Lust, Shakespeare, Fantasies, and Porn

I thought PoT readers might be interested in a post written for my “Making Moral Decisions” blog, the site for my Phil 250 class by that name. In my never-ending quest to understand the mysteries of sex, undergraduate ethical attitudes, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I present “Lust, Shakespeare, Fantasies, and Porn.” The topic is the ethical status of lust as reflected in private sexual fantasy. Most of my students found my view “creepy.” I found theirs characteristically bizarre and ill-conceived. Feel free to join the ensuing dialogue of the sexually deaf, but if you do, please comment here rather than on the class site.

Postscript, September 17, 2015: The Phil 250 creepshow continued with discussion of this horror show of an article in Vanity Fair (ht: Kate Herrick). I had my students write up a response to this passage:

They [“girls”] all say they don’t want to be in relationships. “I don’t want one,” says Nick. “I don’t want to have to deal with all that—stuff.”

“You can’t be selfish in a relationship,” Brian says. “It feels good just to do what I want.”

I ask them if it ever feels like they lack a deeper connection with someone.

There’s a small silence. After a moment, John says, “I think at some points it does.”

“But that’s assuming that that’s something that I want, which I don’t,” Nick says, a trifle annoyed. “Does that mean that my life is lacking something? I’m perfectly happy. I have a good time. I go to work—I’m busy. And when I’m not, I go out with my friends.”

“Or you meet someone on Tinder,” offers John.

“Exactly,” Nick says. “Tinder is fast and easy, boom-boom-boom, swipe.”

Where’s the function argument when you need it? At some level, I just feel like slapping these kids, but that wouldn’t be very Socratic of me.

I asked my students about these guys, and an alarming proportion of them applauded Nick (didn’t just agree, but applauded). Incidentally, most of my students (more than two-thirds) are women between 18-21 years old. Here’s the overlapping consensus, put in my words:

  1. Assume ex hypothesi that Tinder hookups of the preceding sort are consenting. If so, both parties assume all the risks of the transaction.
  2. When women who frequent Tinder claim to be hurt (in the psychological sense) by the men on it, one of two things can be said about their situation: either (a) the mutual consent involved completely nullifies any claims about their being harmed (as in ‘volenti non fit injuria’) or (b) if the women really are harmed, then they are fully culpable for being harmed because in consenting to the interaction, they assumed the risks of being harmed. In either case, the guys are off the hook. The men are not culpable because the whole point of a hookup is to inflict the kind of harm that the women are complaining about. To complain about harm in this context is like a boxer’s complaining about being hit by a right jab in the middle of a boxing match. If ignorance is involved, it’s surely culpable ignorance.

I found this an interesting (if horrific) set of views. For one thing, it is, in form, a tacit consent argument. The claim is literally that women using Tinder are tacitly consenting to be harmed by it, and since they are, they forfeit the right to complain.

Second, I find it interesting that the argument involves the same basic presuppositions and structure as the Brennan-Magness line on adjuncts: a quick inference to the culpability of a group on the losing end of a bargain; a further inference from their culpability to their having forfeited the right to complain about ill-treatment; and a reminder that the bargain was, after all, consensual, so that the complaints amount to unseemly whining.

Third, though it’s obviously not a scientific sample (about 60 students), I found the coalitions that formed in my classes somewhat interesting. There were, broadly speaking, two of them:

Majority: the hard-hearted sexually conservative women plus the women in favor of casual sex plus virtually all of the men, endorsing (2) above.

Minority: the sexually conservative women with feminist sympathies plus the feminist liberals in favor of monogamous sex, rejecting (2) above.

Roughly speaking, the hard-hearted line was,

Tinder is something I’d never do; I have moral standards. Those who do it are sluts who deserve the harm that befalls them, if it even counts as harm at all.

The casual sex variation on this theme was:

Well, Tinder is something I’d do, but since I’d never be harmed by it, you’d never find me whining about it like the losers in the article. Hookups aren’t harmful; they’re fun. Everyone knows that Tinder is for hookups, and as long as you’re clear about that, there shouldn’t be a problem.

The men grunted their approval of this latter line. Here’s the most articulate male response I got:

Well, I mean, like…if they’re offering, what do they…and no one is forcing them…is anybody like forcing them? ….like, why are they all like complaining?…I just don’t get it.

The sexually conservative quasi-feminist women led the confused, inchoate counter-charge against their hard-hearted sisters. Mostly their view was that the men were taking unfair advantage of the women, with the liberal monogamists chiming in with an enthusiastic, “Yeah–what she said!”  But this group was outnumbered by the majority group and somewhat overwhelmed by its own sense of righteous indignation.

For the most part, the men sat glowering in the back of the room, wondering when the girls (and the professor!) would shut up and class would end. I mean, what does any of this have to do with anything in the real world? Boom-boom-boom swipe.

12 thoughts on “Lust, Shakespeare, Fantasies, and Porn

  1. Oh consent. It’s like a magical incantation; as “duty” perhaps was to previous generations, “consent” now is to our students’. I admit I’m surprised that your students didn’t just conclude that there was absolutely nothing wrong with your hypothetical fantasizing example on the grounds that it doesn’t violate anybody’s consent. But I suppose what it shows is that they have some moral intuitions that consent can’t account for. Shocking.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good comparison (duty to consent as incantation).

      Actually, what I found most disturbing about the conversation was the idea that you need someone’s permission to have a thought about them. People often complain that millenials* are total relativists who incoherently believe that “everything is relative” while also believing that any act becomes morally legitimate if the relevant parties consent to it. There’s a (large) element of truth there, but that attitude sits side-by-side with what I think of as Anti-Stigma Fideism, which is the view that it’s a sin to have a thought that might, if expressed, stigmatize someone. This is just a modern-day recalibration of Jesus’s injunctions against lust: “You have heard it said that you shalt not stigmatize anyone, but I say unto you that whosoever has a stigmatizing thought about anyone hath stigmatized that person in his or her heart.”

      Since the view holds you morally responsible for having such thoughts regardless of how they got there, it induces a kind of paranoia about one’s own thoughts: if you can be condemned for a thought that literally plopped into your head unbidden, maybe it’s better not to know what your thoughts are. After all, you can’t be condemned for having a thought if you have no idea that it’s there. The safest bet is to close down the potentially stigmatizing parts of your mental life altogether. Consent then enters as a kind of ad hoc form of relief against this impossible stricture. Since no one can literally close down their whole mental life in this way, consent functions as a kind of indulgence: your mind is allowed to travel down a potentially stigmatizing road if the relevant parties consent to your doing so. Having a sexual fantasy is therefore wrong unless the fantasy object consents (as in porn). Ironically, if the fantasy object consents to painful anal sex, that’s OK; but a benign “vanilla” sexual fantasy remains a sin if it’s unconsented-to. It sounds bizarre at first, but there’s an internal logic to it, at least if you accept the moral psychology involved (which I don’t advise).

      Here, by the way, is a much more sophisticated version of the view. Much more sophisticated, but it shares the same essential problem as the unsophisticated version. The formula seems to be: take a problematic thought that would clearly be immoral if the agent controlled the etiology by which she came to have it. Now change the example, and describe the thought as reflexive or unbidden but don’t describe the etiology by which she came to have it. If so, the etiology could literally be as external to the agent’s agency as someone’s injecting a “thought serum” into her head with a syringe. Now blame the agent for the problematic thought’s being there ab initio, regardless of what explains how it got there ab initio. The blame stems from the problematic nature of the thought per se. Schwitzgebel’s example is of course different from a fantasy, because whereas you merely have a stigmatizing thought, you entertain a fantasy (which requires volitional effort). But if what you’re condemning is the sheer onset of lust (or the sheer presence of a stigmatizing thought), then the cases are essentially parallel.

      For contingent reasons, I think women tend to buy into this more often than men. I’ve often speculated that that’s why women often sound so tentative when they make a point in class discussion: every declarative sentence has the intonation of a question, as though the speaker needed your permission to say what she was saying, for fear of stigmatizing someone, somewhere (“I think I may believe that p, but am I allowed to believe it?”). It may not seem as though fantasizing about someone is stigmatizing them, but broaden the concept of “stigma” enough, and it is.

      *I originally wrote “Gen X-ers.” Off by a generation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m broadly sympathetic to Jesus on this one, but I don’t take him to be saying that you’re guilty simply because you find yourself having a thought; I take the injunction to be against voluntarily directing your attention in lustful ways. But the idea that what’s problematic here is that the person you’re fantasizing about hasn’t consented is, well, weird, and would seem to have the implication you suggest, viz. that any thoughts you have about a person without their consent are somehow objectionable. I can imagine ways that one might qualify the claim to avoid that implication, but they would put the pressure back on the idea that there’s something about the content of the thought that is objectionable, not the lack of consent.

        In general I find the whole fetishism of consent bizarre. And it isn’t just uneducated undergraduates; read the discussion on a post about any controversial topic at dailynous and you’ll see hordes of at least semi-professional philosophers appealing to consent or a thin, consent-focused view of autonomy as though it ought to settle the question. It’s things like that that have led me to wonder whether I’m any kind of liberal at all. But of course I’m not a conservative either. So I guess I’m just a curmudgeon.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The King James has “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). One possible reading (yours, I think, or close): if you look at her for the sake of lusting after her, you commit adultery.

          Another reading: if you look at her (for whatever reason), and lust arises as a causal consequence of the looking, you’ve committed adultery. This latter reading is not as faithful to the text–it ignores the teleological implication of “[in order] to lust”–but it’s not totally unreasonable, and in my experience it’s a pretty common reading. What motivates it, I think, is the assumption that if you look at a woman, and lust is what arises (as opposed to some other asexual reaction), the lust’s arising indicates a prior culpable defect of character. Something else should have arisen, and would have arisen, if your character were better. You’re culpable for the fact that it’s not. What this reading ignores is the possibility that the lust’s arising could have a totally different, and entirely non-culpable explanation.

          Of course, I’ve been assuming ex hypothesi that lust is a bad thing. I don’t think it necessarily is.

          I guess I find consent-fetishism more tedious than bizarre. At some level, I get it: a person who consents to something assumes the risks of what he’s consenting to; that’s what consenting to something is. But he may not know the risks, or know that he’s consenting to them (or all of them), or may just be miscalculating, or may be in the grips of some neurosis or irrationality, or…(long list). Obviously, consent doesn’t dispose of the ethical status of the action consented-to.

          I once taught a class at Princeton where the assigned reading was Peter Singer’s quasi-defense of bestiality, and I simply could not get the class to focus on any objection to bestiality except for the non-consent of the animal. (Well, one guy did say: “You could get scratched.” Which is true.) I’ll never forget the student who said, “What if I think that rooster over there is like really hot? Who’s anyone to say that I can’t have sex with it, if only it would consent?” If only. So I said (always the high road for me), “Well if the rooster started it, I’d take that as consent. He obviously wants some.” And the reaction was, “Yes, exactly.” Talk about consent fetishism.

          Like

  2. Fun discussion! To my mind, the potential problem with having sexual fantasies concerns their almost always involving sets of attitudes toward their objects that do not constitute a full or realistic kind of respect toward the person who is the object of the fantasy. In this way, the typical sexual fantasizer often makes it at least somewhat harder to have the morally proper attitudes, and hence take the morally appropriate actions, toward relevant others (women, the same woman if you happen to meet her again in a social setting, etc.) This damage to the ability to be in the moral relationship to others (or to do so as fully as is warranted) – and in valuable good-quality personal relationships – is less than it might be to the extent that the fantasy constitutes a realistic and respectful interaction with the other person. For this sort of reason, it is probably personally, but also somewhat morally, bad for one to fantasize too much about one’s boyfriend or girlfriend’s lovely “equipment” and what you would like to do with it (and hence him or her). Also it may be justified, all things considered, to inflict some such damage to one’s ability to be in the moral relationship with others – personal reasons of sexual gratification may outweigh (perhaps easily enough, if, as I think is the case, there is no moral obligation not to have such fantasies). Even when the imagined action-scenarios involve one violating one’s moral obligations to the sexual object (e.g., rape fantasies), it does not seem to me that the imaginative act inherits wrongness from the wrongness that the act would have (whatever Jesus did or did not have to say here). And consent, despite its rumored exclusive magical powers to produce moral obligations, doesn’t have anything to do with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every discussion at PoT is fun, Michael. Without exception.

      I will get back to rights, by the way–I’m just teaching sex, so that’s where my mind is right now. Hard to shift gears from the one to the other. Hard for me, anyway.

      I would dispute this:

      To my mind, the potential problem with having sexual fantasies concerns their almost always involving sets of attitudes toward their objects that do not constitute a full or realistic kind of respect toward the person who is the object of the fantasy. In this way, the typical sexual fantasizer often makes it at least somewhat harder to have the morally proper attitudes, and hence take the morally appropriate actions, toward relevant others (women, the same woman if you happen to meet her again in a social setting, etc.)

      It’s not clear to me that fantasies (sexual or otherwise) typically involve attitudes at all. Some may, but not all. I think there’s an over-hasty assumption, especially among moralists, to think that fantasies always reflect the fantasizer’s character or reflect the deep structure of his desires. But it seems to me that many fantasies are literally epiphenomenal. They occur episodically during periods of mental drift, and precisely don’t tell you anything about the agent’s character.

      If I see a Taylor Swift video, I might briefly fantasize being Taylor Swift. (Briefly.) Do I want to be Taylor Swift? No. Is my wanting to be Taylor Swift even minimally coherent? No. Does it even qualify as a want? It’s not clear. It’s just a passing bit of whimsy. Maybe it says something about me in some very, very attenuated or indirect way, e.g., I want to be famous, or I’ve always wanted to be a musician, or I wish I could dance, or whatever. But those thoughts aren’t even about Taylor Swift. She’s just the vehicle for the expression of a marginally related desire.

      Lots of fantasies are like this. They’re much more like waking dreams than they are like any structured, attitude-driven activity. Of course, others are structured and attitude-driven. But my point is, there’s too much variety here for strong generalizations or clear ethical judgments.

      I think the relevant issue is not the content of the fantasy per se, but the degree to which the fantasizer has internalized the distinction between fantasy and reality. Maybe people who have properly internalized that distinction always have benign fantasies. But that’s not obvious. It could be a nomologically-fixed fact about us that we sometimes have malevolent fantasies, regardless of the good or bad quality of our moral character. (It cannot be a nomologically fixed fact that your character determines every other fact about your mental life.) Good people may have “bad” fantasies. Bad people may live impoverished fantasy lives, or may be too blocked to know what their fantasies are. But good people will always be able to grasp (and act on and fully internalize) the distinction between fantasy and reality in a way that bad people won’t.

      That’s why, I think, even in cases of rape fantasies, the imaginative act doesn’t inherit its wrongness from the would-be act. It depends on who’s having the fantasy and why. In one person’s head, a rape fantasy might a prelude to a rape-like or rape-inflected act. In another’s, it simply isn’t. The difference lies with character of the people having the fantasy, not with its content.

      Like

  3. I did say ‘almost always’! Not sure that your point about the possible lack of attitudes (or full-blown attitudes of the relevant sort) in sexual fantasy is right, but it might be. In any case, in principle, a sexual fantasy constituted by a “thin” enough set of attitudes (or simply the right kinds of attitudes – it might include the attitudes of emotional intimacy, friendship, and respect as well as lust) would not do significant damage to one’s ability to get into the moral relationship (of appropriate respect and concern) with the class of people that one is attracted to. Regarding rape fantasies and the like, clearly being able to separate fantasy from reality is important. It allows you to step back from the imagined scenarios and responses and actions in it and say “This is not real, not me, not what I would do.” However, when one is absorbed in the scenario, is being primed to have such “innoculating” thoughts in the right circumstances (e.g., afterward) sufficient for not having the potentially problematic attitudes (or sets of attitudes)? I doubt it… I worry that what we have in such cases, even when one distinguishes fantasy from reality in the abstract is attitudes (or sets of attitudes) in the fantasy that constitute part or all of (the attitudinal part) of being in the moral relationship to others. This is different, and perhaps more serious, than the worry that having “bad enough” fantasies would weaken one’s ability to be in the moral relationship with actual particular people (and cuts against my earlier claim that it is not morally wrong, in any sense, to have such fantasies in virtue of the fact that actually committing the acts would be morally wrong). Of course, such a quasi-deontic moral reason against engaging in, say, rape fantasies might be outweighed by the telic moral reason that doing so makes it less likely that the agent will commit rape (due to being able to “‘blow off steam” with the fantasy. There are, I suspect, lots of moral reasons (and personal reasons) in play here, though, so “moralistically” inferring from the content to the idea that one should not have such fantasies (even from the moral point of view, at least in actual conditions) seems to be a hasty inference.

    Like

    • This is an interesting disagreement, because it’s the mirror-image of the one we’re having about rights. There, I’m insisting that negative and positive rights aren’t conceptions of the same concept. They denote altogether different concepts. Here, it seems to me that we’re operating with two different conceptions of the concept of fantasy. But none of what you’re saying is true of the conception I’m discussing. It’s not a matter of “almost always,” but of “never.”

      (1) In one sense, a fantasy is something relatively ephemeral. It’s more like a passing daydream than a consciously initiated sequence of mental activity, and it’s experienced as a sort of zoning out and watching an internal video.

      (2) In another sense, a fantasy is a consciously initiated, goal-directed mental activity in which you literally construct a wish-fulfillment fiction at will, directing the various parts of it so as to give it narrative structure.

      There are probably intermediate senses between these, and the two senses may in practice blur into each other, but I think they’re clearly distinct. They’re introspectively distinct (to me, anyway), and there’s also a long tradition of distinguishing them. (I only mention that to suggest that my internal experiences aren’t idiosyncratic.)

      It seems to me that there’s a clear mismatch between (1) and attitudes of any kind. Standard examples of attitudes are things like beliefs, desires, willings, intentions, choices, approvings and disapprovings (on a non-cognitive account of them). There’s some looseness here between the philosophical sense and the colloquial sense, but either way, an attitude is relatively deep-seated, persistent, and counter-factually stable. On Gibbard’s account, attitudes require norm-internalization. On McDowell’s, they’re “states of will.” But sense-1 fantasies are none of those things. There’s no such thing as a passing 25 second attitude. But arguably, most fantasies take that form–passing sequences of imagery. This piece quotes the psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi as saying that 10-20% of adult waking life is spent in fantasy (subsuming senses 1 and 2), only a “small fraction” of it sense 2 fantasy. It’s hard to measure, but his professional sense (and my non-professional sense) is that most fantasy is sense-1 fantasy.

      My point is that if what we’re talking about is sense 1 fantasy, your worry doesn’t apply–can’t apply. There are simply no attitudes there for the worry to apply to. Here’s another account:

      Most people spend between 30 and 47 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering, in a brown study or building castles in the air. Yale University emeritus psychology professor Jerome L. Singer defines daydreaming as shifting attention “away from some primary physical or mental task toward an unfolding sequence of private responses” or, more simply, “watching your own mental videos.”

      My claim is that there’s a species of fantasy that consists in watching an unfolding sequence of private responses. All that you’re doing in this sort of fantasy is introspecting on a process that is taking place in your head, but independently of you (of your actions). Maybe it’s taking the form it takes because of some volitionally-constructed feature of your moral character. But maybe not. Maybe it’s something you consciously have to reject and suppress. Or maybe it’s something that will simply pass through you as inexplicably as it got into you. You’d have to experience it to know. In fact, I think you’re obliged to experience it, in order to know what’s going on. But it’s premature to assume that it has anything to do with your attitudes. To assume that is to assume that the fantasy has a very specific etiology: it got there because you somehow put it there by internalizing some norm. But that’s a huge assumption. No one thinks that all dreams can be explained via the agent’s attitudes. So why would the waking counterpart of a dream have to be explained that way?

      So I think that clarifies how I’d respond to this:

      However, when one is absorbed in the scenario, is being primed to have such “innoculating” thoughts in the right circumstances (e.g., afterward) sufficient for not having the potentially problematic attitudes (or sets of attitudes)? I doubt it… I worry that what we have in such cases, even when one distinguishes fantasy from reality in the abstract is attitudes (or sets of attitudes) in the fantasy that constitute part or all of (the attitudinal part) of being in the moral relationship to others.

      I don’t see why the innoculating thoughts are described as existing “afterwards.” The distinction between fantasy and reality is one that the agent has prior, during, and after the fantasy, not just after. It may be held in some dispositional form during the fantasy, but it has to be held: it has to have sufficient power to keep the agent from acting on the fantasy–or else he would! And I would dispute that the agent who has the relevant distinction between reality and fantasy ever gets so absorbed in a fantasy as to lose the distinction. It could be that we’re not talking about the same cases: you talking about distinguishing “fantasy from reality in the abstract” but I’m talking about a fully robust internalization of the distinction between real and non-real. If you haven’t fully internalized that distinction, then of course your worries will arise, but if you haven’t fully internalized that, no quasi-deontic moral reason is going to help, either.

      I don’t think there’s any need for a quasi-deontic prohibition against rape fantasies, and don’t think that the telic reason of being less likely to rape as a result of having them is the essential consideration in dealing with them. If someone had rape fantasies, he or she’d first have to figure out (admit) that they had them, and figure out what they were. That sounds a lot easier than it is for most people, and it requires having the fantasy. Once you do that, you need an account of why the fantasy is there. Normatively speaking, the fantasy could turn out to be “nothing.” Or it could be something. But the something isn’t obvious. It certainly isn’t as obvious as “I fantasize rape because I secretly want to commit it” or “I fantasize rape because I secretly want to be raped.” The connections to moral character are often going to be pretty indirect and pretty opaque–assuming they exist at all.

      Like

      • Irfan, your distinction between these two kind of fantasy is clarifying and helpful. I think you are right about the first kind of fantasy (that does not involve the volitional construction of scenarios) being most typical. But, if one is subject to negative moral evaluation in having a rape fantasy, I don’t think this turns on whether one is constructing or directing scenarios or not. It is one’s responses to the imagery that matter (whether or not one is directing the flow). Most relevantly here, if one is exercising agency in the scene, off-line intentions have to be happening (an attitude of sorts, though not a full-blown intention) – the fantasy, in such a case, could not be constituted by a bunch of images flitting by. What matters for moral evaluation, I think, is which desires – in the broad sense that includes value commitments – are brought to bear (and how or in respect to which responses) when one is imagining one’s responses and actions in a scene “from the inside.” Though attitudes are involved in such cases (desires, off-line intentions), the precise quality of the off-line intentions/plans (e.g., how closely they resemble actual intentions/plans) is not important.

        (I admit that the entire absence of anything attitude-like – as might be the case when literally all that happens in series of images flitting through one’s mind – would make a non-directed fantasy immune from character-type moral evaluation. I just don’t think that the relevant sorts of mental events are like this.)

        Here are some ways that relevant desires/values might be brought to bear on relevant responses, when one is fantasizing, and some ways that this seems to matter for evaluating agents are praiseworthy or blameworthy. In sexual fantasies (at least of the sort that a rape fantasy is) one is fully indulging an “animal” sort of sexual desire that does not often get to be indulged with full abandon in real life (and for good reasons as well as bad – one has value commitments that take priority or change the shape of the range of permitted actions). What is happening with these other desires or values (and specifically one’s deontic value-commitment to not raping) during the fantasy episode? In most cases, I think they are active in one’s higher-order evaluation of what one is doing in having such a fantasy, perhaps motivating such thoughts as “this is not what I would do in real life” and “in real life, doing these things would not, on net, serve my values” (Case #1). But if one’s relevant value-commitments are not doing this sort of motivational work (Case #2), then it seems quite plausible that having the rape fantasy reflects poor character (either because you lack these counteracting values or because they are too unstable or too weak to reliably produce “innoculating” evaluative thoughts). Since, in this sort of case, your desires and off-line intentions are doing just about what they would be doing if you were actually raping someone, the moral badness here is that which goes into making rape morally forbidden (and is, in this sense, quasi-deontically morally bad or wrong). And part of my worry is with a third sort of case (Case #3) that is like the first, but the frequency of the rape fantasies or the lack of attention to the normally-overriding values starts to weaken or eliminate the relevant higher-order or reflective “innoculating” evaluative thoughts. In this sort of case, a rape fantasy is morally bad in a weaker, telic way involving damage to one’s ability to refrain from raping.

        This sort of model of moral character evaluation – which takes off from some of Nomy Arpaly’s work – takes one’s desires (in the broad philosopher’s sense that includes value commitments) and how they are brought to bear on relevant actions *and attitudes* to be what is essential in evaluating agents as praiseworthy or blameworthy.

        You might reply that you have in mind random-day-dreaming-type mental states that are not desire-driven in the way that I suggest that most sexual fantasy is. I don’t deny that there are such things. Day-dreaming, like dreaming, is often predominantly shaped more by the physical aspect of content-bearing and non-content-bearing mental (and neurophysical states) than by the content-driven causation. Fishing out elements of content-driven causation (of further content) in such cases – especially of the sort needed here – is perhaps a fools errand. I just take the relevant, central cases to be ones in which the predominant form of causation is content-to-content (specifically desire-to-off-line-intention and desire-to-reflective-evaluation) not state-to-content (one’s psychology and brain-state giving rise to a procession of associated images, as with day-dreaming). This, it seems to me, is the essential area of disagreement between us.

        We agree on this: it is possible for one to have something that counts as a sexual fantasy in which one does horrible, immoral things without being morally blameworthy for doing so.

        Like

        • There’s a lot of agreement here, which I won’t try to summarize. Let me just focus on the remaining apparent disagreement. Incidentally, we have to keep your cases 1, 2, and 3 distinct from cases 1 and 2 in my comment. I take it that all of your cases are subcases of my case 2.

          Preliminary point: if we’re talking about my case 2 (hence all three of your cases), I hadn’t meant to deny that we can bring moral judgments to bear on them. Sometimes you put the point in that hedged way yourself: “…might be brought to bear…” Actually, I think some moral judgment is by definition relevant to any instance of my case 2. The question is, what judgment? What I regard as unclear is what the all-in moral verdict ought to be.

          In your Case 1, the agent has a rape fantasy and reminds himself that he wouldn’t, in real life, act on the fantasy (and then doesn’t act on it). I’d make one more stipulation: suppose that the agent’s real life sex life doesn’t reflect anything rape-like, either. In this case, the agent is maintaining the distinction between fantasy and reality, so at a minimum he gets credit for that. His behavior isn’t rape-like, so he gets credit for that. But it’s morally relevant why he’s having the fantasy in the first place. It’s also relevant how the fantasy is affecting his overall motivational structure. Let me return to this.

          I’m not sure I understand (your) Case 2. As I’m understanding you, Case 2 is a case in which the agent has a rape fantasy that he would counterfactually act on, but can’t act on because there’s no opportunity to do so (e.g., there’s no one around to rape, or he hasn’t yet nerved himself up to commit the act, but really wants to, etc.). So Case 2 is a dress rehearsal for real-life rape, or else an attempt to enact one minus the inconveniences of having to go through with one. If that’s what you mean, I think this case is relatively uncontroversial, morally speaking. It’s evil. But it’s a quantum leap away from (many instances of) your Case 1.

          Your Case 3 strikes me as ambiguous. All that it adds is iteration. But what’s not clear to me is whether you intended it to iterate Case 1 or Case 2. Since I regard Case 2 as uncontroversial, I regard any instance of iterating it the same way. If Case 2 is bad, iterating it is worse. (That was easy.) I’m inclined to say that iterations of Case 1 are at least problematic, or morally suspicious, but to understand them, we really need a better grasp of Case 1 in the first place.

          So back to (your) Case 1. I don’t know Arpaly’s work on this, but if your account of it is right, I think it involves an oversimplified account of the phenomenology of fantasy and an overly reductive account of its moral significance. To judge a rape fantasy (any fantasy), we need to know why the agent would come to have a propensity for having the fantasy in the first place. I am assuming that there is no one way correlation between why you have a fantasy and a desire to enact the fantasy. In other words, I regard it as false to think that the reasons why you come to have a rape fantasy are only of the wish-fulfillment type. Maybe they are, for some people. But maybe they aren’t, for others.

          Take the latter group. Suppose you have rape fantasies for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with actually wanting to rape anyone. Now suppose you indulge in such a fantasy at great length. Since you’ve voluntarily indulged in the fantasy, I take it that moral judgment of some kind applies. My point is, I don’t think it follows that the judgment need be negative. What if sexually victimized people tend to have rape fantasies as a psychological response to being victimized? And what if their doing so has no propensity at all to motivate anything rape-like in their sexual behavior? In that case, a rape fantasy could just be part of the inevitable healing response to the victimization. It would–to put it mildly–be unjust to give a negative verdict on a fantasy with this etiology.

          I don’t happen to know whether sexually victimized people do have rape fantasies as part of the healing response to their victimization. But that’s sort of my point. Our knowledge of the etiology of fantasies is too impoverished to give us clear moral verdicts on all fantasies. Sometimes we can, but not always. The closer a fantasy is to your case 2, the more obvious the moral verdict on it. The more a fantasy motivates overt action, the more obvious the moral verdict on it. The more a fantasy adversely affects a person’s overall motivational set, the more obviously defective the person’s overall motivational set is. But merely having a fantasy is not a sufficient condition for any of those things, at least in a person who observes the distinction between fantasy and reality.

          Forget rape for a moment and focus on revenge fantasies. When I was in Israel, I fantasized blowing up the Mount of Olives checkpoint along with all the soldiers in it. It was a delicious fantasy. After I had it, I was hailed as a hero (in the fantasy) by the entire Palestinian population, showered with adulation, and become a huge international hit with women everywhere (because I escaped the explosion–and what’s sexier than a fantasy terrorist?). This wasn’t just a daydream. I really sat there, and imagined blowing everybody up, like something out of a Vin Diesel movie (soundtrack by Rammstein). It was a stupid, puerile fantasy. I didn’t act on it, and there was no chance I would, and not merely because doing so would send me to jail or get me shot. The relevant point is that the fantasy was highly self-revealing. What it revealed is too personal to go into here, but it didn’t reveal anything about a desire to blow people up, because I have no such desire. Some of what it revealed about me was negative, but not all of it was. Fantasies are (or can be) like the cartoons of our inner life. They have a role to play in that inner life, but they can’t be taken too literally.

          What I would insist on is that we preserve a sense or species of voluntarily-engaged in fantasy that plays a role in our acquiring self-knowledge. In order to know certain things about yourself, you have to enact fantasies that are really, really retrograde (or stupid, or irrational or whatever). Enacting the fantasy always tells you something about yourself, but it’s too literal-minded to think that it tells you something about your attitudes toward the literal content of the fantasy. Rape fantasies aren’t always about a desire to rape. Revenge fantasies aren’t always about a desire to get revenge. Crime fantasies aren’t always about a desire to commit a crime. Etc. There’s a danger of moralizing fantasy in a way that abets repression. But that inhibits the process of getting the self-knowledge that fantasies give. There’s also the danger of acting as though all fantasies are harmless or morally insignificant because they’re happening “inside” the agent, and are therefore inconsequential. But that’s just the reverse extreme. I can’t map out the mean between those extremes in a comment, but I think there’s a mean there to map out.

          Like

        • This is sort of a random postscript to the whole discussion, but I was just reading Hobbes’s Leviathan for prep, and I’d forgotten that he makes a similar sort of distinction between “unguided” and “regulated trains of imagination” (Leviathan, Part I, chapter 3). He doesn’t really have a concept of “fantasy,” but he has “imagination” and “fancy,” so the distinction is similar without being identical. His discussion of “trains of thought unguided, without design” is weirdly proto-Freudian (but focused on aggression rather than sex): he describes the work of the imagination as the “wild ranging of the mind.” It reminds of me a bit of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

          Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s