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The Ethics of Imagination

I'm currently working on a book entitled The Ethics of Imagination: Fiction, Fantasy, and Dreams. The "ethics of imagination" or the "ethics of fantasy" encompasses the various ways in which we can morally evaluate the imagination. For instance, many people think that it is wrong to fantasize about torturing and raping children. Others have found far less disturbing fantasies problematic. Augustine, for instance, felt guilty for merely having sexual dreams (Confessions 10.XXX). And many critics have complained about artworks that ask audiences to pleasurably imagine violent and prurient narratives. 

As these examples make clear, the topic covers a range of different kinds of imagination: (1) fantasizing, (2) engaging with fictions, and (3) dreaming. By "fantasizing" I have in mind conscious, pleasurable imagining. This kind of imaginative activity can be willful or spontaneous. As with dreaming, typically fantasizing involves imagining doing something. The second kind of imaginative activity, engaging with fictions, is a kind of guided suppositional imagination via representations. In contrast to fantasy and dreams, engaging with fiction seldom involves imagining doing something.

For each of these kinds of imaginings, we can ask questions involving at least three interrelated, but different kinds of moral evaluation: (1) the right, (2) the good, and (3) the attribution of moral responsibility. We can ask if it is right or wrong to engage in certain kinds of imagining. Alternatively, we can ask if it is good or bad. Plausibly, it is morally undesirable to dream about raping and torturing children. But it might not be wrong to do so. Right and wrong pertain to actions; goodness and badness pertain to states of affairs. We can also ask whether we can be blameworthy for our fantasies, reactions to fiction, and dreams.

Most of the live ethical questions do not concern the mere content of imaginings. Imagining terrible things is not morally problematic in itself. It's not content that concerns us; instead, we are mainly concerned with our reactions to imagined content --the imaginative experience. The clearest, live ethical question concerns the moral value of taking pleasure in undeserved suffering, whether willfully imagined, represented, or dreamed. Fantasizing about harming innocent children is a striking example of morally dubious imaginative experience. The theoretical account I offer to explain our intuitions about such examples has important implications not just for the movies we watch and the games we play, but for how we think about ourselves.

Much of the book concerns general theoretical considerations and how they relate to the ethics of fantasy. I defend views concerning each of the three main types of imagination and respond to several significant objections.


Planned Table of Contents

Ch.1 - Introduction

In the introduction, I distinguish between three types of questions for three different types of imagination: fantasizing, engaging with fiction, and dreaming. I introduce an important distinction between two kinds of moral assessment, that of blameworthiness and that of undesirableness. For instance, one might have an undesirable character or sometimes respond in undesirable ways, but not be blameworthy for such responses. This distinction is important to the moral assessment of largely involuntary states such as dreaming.

Ch.2 - A Moorean View

In chapter two, I defend a view inspired by G. E. Moore's theory of value. The view holds that attitudes can be intrinsically good and bad depending on their objects. A positive attitude toward the bad is intrinsically bad -- it is bad for its own sake. Surveying the empirical literature, I argue that we lack good reasons to think that imaginative activity has a regular, systematic impact on behavior. Regardless, apart from whatever instrumental value they might have, positive attitudes toward the bad have negative value. In defense of this view I offer five arguments. After defending the intrinsic value of attitudes, I go on to show that it is sometimes wrong to engage in imaginative activities that essentially involve intrinsically bad attitudes. I consider and reject a general statement of when imagination is bad. I conclude with a defense of a rival theory.

Ch.3 - Fantasy

Drawing on the general theoretical considerations developed in the previous chapter, in chapter three I explore the ethics of fantasy. I distinguish between willful fantasizing and what we might call spontaneous fantasizing. I examine a further distinction between autonomous and surrogate fantasizing, a distinction based on whether the fantasizer wishes that the content of their imagination were true. Although some think it is important, I argue that this distinction has limited moral significance, even when fantasies involve real people. I reject the claim we can be harmed at a distance, much less by the private fantasies of other people. The badness of certain kinds of fantasizing is not related to the harms they cause.

Ch.4 - The Harmless Objection

In chapter four, I reply to the most powerful objection against my core thesis, the harmless objection. It holds that mere imaginative activity has no moral value if it does not cause harm. Underlying this objection is a commitment to welfarism. In its most general form welfarism holds that the ultimate ground of all moral obligations is welfare. Drawing on my research on welfare, I argue that welfarism as a theory of the morally good is highly implausible. It is far more certain that there are other forms of value besides welfare than it is that welfarism is true. I present three versions of what we can call the argument from irreducible goods. Most important, I defend the claim that the value of fairness cannot be reduced to welfare. In addition, I provide a sustained argument for the existence of harmless bads.

Ch.5 - Fiction

There are a handful of discussions of the ethics of engaging with fiction in the literature on the philosophy of art. Recently there have been two explicit attempts to address the worry that our attitudes toward mere fictional content have no moral significance. Both attempt to show that our attitudes toward fictions are also in some way directed toward real things. I argue that both of these attempts fail. Based on the general theoretical considerations developed in chapter two, I defend a rival account. I note an important moral difference between constructing and engaging with fictions. Then I attempt to address the apparent moral difference between attitudes directed at mere fictional objects and those directed at representations of real suffering. It seems worse to enjoy a snuff film than it does a horror movie. I try to account for why.

Ch.6 - Dreams

Although Augustine felt guilty for having sexual dreams, most find this excessively morally squeamish. Putting aside his prudery, how could we be responsible for our dreams? They just happen. Apart from rare cases of lucid dreams, we have very little control over what happens in our dreams. Yet, there seems something deeply problematic with someone whose dream life is filled with nightly episodes of torturing his victims. Hence, our intuitions appear to be conflicted. To clear the field, I first argue against Freudian accounts of dream content. I then consider a variety of excuses stemming from recent psychology and neuroscience which suggest that we are as irrational as ponies when we dream. Although mitigating, this excuse fails to account for our worries about the serial dream-killer. I appeal to the distinction between blameworthiness and undesireableness to develop a more nuanced account of the moral value of dreams.