Friday, June 20, 2008

That Porn Makes Us Ethical

Does fantasizing with pornography constitute infidelity? Ross Douthat seems to think so (and again), while Will Wilkinson disagrees rather vehemently. The bouncing ball of hyperlinks comes to this thought as expressed by Alexander Pruss:

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.
I just can't agree with this. I would say instead that the ability to fantasize -- treating others as "pawns to be moved in accordance with one's desires" in one's interior mental theater -- is the saving grace of ethical conduct in that it allows one to explore desires and interactions without actually violating another person's autonomy.

I deny that fantasizing about a person actually involves that person in any important sense. Pruss thinks otherwise.

It seems to me that fantasy makes morality, including but not limited to sexual morality, possible. We are capable of being moral, rather than simply impulsive or instinctive, insofar as we can put on mental plays and observe the results; and for those of us who are not perfect hermits, this includes sharing in the fantasies produced by others (gossip, conversations, books, plays, films, Victoria's Secret catalogs, etc.). I think it would be genuinely destructive of morals to stop fantasy.

Here's a thought experiment (yes, this is a thought experiment about thought experiments): imagine a person who, taking Pruss's idea of fantasy as entirely convincing, literally never thinks about sex. If he encounters it in conversation, reading, visual media, or elsewhere, he turns away and expels it utterly from his thoughts. Putting aside the practical difficulties of achieving this -- this is a thought experiment after all -- how prepared is that person for ethically sound sexual interaction when some actual, real-world, bona fide sex breaks out in his presence? Not at all, I would say.

Such a person has not, by definition, thought it through. He has nothing to work with, nothing to guide his decisionmaking -- nothing but impulse and instinct, that is, and we know what those will instruct him to do: they will instruct him to do what every crocodile impulsively and instinctively does when a careless faun comes too close, which is to take the biggest bite possible, with no concern for the faun.

It would not escape this to say that he would have moral teachings to guide him. To be able to observe a rule like "thou shalt not commit adultery" or "thou shalt not rape" requires understanding the terms of the rule, and this necessitates the scenes of mental theater -- plots, characters, anecdotes, parables, listings of dos and don'ts, heavy-handed educational films or ABC After School Specials -- in which both sides of the moral line is displayed. "Don't rape" can have no meaning to our test subject who truly never thinks about sex.

To understand a moral rule well enough to follow it involves the ability to project oneself into real-world situations in which the rule would obtain. The beings who learn moral rules by breaking them in the course of blindly following impulses are called, variously, children, animals, monsters, lunatics, or the like. And children become adults, as opposed to lunatics or monsters, by virtue of a steadily greater ability to monitor and obey the line between fantasy and reality.

That's the key as I see it -- for fantasy to contribute to morality in the way I've outlined, the line between fantasy and reality has to be minded carefully. It requires a being who can perceive the fantasy-reality distinction in the first place and further understand that what's permissible in fantasy is not necessarily permissible in reality. Competent human adults do this as a matter of course. People routinely entertain and sometimes maintain sexual fantasies, with and without the aid of pornographic images, and yet the world keeps going.

Sex, pornography, and related subjects seize our interest rather readily, and this, I think, obscures the fact that the preoccupation with sexual fantasy is just one more instance of a very human frailty: that sometimes, for a variety of reasons, our fantasies get more than their share of our thoughts, time, and energy. It would be cavalier to shrug the shoulders and say "big deal" to such instances; but likewise it goes too far to elevate the ethical importance of sexual fantasies over other fantasies.

As with any preoccupation with fantasy, an obsession with sexually-charged mental theater (with or without porn) likely signals a problem on the reality side of the divide. Whatever understandable feelings of inadequacy or tension it might produce in particular human relationships, sexual fantasizing does no special harm, and it's a good thing it doesn't, because it's not going away.

So go ahead and scroll back up and get another good look at that photo of Jeri Ryan.

6 comments:

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. The following should be uncontroversial: We should not imagine a situation in order to enduce inappropriate feelings in oneself. Thus, it is clearly inappropriate to imagine an innocent person's being tortured in order to give oneself the pleasures of Schadenfreude, or to entertain ourselves by imagining ourselves engaging in vicious actions.

2. It is one thing to imagine a situation to try to figure out how one should feel about such situations should they occur, and another to imagine a situation one knows how one should feel about in order to induce in oneself a different feeling. Thus, one knows how one should feel about infidelity--one should feel morally repelled. But to imagine a situation where one is unfaithful in order to make oneself feel sexually gratified is surely problematic.

3. A further distinction we might make is between imagining a situation where the hypotheticality is kept plainly in sight and one where our attitudes towards the imagined situation depend on us losing sight of the hypotheticality. Thus, if I imagine a case of a friend's betraying me in order to engender in myself feelings of betrayal, I am crossing the line towards the second kind of imagining: the situation is hypothetical, but the feelings are real. I take it to be a central feature of fantasies, sexual and otherwise, that one mentally creates a situation that then induces in oneself feelings appropriate not to a hypothetical situation, but to a real situation. This is clear in sexual fantasies. The person engaging in sexual fantasies is not merely imagining being sexually excited, but is actually sexually excited. This crossing over from hypothetical situation to real feelings requires treating the hypothetical as real.

And here we have a special kind of moral danger. For insofar as one feels about the hypothetical as if it were real, then insofar as one is arranging the hypothetical, it is as if one were arranging something real, in a way that neglects the autonomy of the persons involved, whom one treats, inconsistently, as both real and imaginary.

Dale said...

AP, 1. Plenty of things "should" be, with varying levels of urgency. I see vast difference between a) imagining a tortured innocent and taking delight in the imagining versus b) torturing an innocent (or somehow indirectly bringing this about) and taking delight in it. I don't suggest (a) is admirable, but I think there are good reasons why people go to jail for (b) and not for (a).

And insofar as (a) can actually serve to vent ill will that would otherwise go to (b), I say huzzahs to (a).

2. One knows how one "should" feel about infidelity, as I said, in no small part thanks to the imaginitive projection into situations where one has actually done it and observed the pain and chaos it has produced. These imaginings will be aided by representations of the acts, one example of such representations being conversation with one's spouse about the act. Such conversations (which may include pornographic portions) will -- so to speak -- flesh out the understanding that facilitates the desired conduct. Again, I don't see how one comes to a thorough understanding of a rule like "thou shalt not cheat on your spouse" well enough to obey it without picturing thought-deed combinations well enough to understand what particulars violate it and what violating it leads to.

3. How far are you willing to push this? Is it a violation to indulge sexual fantasies about Jessica Rabbit or an online avatar? About James Bond or Cyrano de Bergerac or Walt Whitman? About Helen of Troy or Juliet or Rachel from Friends? Whom would this violate? Need I assure you that people can become "actually sexually excited" from such ruminations?

Do I violate my dead mother to project her into current situations and imagine her feedback, knowing that some of this results in unflattering thoughts about her, since there's little point in doing such a thing without trying to make it 'real' vis-a-vis my memories of her?

It seems that all of these problems are resolved in a snap so long as the person doing the imagining maintains and minds the firewall between reality and imagination. I recognize this is not necessarily easy. Being ethical isn't necessarily easy.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ad 1: That there are some things more wrong than enjoying imagined torture does not make enjoying imagined torture right. Nor does enjoying imagined torture become right if it is a substitute for engaging in actual torture (beating someone up does not become right even if it is a substitute for murder).

Ad 2: Actually, very little imaginative projection is needed to figure out what physical sexual fidelity is: one just refrains from any acts intended to produce sexual excitation except with one's spouse. One does not need to imagine the whole panoply of acts that violate this rule in order to know how to apply the rule, just as one does not need imagine the infinite variety of ways one could murder someone in order to know how not to murder people. One just needs a fairly abstract notion.

In any case, there is a difference between imaginative projection and fantasy. Imaginative projection is done in order to try to figure out facts about a situation. Fantasy, as I understand it, involves the mental manipulation of others for the sake of gratifying feelings, and these gratifying feelings require the mixing up of the real and the imaginary.

Intentions matter. Certainly, a police detective may need to imagine a rape in a great deal of graphic detail. But she should not imagine it in order to be gratified by the rape.

Likewise, there is a difference between imagining a situation involving one's mother that is likely to lead to unflattering thoughts and imagining the situation in order to engage in unflattering thoughts.

Ad 3: The argument does not equally apply to all fantasies. Those involving real people are more problematic. But even those that do not involve real people are problematic in that they induce a harmful habit. The habit is problematic in two ways. First, the habit is likely to lead one to start fantasizing about real people--mental self-control is difficult. Second, the habit is still a habit of mentally directing the life of others for one's own gratification. The thought is father to the deed. Is it not fairly probable that enjoying mentally directing the lives of others for one's own gratifiaction is going to increase one's desire to actually direct the lives of others?

We can also do a cost-benefit analysis. The benefit of the fantasies is mere personal gratification. The potential harm is that one becomes a less virtuous person. Clearly, even if the probability of the harm is moderately small, it is not worthwhile.

J. Carter Wood said...

I have to admit, I find that ARP's very first sentence is entirely 'controversial' (by which I mean wrong):

We should not imagine a situation in order to enduce [sic] inappropriate feelings in oneself.

Why not? We're talking about imagination here. Nobody gets hurt. Personal pleasure is generated. Certain conflicts and issues are worked though. (And even if they are not, then there's still that pleasure.)

Say that my colleague at work causes me real emotional suffering through a variety of methods that, admittedly, are not violent, but which may initiate with actual malice and have concrete, real-world effects (negative ones...on me) as a result.

If I enjoy imagining him being roasted slowly over a roaring fire, where's the harm?

As to this:

Thus, one knows how one should feel about infidelity--one should feel morally repelled. But to imagine a situation where one is unfaithful in order to make oneself feel sexually gratified is surely problematic.

Again, why? (And simply saying 'surely' doesn't make it any more convincing. And stop calling me...oh, never mind...)

This would also seem to be an argument which would make most of the world's best, most interesting, and most worthwhile literature 'problematic'.

Whatever that delightfully vague word means....

And finally...what Dale said.

In the end, morality has to be about doing rather than thinking.

J. Carter Wood said...

(Your second response came in while I was writing my first.)

This is wrong:

We can also do a cost-benefit analysis. The benefit of the fantasies is mere personal gratification. The potential harm is that one becomes a less virtuous person.

Why 'mere'? Personal gratification is a very important part of my world, and, I assume the worlds of most actually existing people.

Furthermore, as a 'cost-benefit analysis' this fails completely.

You have assumed that the benefit is meaningless and that the 'cost' is real. But for there actually to be a 'cost' one has to accept your whole argument that things that happen within the realm of fantasy cause harm.

Which is not convincing.

A cost-benefit analysis would appear to need to tote up real costs and real harms. You haven't done that...

Clearly, even if the probability of the harm is moderately small, it is not worthwhile.

...no matter how many times you use words like 'clearly' and 'surely' to plaster over the gaps in your argument.

Dale still wins.

Dale said...

JCW, I had the same thought about the impact of ARP's view on nearly all literature produced to date. Suffice to say I'm prepared to dismiss it all as 'vicious.'

Thoughts, fantasies, imaginings, etc., are less important than deeds. Maybe that's saying nothing more than that I favor consequentialism in ethics.

Whatever.