Are there any schools of thought that consider the morality or lack thereof of indulging in fiction?

The question comes up now that the last season of the popular series 'Game of Thrones' has so many people around the world investing time in discussing it, writing alternate endings, and even starting petitions. If this kind of energy were focused on something else, maybe we could solve a world problem or two.

A similar case can be made for playing computer games.

This makes me curious, have philosophers ever looked at this question?

  • 1
    Perhaps it is not just fiction in general but specific types of fiction that are relevant to ethical concerns. Jun 26, 2019 at 19:03
  • @FrankHubeny It's the investment, maybe some types of fictions attract people who are willing to invest more.
    – Ivana
    Jun 26, 2019 at 19:13
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    The "escape from reality to fiction" is termed escapism, see The Ethics of Escape by Coulombe. It is not as harshly condemned as one might think, Tolkien wrote a defense of escapism, for example. While everything is only good in good measure, the "Children Are Starving In Africa" arguments tread dangerously close to the fallacy of relative privation. It is unclear what "energy" means here.
    – Conifold
    Jun 26, 2019 at 19:22
  • Plato was against art: Our world is a shadow of reality and (representational) art is a shadow of the shadow. Art to fiction is (IMHO) not a big leap.
    – Rushi
    Jun 27, 2019 at 2:23
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    @another_name : Music and mathematics like the stars nourish the soul About poetry Old quarrel between poetry and philosophy and about Imitative art.
    – Rushi
    Jun 28, 2019 at 2:10

4 Answers 4


The "escape from reality to fiction" is termed escapism, see The Ethics of Escape by Coulombe. There has been empirical research on escapism as a coping mechanism since 1940s, see The Good and the Bad of Escaping to Virtual Reality in The Atlantic. Ethically, despite the negative connotation, it is not as harshly condemned as one might think. Tolkien, for example, wrote a passionate defense of escapism, On Fairy-Stories (1939) where he analogizes an escapist to an escaping prisoner:

Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery... Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the "quisling" to the resistance of the patriot”.

In other words, Tolkien ascribes to the escapism the function of a spiritual outlet, and a means of resisting coercive ideologies that dictate "greater goods" to their own corrupt ends. On the other hand, the "children are starving in Africa" arguments against escapism sometimes tread dangerously close to the fallacy of relative privation. The idea is to turn a positive into a negative, a privation, by contrasting it with a bigger positive. The lesser good, a pastime, subtracts from doing a greater good, it is argued.

But why should it? In the OP example, why should we assume that Game of Thrones deprived distressed individuals, one by one or collectively, would be in a better position to tackle hunger in Africa than happier ones? Why should we assume that the released energy can be realistically harnessed towards a better use, and not wasted, or worse? Should we take toys away from children because they "could be" learning math instead? Why should one subtract from the other rather than add to it? The core intuition behind the privation arguments is the idea of a finite resource ("energy") that instigates a zero-sum game: for one side to win - the other must lose. But it is often unclear that the analogized resource is indeed finite, or that the game is zero-sum.

This is not to say that fiction can not become an abode of cloud heads and deserters as well. Most informal fallacies are plausibly valid when the context is right. Just as slippery slopes do abound in real life, so do zero-sum games and genuine privation. This is why it is said that all good is only good in good measure. When a following becomes obsessive, all-consuming, there is a finite resource that comes into play, the basic labor-hours and attention spans of us, humans. Dreyfus brings up Kierkegaard's apprehensions in criticizing another ethical danger of escapism into the "aesthetic sphere", corrupting influence of escape from action and commitment, in Kierkegaard on the Internet:

"The person in the aesthetic sphere keeps open all possibilities and has no fixed identity that could be threatened by disappointment, humiliation, or loss... We would therefore expect the aesthetic sphere to reveal that it was ultimately unliveable, and, indeed, Kierkegaard holds that, if one leaps into the aesthetic sphere with total commitment expecting it to give one’s life meaning, it is bound to break down. Without some way of telling the significant from the insignificant and the relevant from the irrelevant, everything becomes equally interesting and equally boring and one finds oneself back in the indifference of the present age... The temptation is to live in a world of stimulating images and simulated commitments and thus to lead a simulated life. As Kierkegaard says of the present age, “it transforms the task itself into an unreal feat of artifice, and reality into a theatre".

But before condemning the sin of privation one has to plausibly establish that privation is indeed a sin. That obsession with A consumes too much resources to the detriment of greater B. That B is indeed greater, and that cutting back on A will not itself have detrimental consequences, and can/will be plausibly redirected towards B. Mere "could be" is not enough. It may well be that Game of Thrones hype (along with many other hypes over shows and internet memes) does indeed rise to such obsessive levels, but establishing that requires a more thorough study and analysis, it is not plainly obvious.

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    Thanks the Kierkegaard link. Frighteningly perceptive
    – Rushi
    Jun 28, 2019 at 15:12

The OP's concern is whether the time spent reading fiction rather than solving "a world problem or two" is a poor investment of one's resources.

One place to look is effective altruism. Wikipedia describes this philosophy as follows:

Effective altruism differs from other philanthropic practices because of its emphasis on quantitatively comparing charitable causes and interventions with the goal of maximizing certain human values. In this way it is similar to consequentialism, which some leaders of the movement explicitly endorse. The views of the philosopher Peter Singer in particular helped give rise to the effective altruist movement. Singer's book The Life You Can Save argued for the basic philosophy of effective giving, claiming that people have a moral imperative to donate more because of the existence of extreme poverty. In the book, Singer argued that people should use charity evaluators to determine how to make their donations most effective.

The article also lists three criticisms of effective altruism:

  1. "Claims that comparisons within and across cause areas are illegitimate"
  2. "Claims of a bias toward measurable interventions"
  3. "Alleged failures to tackle the roots of problems"

Using something like the above may be a way to justify not indulging in fiction (or other activities) provided there are better ways to use one's time and resources.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, June 23). Effective altruism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:38, June 26, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Effective_altruism&oldid=903158666

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    I really wish i could mark more answers as correct. Your answer sheds light on the underlaying question, while the one by Conifold deals with the immediate question. Thank you for these insights!
    – Ivana
    Jul 5, 2019 at 22:36

Most people aren't living maximally altruistic lives, I don't think anyone would dispute that. But what would that even mean?

Everyone needs rest. Without it we burn out and stop functioning effectively. The maximally altrustic individual is not the person who devotes every waking moment to altruistic endeavours, but the person who plans their life such that they can sustainably continue to do good.

So, we need rest, leisure. Not all leisure activities are equally ethical. Many are exploitative of people, animals, or this world. Many fictional media productions are produced through exploitative practices. But many would be less exploitative. Consider a hunting video game compared to real life trophy hunting.

Given that we need downtime to be effectively ethical, fictional media can in principal fulfil that need without being exploitative or ethically questionable for other reasons.

  • this makes sense, even if you could use some philosophy to cite!
    – user38026
    Jun 29, 2019 at 8:57

There is some evidence that exposure to "literature" could make us more empathetic. Books with written from a first person or third person close perspective can reveal the minds of others and help us identify closer with their ways of thinking. So it could be argued that those who regularly consume fiction with interiority develop patterns of thinking empathetically, and would be quicker to consider the needs of others, or to ask others how they are doing, and then act to meet the needs of others.

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