Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fantasies and autonomy

Sometimes we fantasize about specific others behaving a certain way with regard to us. Sexual fantasies are one species of the genus I am interested in, but the genus is wider than that. There can, for instance, be fantasies about the recognition of our excellences, about others doing something humiliating, about climbing Mount Everest with one's best friend, etc.

To fantasize about a situation is more than just to think about the possibility of it. As in the case of hoping, there is a positive attitude towards the situation, though unlike in the case of hope, there need be no expectation. The positive attitude by itself shows that fantasizing about a bad situation (e.g., about one's being cruel to someone or one's engaging in an illicit flirtation) is wrong—for, surely, our attitudes should be appropriate to their object, and the attitude towards something bad should negative. In such a case, we have what Aquinas calls the sin of "morose delectation". Moreover, beyond a positive attitude, there is a first-person involvement in a fantasy--one reacts emotionally to it in somewhat the way one would were it real.

What I said so far shouldn't be controversial, though in the past I've had trouble getting some students to accept that morality governs the life of the mind.

But I want to note a different kind of badness in fantasies involving the behavior of specific others, even when the situation fantasized about is not actually a bad one. This kind of badness occurs when the fantasy does not respect others as autonomous persons. The fantasizer is, after all, in charge of the situation. She is like film director, telling this actor to do this that actor to say that. But unlike a real film director who does this in cooperation with actors who have read the script and agreed to act according to it, the typical fantasizer is arranging the persons in her mind without any cooperation, all on her own. And herein lies both the attraction and the danger of the fantasy. The fantasizer in creating the fantasy is in a sense more powerful than God in creating the world. For while God cannot make a person freely do something (this is true by the relevant definition of "freely"), the fantasizer can. It can, for instance, be a part of the fantasy that some persons freely fawn on her. This attitude of being in charge of others can be a way of using them.

I want to qualify this a little. There is a certain respecting of autonomy if the behavior of the fantasy's characters is constrained by the real-life behavior or commitments of the persons. If I have had a number of delightful conversations with George, there perhaps is nothing wrong in fantasizing about another, since in doing so I am constrained by George's actual character, and thus he is to some extent autonomous even as found in my mind. If I do this well, I might even find myself rebuked by fantasy-George in the course of the fantasized conversation. Likewise, if someone has undertaken a morally licit commitment to do something with me, it does not seem problematic to look forward vividly to that activity. Again, the actual person has had a moment of autonomy in the creation of the fantasy.

But the more the fantasizer is in charge in arranging the behavior of the characters in the fantasy for her own gratification, the more problematic this fantasizing is, as it is a failure to respect the fact that others are independent persons, not subordinate to her pleasure.

On obvious objection is that I am confusing fiction and reality. The student who fantasizes about me saying that his shoddy paper, which he whipped off during the half hour before it was due, was the best I have ever read is not actually making me do anything. This is true, I respond. But he is in an important way using me for his own gratification. His fantasy gets its life from my reality. That I am not actually physically affected by the fantasy does not mean that I am not used—certainly, the voyeur's victim is used by the voyeur even if the victim does not find out.

It is true that when sane people fantasize, they can typically distinguish fact from fiction. But at the same time, what gives pleasure in the fantasy is a deliberate mental relaxing of the distinction, a willing suspension of disbelief. To treat the characters that inhabit one's fantasy as pawns to be moved in accordance with one's desires for one's gratification is seriously problematic, and it develops a disrespectful habit of the mental treatment of others. Even if one is right that this habit will not overflow into controlling behavior—and how can one be sure of that?—the mental attitudes are themselves morally bad.


Anonymous said...

Well said. I agree 100%.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

I have to wonder what basis you're using for defining what is and is not ethical in this case. Clearly, it is not about active change. Fantasies have no real effect on the person being fantasized about.

I felt the connection you made between voyeurism and fantasy were a bit unfair - even if someone doesn't realize they're being watched, their physical presence is still being affected directly.

I would contend that in fantasy, it is not so much your physical presence that is being used, but "the idea of you" that is being utilized. I have trouble seeing the use of an idea (even the idea of a human being) as being unethical. For instance, if it is invasive to use the idea of a person as an unwilling actor, is it plagiarism to recite another philosopher's work in your head without proper citation? Is it punishable to imagine myself smoking marijuana?

I wonder - if thoughts can be unethical, can having those thoughts be punishable?

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. Voyeurism does not seem to have to involve any affecting of the subject. The voyeur is merely receiving photons bouncing off the victim, and these photons would be bouncing off the victim even if the voyeur weren't there.

2. If I am the source of your idea of me, then it seems I am indirectly being made use of in your fantasy. Moreover, for the fantasy to have the requisite pleasurable effect (e.g., for you to feel the pleasure from fantasizing my praising of your mountain-climbing skill), a certain willing suspension of disbelief is needed, a certain blurring of the mental boundaries between imagined and real takes place. One reacts to the unreal as if it were real, feeling in real life the pleasure from an imaginary situation. And in doing so, one's mental attitude is relevantly like one's mental attitude in using the other physically. And it is mental attitudes like that that are the root of immorality (to put it theologically, sin flows from the heart and is first of all in the heart).

3. But what bothers me particularly is not just the fact that the person is being made use of, but that the imaginative exercise through which one acts as if one were in charge of the other, as if one were able to arrange the other's actions for one's own pleasure.

4. Certainly thoughts can be immoral. Surely to think uncharitably about someone is to act against charity. To delectate in the suffering of another (real or imaginary) is to act against compassion.

5. Should immoral thoughts be punished? No, because the evils involved in seeking out and punishing them would be disproportionate to the goods of justice involved. For instance, mental privacy seems a worthwhile thing for society to maintain, apart from special circumstances (it does not seem wrong to try to read a terrorist's brain with a scanner).

At the same time, I do actually think immoral thoughts are in fact punished. They are, first of all, their own punishment--all vice is. Secondly, immoral thoughts make one a worse person, and there is nothing worse that can happen to one than to become a worse person--the picture of moral deterioration in Republic VIII-IX is chilling, and immoral thoughts are important to that picture.

Third, we have an omniscient Judge... But a merciful one, so let us repentantly beg his mercy, and he shall neither withhold forgiveness, nor the grace to submit all thought to reason (i.e., to Christ, the Logos).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that my post is predicated on a sort of blend of Kantianism with virtue ethics. :-)

Beancan Tatterpants said...

You've given some strong, clear answers.

I'm still unsure about voyeurism - the photons would be sent out with or without a viewer, but those photons are sent out in the belief that no one will be apprehending them. It requires a direct physical connection (or proximity) and a violation of privacy or trust. What exactly is being violated in fantasy?

If I can head in the other direction - would fantasizing about giving a large sum of money to St. Jude's Hospital be an ethical good? In other words, is there a counterpart to immoral fantasizing in "moral" fantasizing?

I would contend that the act is neutral until is has an actual, direct effect on reality. Moving out of the mind and into action. Perhaps it's a lack of direct connection that bothers me.

I appreciate you saying that immoral mind states shouldn't be punished (any more so than sin of the heart is in itself punishment). I wonder, though, if one can atone for sinning in the heart by fantasizing about atoning. If the sin is committed in the mind, can it be resolved inside the mind as well?

Alexander R Pruss said...

First of all, the mind is real. So if something has an effect on the mind, it has an effect on reality. And, after all, isn't one of the central points of morality the development of virtue, and virtue is something within oneself.

Think of someone who watches a holocaust documentary in order to mentally cheer the Nazis on, or who visits local hospitals to gloat mentally over the sick people she sees. There is something badly morally wrong there.

Fantasizing is more than imagining. It involves also taking a positive attitude. Fantasizing about a charitable deed(perhaps one that one wishes one could do but cannot due to a financial shortfall) does not seem to be bad, as long as there is no self-deceit. In fact, it seems good.

I think real, not fantasized, repentance is needed, because a real, not just fantasized, sin has been committed.

Note that the line between voyeurism and fantasizing is a fine one. Suppose George, with the help of his computer, can pretty accurately reconstruct how Sandra looks without clothes simply based on how clothes lie on her. Then, he can simply point a camera at her in public, and have the computer generate a nude image. This does not seem very different from voyeurism. But suppose that Mark can do the same thing George can, but can do it with his mind, without a computer. It does not seem that it matters whether one uses the computer or not.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

You're right about mental activity being real. I also have to admit that fantasizing is immoral (even at a gut level it seems wrong to know that someone might think of us in a certain vile way), but I would have to paint it in shades of gray.

Killing someone is more unethical than fantasizing about killing someone. In the same vein, actually giving a donation to charity is more ethical than simply fantasizing about it.

Our concern about thoughts or fantasies is that they will lead to action.

Also, the difference between using a computer to undress poor Sandra is that there is still a direct connection to her needed - whether you're aiming a camera at her, your eyes, or simply chatting with her over the internet. In fantasy, I don't need a direct connection to her - I contend that this is because it's not actually "her", but my "perception of her" which I own since I created it. I don't use wires or airwaves or a camera to connect to her in the fantasy world. I'm no where near her photons.

In fact, I could fantasize about riding a unicorn. I wouldn't even be able to point a camera or a computer program at one because they don't actually exist (that is, nothing of that description corresponds to anything physically) in the present, physical world.

Am I just being difficult here? :)

Alexander R. Pruss said...

I do think there is a difference between fantasies about real people and ones about completely fictitious people. The argument in my post concerned ones about real people. There, there is a connection: our sense impressions are just as much caused by the person they are sense impressions of as the photons that bounce back from the person are caused to bounce by the person.

In cases where the person is wholly imaginary, the fantasy may still be wrong, but for grounds other than the autonomy ones I am focusing on here (e.g., fantasizing about torturing a unicorn is still wrong, because it is a vicious activity contrary to our humanity).

I agree that it is worse to murder than to fantasize about murder.

Who said...

...and one thing wrong with nasty fantasies is their cause, that one wished to have them. The case of the nice fantasy does seem to show that the fantasy is not in itself good or bad. So, maybe it is not so much that the fantasy might lead to physical acts, or is a bad thing in itself, but that the underlying cause of it might lead to physical acts.

An obscuring factor is that if one is told of a fantasy and one is repelled by that, it may be the act of telling that is bad. Morally, intending an act is pretty independent of whether or not the act actually occurs, but the mere thought of acting is a grey area. On the one hand, one might get into the thought of an act, fantasizing about doing it, just in order to examine one's motives for it. Then the more one got into it, even if it would be a bad act, the more one would benefit morally, the more good the fantasy would be. But on the other hand, voodoo is probably evil.

But what bothers me particularly is not just the fact that the person is being made use of, but that the imaginative exercise through which one acts as if one were in charge of the other, as if one were able to arrange the other's actions for one's own pleasure.

The person is not being made use of (cf. how if I throw some rubbish away, and a womble finds some use for it, they don't owe me anything); and it is not as if one were able to do that, not in general (although one might fantasize that way), it is just like thinking about any possibility (and that is not as if one were God, as if one were able to order the cosmos).

But a nicely original post, and so I am now rather curious about your thoughts about doing things in one's dreams. One has little control over the dream, but one seems to be able to control the actions of the dream-self; but on the other hand, the dream-self is not always one's self.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. Fantasy is not the same thing as thinking of a possibility. It involves enjoying the possibility as if it were real. A paradigm is the sexual fantasies that one of the patients has in Mumford...

2. Dreams are an interesting question. I don't think we know enough about what is going on. Suppose that in a dream I punch you in the face with insufficient reason. Have I done wrong? Am I culpable? The answers depend on a number of further questions.
(a) Did I know (or at least believe) in the dream that it's wrong to punch you in the face? (I find that sometimes in the dream I may have a sophistical justification for doing something wrong, but while in the dream that justification seems right and not sophistical.) If not, then I'm not culpable.
(b) Was I capable of not doing the deed?
(c) Did I know that it was just a dream? (If no, then that potentially makes it worse. If I am hallucinating that you're in front of me, and I throw a fist forward, this is less wrong when I know that I am hallucinating, because then I know that I'm not harming you.)
(d) Was it really a choice, or was it just an illusion of choice?
(e) How much control did I have over the course of the dream?

Catholics have tended to believe that to be culpable of mortal sin, one needs to be functioning intellectually at a decent sort of level. That's why small children tend to be thought incapable of culpably sinning mortally. In dreams, my intellectual capacities are severely impoverished. Sophistical arguments can seem just fine, for instance. (Of course if you read my blog, you may think this is true when I'm awake, too!) So I doubt I am capable of culpably committing a mortal sin while asleep. Can I commit a venial sin while asleep? I wouldn't be surprised.