Solving ethical dilemmas requires ‘moral imagination’ and systems thinking: responses to Covid-19 show us what this could look like

30 April 2021


Our latest guest blog is from Nottingham Business School.

An ethical dilemma is a knotty problem where values and interests are in tension with one another. The Covid-19 pandemic makes this clear. 

If faced with the threat of survival, how can you make sure everyone is treated fairly while also acknowledging the financial reality suddenly confronting your company? How to keep the company afloat while minimising job losses and ensuring the health and safety of staff and customers? 

Doing the right thing often means finding creative, ‘morally imaginative’ solutions, without denying the complexity of the situation or feeling debilitated by it. 

Systems thinking is one way to develop ‘moral imagination’, which has been defined as envisioning the full range of possibilities in a particular situation in order to solve an ethical challenge. Systems thinking is about understanding the interconnections and interdependencies between different parts of a system. A business or organisation, for instance, involves multiple actors, inputs and outputs, processes and feedback loops. A systems perspective recognises that the complexity of the system makes it difficult to plot exact cause and effect relationships, as well as challenging to lead and manage. 

A crisis or major challenge often prompts a natural desire for more top-down control, but system complexity means that this is not always desirable or even possible. Different leadership skills and competencies are called for, such as the ability to build networks and relationships. Systems leaders also use a long-term approach to help identify patterns, while being willing to experiment and receive and respond to feedback. 

Systems thinking can also be leveraged to help address complex ethical dilemmas. On the one hand, systems thinking can shine a light on why an ethical dilemma might be so difficult to resolve in the first place: the causes may not be immediately known or present. And the consequences may be difficult to predict, especially given the web of relationships that connect an organisation and decision to a range of visible and hidden stakeholders. On the other hand, a ‘morally imaginative’ solution would acknowledge this complexity and seek solutions in the wider system itself. 

Recent (and ongoing) experiences under the pressures of Covid-19 offer some lessons. 

While individual companies had to find ways to innovate in their industry and region, support schemes such as government furlough support played a significant role. Companies such as Burberry chose not to place any employees on furlough but pivoted its business to make masks for key workers. Meanwhile, Biohm (Innovators in the Built Environment) had suppliers becoming unavailable overnight due to lockdown, resulting in a freeze in work coming into their mycology lab. Despite this, work at Biohm has been as busy as ever, largely down to a crowdfunding campaign to support sustainable business, which raised well over the investment target. 

What Covid-19 should remind us is that there may be options beyond the more obvious choices such as retrenchment. For example, could staff hours be reduced but supplemented by tax-deductible training and upskilling and collaborative working? Coming up with good options to solve an ethical dilemma through understanding the wider system is all part of ‘moral imagination’.

Our preliminary findings from impact research show that people who have gone through leadership training around ‘moral imagination’ have a greater capacity to:

  • Come up with creative solutions to address ethical issues 
  • Talk about ethics openly
  • Consider the needs and interests of various stakeholders when making a decision
  • Identify partners or additional resources to facilitate implementation 

Business leaders who think systemically look beyond business as a short-term, profit-oriented endeavour and find morally imaginative solutions in working with other organisations and cross-sectoral partnerships. This kind of thinking does not remove the complexity of ethical decision-making but sees that complexity as a resource for moral imagination. The ability to develop a personal leadership style to find solutions to complex ethical and sustainability challenges confronting organisations today such as navigating complexity is covered in NTU’s Executive Education short courses. For further information please see:



Professor Mollie Painter

Professor Mollie Painter is an international scholar and public speaker specializing in business ethics, CSR, sustainability and responsible leadership. She has held academic positions in South Africa, the USA, the UK, and Slovenia. She currently heads up the Responsible and Sustainable Business Lab (RSB Lab), a Research Centre within Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, UK and is an Extraordinary Professor at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria. From August 2021, she will be serving as co-Editor-in-Chief of Business Ethics Quarterly. Between 2015-2020, she held the Coca-Cola Chair of Sustainability at IEDC-Bled in Slovenia on a part-time basis and has been a visiting professor at HEC, ESCP-Europe, EDHEC and IAE in France. In partnership with the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS) and African faculty, she developed the African leadership programmes focusing on developing values-driven leadership on the African continent, with active programmes now running in Egypt, Kenya and South Africa. 

Dr Elmé Vivier

Elmé Vivier is a Senior Research Fellow at the Responsible and Sustainable Business Lab at Nottingham Business School. Originally from South Africa, her research focuses on local government leadership, how municipalities involve communities in local decision-making, and how public, private and civic sectors collaborate for development. She also manages the Values-Driven Leadership in Action programme at the RSB Lab, and co-facilitates Executive Education and MBA modules related to ethics and leadership. 

Ms Natalie Toms

Natalie is an experienced professional working for the Responsible and Sustainable Business Lab at Nottingham Business School. Her degree qualification is in International Business Management and she has significant experience in education, marketing, project management and administration. Natalie is also a part-time student in the Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) programme.