Fantasy and the “Cannibal Cop”

by Jason Stotts

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the story of the “cannibal cop” (Gilberto Valle) who fantasized about killing and eating women in New York.  Today he was convicted of plotting to kidnap a woman and improper use of a police database and sentenced for it.

Now, usually I wouldn’t bring this kind of story up on Erosophia, but this case is special.  All too many people are focussing on the fact that this man had a fantasy about killing and eating women and discussing how this kind of fantasy is immoral.  Moreover, some people are questioning the morality of any kind of fantasy and arguing the christian position that to think a thing is morally the same as doing it, which is obviously false.  You can check out the essay I just put up about Fantasy, but there are a couple of points I want to make about this case in particular.

No matter how morally heinous an action may be if committed in real life, there is nothing morally wrong with fantasizing about it.  Now, someone may object that even if the fantasizing is not morally wrong, fantasizing about actions that would be morally wrong signals that the fantasizer is an immoral person.  This is possible, but the act of fantasizing is still not immoral.  Moreover, this position misunderstands the way that a lot of people use fantasy.  Many people feel sexually repressed in real life and use fantasy to break out of their sexual blocks.  The process of this often is taken to extremes in order to overcome the sexual guilt and shame that is holding them back.  Other people fantasize about things that would otherwise be immoral because they are aroused by the sense of violation and transgression that comes from it: the immoral act fantasized is merely a means to their real end. Now, there is one important exception where fantasy may become immoral.  If fantasizing about a thing would lead a person to develop a disposition for action in the real world and that action would be immoral, then fantasizing about that thing to the point of creating the disposition would be immoral.  But, importantly, it is only because it leads to an immoral action in the real world that it is immoral, it is nothing about the fantasy itself.

So, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing, even about immoral things.  However, when the line between fantasy and reality is breached, as is the case with the cannibal cop who started to take concrete steps in the world to achieve the immoral actions of kidnapping and murder, then we must worry about immorality.

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9 Responses to “Fantasy and the “Cannibal Cop””


  1. Sam W.

    While I agree that fantasy in itself cannot be considered immoral in any way, I would emphasize that fantasy of the extreme violent and death-centric variety like those of the “Cannibal Cop” are a sign of fairly serious psychological problems. It seems to me that the individual in question quite literally valued death – brutal destruction and degradation of human life.

    This is in a separate league from a rape or other variety of sexual fantasy about an act that would be immoral to actually carry out, as I’m sure you’ll agree. As you said, sexual fantasies can often be used to fight instilled feelings of sexual repression. Also, as Ayn Rand demonstrated with Howard Roark’s “rape by engraved invitation” of Dominique, a rape story or fantasy can be symbolic and even value-oriented. (I would also say that not all rape fantasies are created equal, those that emphasize degradation may be psychologically unhealthy while those that emphasize passionate sexual desire are certainly very healthy.

    So: Yes, I agree entirely with your thesis, with the caveat that it should be clear that fantasies about killing and eating people (and other death-centric ones) are a clear sign of a psychologically unbalanced person.

    By the way, while I’m a first time commenter I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while. It seems that sexual ethics is an element of philosophy that was not discussed in enough detail by Rand herself and is probably under discussed by later Objectivists too. You’re the only philosopher I’ve seen really focus in on the ethics of sex, and I find it so helpful to read some of your thoughts (even though I’m not sure I agree with all of your positions), especially as a teenager who obviously spends a great deal of time thinking about sex, and as a teenage Objectivist who spends a lot of time thinking about the philosophy of sex. So I just wanted to say thank you for publishing such well-formed rational essays on the subject.

  2. Jacob Zeise

    Jason,

    I think fantasies are either directed (think, “creative visualization”) or undirected (daydreaming). To engage in daydreaming is only immoral if there are more pressing matters and only to the extent that the daydreamer realizes it is happening. Because the content of a daydream isn’t consciously chosen, it isn’t open to moral scrutiny.

    Directed fantasy (which is what I primarily think of when I hear, “fantasy”) is a creative activity. Because the content of such a fantasy is chosen by the fantasizer, I think it can be judged accordingly – for good or bad. To judge such a fantasy is a complicated activity that depends on a lot of things – most importantly on whether or not the individual is aware of the likely psychological consequences.

    Do you care to comment on whether you think these are valid subconcepts of “fantasy” and whether there are moral implications?

  3. JasonStotts

    Sam,

    Certainly we both agree “fantasy of the extreme violent and death-centric variety like those of the “Cannibal Cop” are a sign of fairly serious psychological problems.” Although I think I want to maintain the position that no fantasy could be immoral, unless it led to an immoral action. I do think it is fair to question whether fantasies that are clearly the product of psychopathic tendencies are still exempt, but I think I still need to say yes. I imagine that a person who has such tendencies and tries to resist them will have an easier time of it if he can still engage in their facsimile through fantasy. Of course, for some people this might encourage them to action, but for others it might make action easier to resist.

    This, in no way, means I disagree when you say that these: “fantasies about killing and eating people (and other death-centric ones) are a clear sign of a psychologically unbalanced person.” They definitely are and may even be cause for concern if you know a person like this.

    Incidentally, I’m glad you like Erosophia. I’m also glad to hear that you’re thinking critically about sex and sexual ethics as a teenager and I hope some of my essays serve you well. I would like to caution you, though, that there is no substitute for experience and you should be careful to not too firmly make up your mind (either for or against) about things that you don’t have enough experience of. I know this might sound like I’m dismissing you because of your age and inexperience, but please don’t take it that way. Instead, just let me say that I, myself, used to discount the role of experience in a way in which I no longer do and the insights for why I changed only came because of experience. Regardless, you seem to be a clear thinker and intelligent based on your writing and as long as you apply your mind to all problems in life, you’ll find that nothing is out of reach.

    ~Jason

  4. Sam W.

    Jason,

    As someone who has been often dismissed based on my age and inexperience, I can assure you that I did not in any way get that impression from your advice. I absolutely agree that experience is necessary for a full understanding of sexual ethics and especially for personal sexual preferences. And I definitely perceive, when I consider sexual ethics, that my lack of experience leads to something of a deficit in my thought. So, no, I do not discount the role of experience at all and I expect that I will have a far better idea of my feelings on sex after having actually had sex. Unfortunately my introversion and social awkwardness has been an obstacle to forming romantic relationships in my life thus far, but I’ve had success recently at getting over some of that, so hopefully I will have my first legitimate romantic relationship in the near future, before I get out of high school (I’m currently a junior).

  5. JasonStotts

    Jacob,

    I think you’re certainly right that fantasy can either be passive or active. I wonder, though, whether this should change the moral analysis of fantasy.

    Let me give you an example of why this is more complicated than it seems. Let’s say that a young child is caught by his parents masturbating and is heavily shamed. He can’t control his urges, but he can hide his activity from his parents by hiding in a closet where they don’t go where they store their raincoats. He learns to develop a deep shame about sexuality and later in life also develops an intense fetish for latex from the raincoats that just happened to be there when his sexuality awoke. This man now has an intense fetish (from classical conditioning) and a learned sense of shame (from premises forced upon him from his parents. Let’s say that now, in the present, he fantasizes about about women wearing latex and humiliating him (the humiliation serving to assuage his shame and guilt about sex). Would you say that he should just choose different fantasies? If so, I would say that you radically misunderstand the difficulty in overcoming deeply held beliefs and their influence on us.

    The point here is that often the function of the fantasy is much beyond the grasp of an external observer without knowing a person’s entire context (and sometimes much of this is beyond the understanding of the fantasizer himself). Without knowing the function of the fantasy, it’s hard to even start a moral analysis.

    Moreover, let’s remember the purpose of morality: it’s to help a person live a good life. Unless a person is wasting their life away just fantasizing, it’s hard to see how fantasy would be detrimental to a person’s life. That is, unless as I noted in my fantasy essay, they are disposing themselves to act in certain ways that would be immoral. That is the only kind of fantasy I can see as being immoral, because it is the only kind that would negatively impact a person’s life.

    Now, certainly some fantasies might be the product of psychological problems or bad premises, but I don’t think a person should be judged morally for these. I just think your position: “To judge such a fantasy…depends…whether…the individual is aware of the likely psychological consequences.” Is just unrealistic, because I don’t think most people understand the way the mind works or why they have certain fantasies and for the reasons I’ve elaborated above.

    ~Jason

  6. JasonStotts

    Sam,

    I’m somewhat surprised to hear you’re only a junior in high school, given how well you write. My wife is a grad student at a pretty good school and let me assure you that your writing is clearer than all too many already in college. I’ve seen some of their essays and I’m surprised some are even in college. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking and there is no better skill you could be developing now.

    In terms of your relationships, don’t worry too much about it. It’s better to find the right person than to just want to “get it over with quickly,” even if this means having to wait to find the right person. On the other hand, remember that there is no such thing as your Platonic soul-mate or “the one” and that most relationships are compromises between different values you might want in a partner. Focus on character and your relationships will always be good.

    ~Jason

  7. Jacob Zeise

    Jason,

    Thanks for the response. It sounds like we agree about much. I don’t, however, think that it is unrealistic to consider the possibility that people understand the psychological implications of their fantasies. While most people probably are ignorant, we shouldn’t discount the power of introspection. Of course this means that people who are aware of the implications can judged as engaging in good fantasies as well as bad ones.

  8. JasonStotts

    Jacob,

    I guess the reason I’m resisting the idea that fantasy can be morally judged (except the one caveat) is in order so that there does not arise a move to judge people by their fantasies, especially when I think that the understanding of the role that any particular fantasy serves is very complicated, and thus that there would be a great chilling effect on fantasy both from a self-imposed desire to not experience them and an other-imposed sense of shame and guilt.

    I really do think that most people do not completely or fully understand the reason why they find their fantasies so arousing and, consequently, that others cannot understand them either. If you can’t understand what role the fantasy serves, then I don’t think you should judge it.

    Let me give one more example of what I’m thinking of: consider the man whose life is not going as he wishes and so he experiences a lot of frustration in his life. Instead of acting out on his frustration, he holds it in and deals with it by fantasizing about violence against the person or thing frustrating him. Let us say, further, that this is simply a coping mechanism and that it will never lead to actual violent behavior. How do you judge this? Immoral, because it is fantasy about violence? I don’t think so. I think that as long as it does not create the disposition to action, then it must be morally neutral.

    ~Jason

  9. Jacob Zeise

    Jason,

    I agree that almost nobody but the person engaging in the fantasy will ever be able to pass moral judgment, and so it isn’t worthwhile to try to judge real people for their fantasies. But we don’t have that restriction when we talk about hypothetical people.

    I’m inclined to say that your recent example presents (on balance) evidence of a bad fantasy. Firstly, he has many more choices than the two you presented (acting out violence or engaging in violent fantasies). Consider the opportunity costs of the mental effort. If he wasn’t fantasizing about violence, what else could he be doing (other than acting it out, of course)? Would those other activities give him a better chance at living the life he wanted or, if that life isn’t possible, finding contentment with the life he has?

    Of course, for me to pass judgment, I’d need all of this information PLUS the knowledge of that man’s own beliefs about what these fantasies are doing to his psychology. I’d pretty much have to be his psychologist, priest or best friend. So again, in general I agree that we shouldn’t judge others for their fantasies, but such judgment is possible.

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