It’s fine to have a problematic fave character, as long as you understand why they’re problematic. This is not a hot take: many people express something like this idea. But spelling out its structure, commitments, and motivations is tricky, partly because it must engage in discourse on two fronts: against ‘moralism’ (‘it’s problematic to have a problematic fave’) on the one hand and against ‘libertinism’ (‘it’s just fiction, who cares, don’t take it so seriously’) on the other. My hope is to articulate a plausible version of this in-between position, and some motivations for it.
This defence of problematic faves connects with philosophical discussions of various forms of
imaginative engagement with evil. In particular, I’m interested in cases where someone takes pleasure in
imagining something evil, specifically for its evilness. That could include identifying with a character
doing or wanting evil things, imagining oneself doing or wanting evil things, or simply taking pleasure in
imagining someone’s suffering. Three particular sorts of imaginative engagement have been discussed:
Philosophers have discussed the moral status of fantasies about doing evil, or about evil things happening (e.g. Cherry 1988, Corvino 2002, Neu 2002, Herschfield 2009).
Philosophers have discussed whether it is virtuous to empathise even with evil people, or whether inability or refusal to do so may be part of virtue (e.g. Morton 2011, Bailey 2021)
While these debates involve distinct issues, they all show the dialectic between the tendencies I’ve called moralism and libertinism. I’d like to lay out a general position on imaginative engagement with evil, which I’ll call ‘explorationism’.
Explorationism can be summed up as follows: imaginings can be morally significant but not morally
evaluable. That is, it can be worthwhile to engage with our imaginings through a moral lens, but our aim
shouldn’t be to judge the imaginings themselves as morally good or bad. The first claim is a rejection of
libertinism, while the second is a rejection of moralism. It’s not bad to enjoy what’s problematic, but you
should be aware of why it’s problematic.
The rejection of moralism is twofold: that imaginings are not morally evaluable just in themselves (a
rejection of what we could call ‘direct moralism’), and that the best practical consequences come from
engagement that is critical but not judgemental (a rejection of what we could call ‘indirect moralism’).
So explorationism consists of three claims; my aim is to explain these claims and the motivations for
1. Imaginings are not morally evaluable: they are not the right sort of thing to be good or bad just in themselves (against direct moralism).
Motivation: Imaginative enjoyment of evil is so widespread that it’s not plausible to condemn it in itself. Villains are just fun. Intuitive arguments for direct moralism tend to rely on implicitly excluding the joy of watching Disney villains scheme and rampage, in favour of examples that are deliberately extreme, graphic, and lurid; I argue that rather than clarifying things, this has the effect of inappropriately distancing us from the example, allowing our intuitions to be more affected by prejudice.
2. Imaginings are the right kind of thing to enter into significant relationships with morally evaluable things like actions and beliefs, so moral engagement with them is worthwhile (against libertinism).
Motivation: The most plausible accounts of the psychology of imagination posit considerable continuity between the mechanisms active during real and imagined experience, such that what we imagine 1) can reveal our own desires or moral attitudes we prefer not to recognise, and 2) can also shape our beliefs and feelings in the future, especially if repeated.
3. The best way to engage morally with imaginings is to treat them as not morally evaluable (against indirect moralism).
Motivation: Moral beliefs are more easily changed than desires and feelings are, and that consequently the practice of morally evaluating imaginings is likely to produce defensive rationalisations to reject the moral evaluations, and thereby give our problematic desires more rather than less influence on our actual beliefs. By contrast, moral exploration without judgement makes imaginative engagement with evil a tool for enhancing our moral sensitivity and self-knowledge.
I don’t know if I have a compelling case for explorationism, but I think it’s useful to state clearly how it
differs from both moralism and libertinism, and why I continue to nurture my problematic faves.
Content Note: Many papers on these sorts of issues make extensive use of very graphic or extreme examples, which I find takes a bit of a toll on the reader. Since I don’t want to make the discussion needlessly hard for readers who are sensitive to these topics, I’ll avoid that sort of example altogether, and focus primarily on the example of gleefully imagining turning someone into a llama.