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.