlogI’m frequently asked about my favorite tips for staying calm in an argument. While there’s no magic remedy that will work in all the moments that...

By Tammy Lenski

Mediation and the Four Agreements

Mediation and the Four Agreements by Rafeena Bacchus The Four Agreements is based on ancient Toltec wisdom which is said to embody the essential unity of truth and described as...

By Rafeena Bacchus

Income Inequality: Are Unions the Answer?

Joshua M. Javits, Arbitrator and Mediator, is Former Chairman of the National Mediation Board. If income inequality is the problem; are unions the answer? The middle class is being pushed...

By Joshua Javits