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Are our fantasies immune from morality?

Immoral fantasies are not uncommon, nor are they necessarily unhealthy. Some are silly and unrealistic, though others can be genuinely disturbing. You might fantasize about kicking your boss in the shins, or having an affair with your best friend’s spouse, or planning the perfect murder. Everyone enjoys a dark little fantasy at some time. Which leads us to wonder, is it ever morally wrong to do so? Or, a better way to put the question, under what conditions is it morally wrong to fantasize about something?

A natural response to these questions is to answer flatly: no. It can never be morally wrong to fantasize about something simply because it is a fantasy. My imagination is not a space where morality intrudes. Rather, what happens in my imagination is my business, and no one else’s moral qualms should have bearing on this most personal space.

Despite this, there are circumstances where there is good reason to be morally concerned with some imaginings even if we still insist that people should be free to do so. The notion of an ethics of imagination falls into the interesting logical space where morality and legality come apart, that realm of morality that lies beyond what can be legislated. It is this same logical space where we find things like the ethical condemnation of a cheating lover (at least, between unmarried lovers). Cheaters cannot be arrested, but they are still jerks. It is not illegal to cheat on a lover, but it is immoral. The same is true for fantasies. We are free to imagine whatever we wish, but some fantasies are morally problematic.

So, when is it morally wrong to imagine something immoral? The short answer is that it is morally wrong to fantasize about something when that fantasy feeds an immoral desire.

Our fantasies feed certain desires for us, typically desires that otherwise go unfulfilled.

The slightly longer answer is this. Our fantasies are often tied to our desires—not always, but often. It is not an accident that we fantasize about the things that we do. If you fantasize about kicking your boss in the shins, it is likely due to some conflict that exists between you and your boss. If you fantasize about having an affair with your best friend’s spouse, it is likely because you fancy your best friend’s spouse. Our fantasies feed certain desires for us, typically desires that otherwise go unfulfilled.

This is particularly true for recurrent fantasies. Some fantasies pop into our heads seemingly unexpectedly. Some pass through our consciousness for a fleeting moment never to return again. Perhaps after an unpleasant conversation with your boss, you momentarily imagine kicking him in the shins. But the feeling passes and you don’t really dwell on the fantasy. Fleeting imaginings like these are not morally worrisome.

Yet, there are other fantasies that we actively return to, develop, and refine. There are some fantasies that one might entertain repeatedly, ones that we truly relish. Why are we drawn again and again to some fantasies but not others? Likely the answer is that there is something about recurrent fantasies that we find genuinely desirable. Fantasies like these are indicative of our desires.
Some things are morally wrong to desire. It is morally wrong to desire to commit an act of murder, or rape, or pedophilia. Of course, it is worse to actually carry out such a desire, but merely possessing the desire is itself morally wrong.

So, if we turn to fantasy to satisfy desires that we cannot otherwise satisfy, and some desires are themselves immoral, then we are doing an injustice to ourselves when we satisfy an immoral desire in our fantasies. By satisfying the desire, we do not rid ourselves of it. Rather, we run the risk of reinforcing the desire—that is, we may cultivate in ourselves a desire for something that we ought not to desire.

The interesting upshot of this philosophically is that fantasy is not immune from morality, despite its separation from reality. The boundaries of morality extend further than we might think—indeed, into thought itself.

Featured image credit: “Light, colour, bright and neon” by Efe Kurnaz. CC0 via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Joe

    “By satisfying the desire, we do not rid ourselves of it. Rather, we run the risk of reinforcing the desire—that is, we may cultivate in ourselves a desire for something that we ought not to desire…Our fantasies feed certain desires for us, typically desires that otherwise go unfulfilled.”

    Alternately, fantasies are release-valves, opportunities for desires to be satisfied without causing harm to anyone. Repress a desire and perhaps it’s more likely to emerge in action. So in order to know which fantasies to avoid, I have to know whether I’m “feeding” or “releasing” a problematic desire. This seems like a pretty tough condition to meet.

  2. Martin Smith

    It is not true that we all have dark little fantasies. My fantasies are all joyful and celebrating. But the greater problem with the article is the condemnatory tone. “It is morally wrong to desire to commit an act of murder, or rape, or pedophilia.” One does not choose one’s desires. There is no moral responsibility in desire, only in the acting on the desire. Nobody chooses to have murderous thoughts or to be a paedophile. To condemn the person for the thought makes it harder to help the person overcome the bad desires. Jesus said that he who lusts after a woman has already committed adultery in his heart, but Jesus is no friend of mine. The view he expresses is anti-human and not at all the story we are told about the love he is supposed to have preached.

  3. scar

    I almost agree, except with this bit: “…merely possessing the desire is itself morally wrong.”

    I don’t think it’s possible to label a desire as morally wrong. Most of us have little or no control over the desires that spring up inside us. However, what would be morally wrong within the context of your article would be the encouragement of that desire, i.e. repeatedly fantasising about it, allowing oneself to do so, and dwelling on the fantasies.

  4. Fwordu

    Hillbilly philosophy — how quaint

  5. Charles Crawford

    Appalling article, barely hiding its hope that soon IT gadgets will be able to pick up ThoughtCrime.

    “There are circumstances where there is good reason to be morally concerned (sic) with some imaginings even if we still (sic) insist (sic) that people should (sic) be free to do so”.

    “By satisfying the desire, we do not rid ourselves of it. Rather, we run the risk of reinforcing the desire—that is, we may cultivate in ourselves a desire for something that we ought not to desire.”

    OMG. A RISK of something bad happening! Call the police!

  6. Ben O'Hare

    That’s the problem of philosophy in a nutshell. They note at the end, “By satisfying the desire, we do not rid ourselves of it. Rather, we run the risk of reinforcing the desire—that is, we may cultivate in ourselves a desire for something that we ought not to desire.” Ok, nicely mitigated with the words ‘may, ‘ and ‘run the risk’ but what about the alternative possibility.

    What if, unable to actually reap revenge on the society that mistreats me that refuse to fantasize about blowing up parliament and bombing the local police station but instead repeatedly pretend that I love them all which creates a growing cognitive dissonance that one-day snaps and I act on my hidden and repressed desires?

    Is it better to imagine blowing up parliament or really stabbing a policeman or bloke down the pub who says he supports the police or whatever when you just can’t stand it anymore?

    The reasoning in the article is too abstract for me. Saying imaging blowing up parliament is morally wrong is based on what, exactly? It feels to me the same as generations of philosophers claiming, based on nothing that laughter is a sin/ wrong when all along laughter was hell healthy and the inclination to call it a sin completely random.

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