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Episode 6: Morality in dreams / October 02, 2020

With Dr Robert Cowan

Hosted by Ross Patrizio Alexandros Constantinou

Edited by Constantinos Stylianou

Posted in Main feed Ethics Philosophy of Mind

Are we ever morally assessable for the things we do in our dreams? If we are, does this mean that we should be proud when we do something good in our dream? Are we to blame when we do something wrong? Dr. Robert Cowan, lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, joins Ross Patrizio and Alexandros Constantinou to discuss these questions and many more in this episode of Thoughts.

The question of whether or not one is ever morally assessable for the actions they perform in their dreams is not widely covered in philosophy. There are remarkably few journal articles on the topic, no introductory videos on YouTube, and so on. One possible explanation for this is that the answer is obviously ‘no’. Our dream actions and our waking actions exist in two separate realms; morality applies to the latter, but clearly not to the former. Robert Cowan, however, has been researching dream morality recently and doesn’t think that the matter is quite so straightforward. Counterintuitive as it may initially appear, Robert argues that dream morality follows quite naturally from a bunch of very plausible assumptions. We dive deep into all of this, and more, on this episode of Thoughts.


01:00 – Why think about dream morality at all?

02:20 – What underpins the common intuition that there is no dream morality?

03:50 – “The Standard Argument” in favour of dream morality.

10:15 – More in-depth discussion of the ‘no special condition’ premise of the Standard Argument.

12:00 – Difference between moral wrongness and moral blameworthiness.

13:00 – Is this issue exclusive to internalist moral theories?

15:50 – Suppose there is dream morality; where do we go from there?

17:30 – Do dreams give us some insight into an individual’s character?

19:15 – Where and how does Robert see this field of research progressing in the future? 


Alexandros Constantinou: Just a disclaimer: we’re not actually saying people should cheat in retaliation to other people. Just saying!



Ross Patrizio: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Thoughts. My name is Ross Patrizio…

Alexandros Constantinou: …and I’m Alexandros Constantinou.

RP: Today, we’re delighted to be joined by Dr. Robert Cowan, who’s a lecturer in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. His main research interest are in ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of mind. Today, we spoke about dream morality, which is the claim that actions performed in dreams can sometimes be morally assessible. We discuss some arguments for thinking of this claim as true, as well as some of the real world implications of the view. We hope you enjoy the episode – here are some thoughts on dream morality.

AC: Right. So Robert, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you here. So why don’t you start us off with how you got interested in thinking about morality in dreams, and why is it interesting.

Dr. RC: Ehhh, okay, so, my research is sort of generally focused on the intersection between ethics and epistemology and mind. So there are a bunch of topics I’ve been interested in in the past, where those areas meet. And dreams, I guess, and the morality of dreams is just like another point in that intersection point. And, kind of, when you start reading on this, you kind of realise that despite it being quite an important thing to think about, hardly anyone has written about it over the past two and a half thousand, three thousand years of philosophy. You can count with two hands, I think, the number of papers that have been devoted to this topic. It might be the reason that hardly anyone has written about the connection between morality and dreams, is because they’ve just thought – we don’t need to think about this, it’s just obvious that nobody every does anything in dreams that’s genuinely morally assessible.

AC: Why would somebody think that? What are the practical premises to that argument?

Dr. RC: It might just…I think people when you give them this topic for the first time they will tend to say, look, definitely not, there’s no way what I do in my dreams in something which I can be praised or blamed for, morally – I never do anything right or wrong in my dreams, surely. So I think there’s sort of like an intuitive or common-sense sort of reaction to the question. But the question is, what might underpin that? Well I think that some people might be thinking that because they think well, morality has something to do with real consequences, real effects in the world, and dreams don’t have real effects in the world. Or what you do in dreams doesn’t have any real impact on the world. That might be driving this thought. Another thought might be that, well look, you’re not really in control when you’re dreaming, right? What you do in your dreams is in some sense sort of out of your control, and they maybe think that morality requires some kind of control on the part of the agent. So, when you’re in an instance where that’s missing then morality is also absent. That’s pretty speculative though, I think that for some people it’s just sort of a knee-jerk reaction – when they hear dreams…morality…it’s sounds incongruous, these things don’t go together. Dreaming is a private realm, right? We’re not in the realm of giving reasons to each other and justifications to each other – you’re asleep, right? You’re on your own, and morality is silent when you’re in a situation like that.

AC: That’s interesting. Um, so now that we’ve touched more deeply onto dreams, why don’t you outline the standard argument for dream morality.

Dr. RC: Right, so I mean I think one thing that everyone can accept on this topic is that when you’re dreaming – at least sometimes when we’re dreaming – we do things, or seem to do things in dreams which had they occurred in waking life, had they actually occurred in waking life, would be morally assessible. Right, so for example you might dream that you donate a kidney to a stranger. If I’d done that in real life you might say ‘well done Robert, that’s a really wonderful thing you’ve done there’. That was the right thing to do, or that was beyond the call of duty, whatever. So that’s something that I think is non-controversial. The question was that whether things we do in dreams, or seem to do in dreams, really are morally assessible or not. And, as you’ve just mentioned, there is an argument which I’m kind of referring to as the standard argument which has cropped up at various points in the history of philosophy. So, three or four premises that seem to lead to the conclusion that there is dream morality; that sometimes, yes, people do things in dreams which are morally assessible.

So, the first one is what’s known as evaluational internalism. So this is the view that the moral quality of what someone does, their agency, is completely determined by factors that are internal to their agency. So, Immanuel Kant, who many of your listeners will have heard of or maybe even read about, he has a theory whereby the moral quality of what you do – whether what you do is right or wrong; praiseworthy or blameworthy – is really completely determined by the intentions you’ve got. Right, so if I intend to kill you – that’s a bad intention, that makes me the object of moral blame. And if I follow through with the intention and actually kill you then that would be wrong for me to do that but the reason why it’s wrong is because it stems from this bad intention that I’ve got. For Kant, it’s all about what’s going on in the psychology of the agent, right, it’s your intentions or sometimes it’s described in terms of conscious willings; if I consciously will to kill you then that’s me now the object – the proper object – of moral blame. Whether or not I actually kill you, succeed in doing so, is sort of in a sense by-the-by because I’ve already done the thing which is blameworthy, right? I’ve formed this intention – I’ve consciously willed in this way. So that’s Kant’s view, and it’s a view that you find in Christian morality; you find in some other moral theories as well; versions of virtue ethics; even consequentialist theories which assume something like this – that the fundamental facts of moral assessment are dependent upon stuff that goes on in your mind: factors that are internal to your agency. So that’s the first assumption.

The second assumption is that – it’s sort of an empirical claim – that in our dreams we sometimes seem to do things that also appear to be relevant to internalist theories of moral evaluation, right? So, focus again on Kant’s view: Kant thinks that it’s intentions that matter, morally…well, it seems like sometimes in dreams, we seem to form intentions to do things, and seem to form intentions to do things that seem morally dubious or morally praiseworthy, right? So I might intend – in a dream – to cheat on my partner. Or I might intend in a dream to donate my kidney to a stranger, or whatever it might be. I might consciously will to do those things – in the dream. And it seems like even if that’s not what’s going on in dreams it sometimes sure seems like that. It really does seem like you formed an intention, or you’ve consciously willed to do something. That’s the second premise right, so you’ve got internalism, the empirical claim about dreams. Those two premises, though, don’t get you dream morality. They don’t get you the conclusion that we are morally assessible for what we do in dreams. And that’s because it might be that even if you form an intention in a dream, it isn’t a real intention, right? So, think about…a dream you have where you climb Mount Everest. You climbed Mount Everest in your dream but obviously you didn’t really climb Mount Everest, right? That didn’t actually happen. So just because you form an intention, or seem to form an intention in a dream, it doesn’t mean you’ve actually formed an intention. So those two first claims wouldn’t get you the conclusion ‘there is dream morality’. So that’s where this orthodox or traditional view of dreaming that Descartes held, and other philosophers held, becomes important. And on this view, very roughly, dreams are a bit like very vivid, multimodal hallucinations. Or they’re a bit like being in a virtual reality simulator, except you don’t know you’re in a virtual reality simulator. So, to be more precise: dreams are constituted by the same kinds of mental states that we undergo in waking life, right? So, perceptual experiences, beliefs, intentions; they all constitute our dreams. Right, so, it’s that sort of view of dreaming which arguably underpins sort of the problem of dream scepticism in epistemology. So on sort of one interpretation of Descartes, he thinks it’s because dreams and waking life are basically on a sort of par, ontologically speaking, that they’re the same sort of thing, they involve the same sorts of experiences and mental states. Because of that parity, it’s possible that while he appears to be awake and sitting by the fire, he’s actually in his bed dreaming. So, the sort of sceptical worry that arises.

RP: Just to be clear, that’s the conclusion that this would get you to, is that…at least some dreams actions would be morally assessible then, right?

Dr. RC: Yeah.

RP: It meets those…supposing it’s one of those kinds of things – we’ll get onto what they might be or whatever, but like…it doesn’t mean that everything you do in your dreams is morally assessible

Dr. RC: Exactly, right. So the conclusion we’re sort of arguing for here is the conclusion that sometimes people, like us who have dreams like ours, sometimes we do things in our dreams which are morally assessible.

RP: Yeah, sure.

Dr. RC: The fourth and final assumption, or premise, in this argument is the premise that when people are dreaming, they’re not in some special condition that sort of renders them immune from moral assessment.

AC: That would seem the most counterintuitive.

RP: This one seems crazy to me.

Dr. RC: Yeah, so I mean it’s certainly true, right, that dreamers are in sort of special condition when they’re dreaming right? Um, they’re asleep…but the claim here is not that dreamers are in aren’t in a special state; the claim is that dreamers aren’t in a special state that renders them immune from any sort of moral assessment. That’s the claim here that gets us to the conclusion that people sometimes could be morally assessible for what they do in dreams. Why think this? Well, so one way in which you might be sort of immune to moral assessment is if when we’re dreaming we’re in some way incompetent that gets us off the hook morally speaking. So the idea would be roughly that when you’re dreaming, whatever it is you’re doing when you’re dreaming, you’re not really in control of what you’re doing. You’re kind of like someone who’s under the influence of really powerful drugs or someone who’s psychotic. And look, someone who’s in that state is not morally assessible, or they’re immune from some or all kinds of moral assessment. Against that, it seems like even if it’s true that we are in some way incompetent when we’re dreaming – and there is some neuro-physiological evidence to back that up, right, if you look at the brain of someone who’s undergoing dreaming whilst in REM sleep, their brain resembles that of someone who is psychotic. So the same sort of chemicals are flooding the brain, the same parts of the brain are hyperactive for people who are in REM sleep and dreaming in that state. So there might be some reason to think that yeah there is a sense in which people are incompetent when they’re dreaming. However, even if that’s true, it doesn’t get you the conclusion that there is no dream morality. That might get you the conclusion that people can’t be blamed for what they do when they dream, so perhaps you couldn’t be blamed for cheating on your partner in a dream – because you’re incompetent. But if would still be wrong for you to have done that. It would still be wrong for somebody who was under the influence of drugs to go out and kill somebody; it would still be wrong for somebody who was psychotic, perhaps, to go out and kill someone. Not everyone draws this distinction, right, so what I am claiming here is that there’s a distinction between doing something wrong and doing something wrong and blameworthy. And…I think most people – at least in ethics – would say there is a distinction there, that it’s possible to do something wrong despite the fact you’re not blameworthy for having done it.

RP: So that seems right – so there’s things that can be just morally wrong actions and for those reasons they could be not blameworthy. Presumably the same for good things that are not praiseworthy, you maybe…you didn’t apply your character, it wasn’t difficult enough for you or whatever, and then you end up doing something good but it’s not really the right kind of thing we wanna give you praise for.

Dr. RC: Yeah.

RP: So we’ve got this argument now where there’s something that maybe seems arguably, like, super controversial or maybe just counterintuitive at the start. You’ve got these four pretty plausible…none of them individually…except me and Alex would maybe argue the last one sounds a little bit sketchy, but it sounds right after discussion; it sounds right. But I figure from what you’re writing that that’s not where the issue ends – you wanna say that just not internalists – right? – but also there might be an issue for externalists; is that right? Could you say a bit more about that distinction and why it would be a problem—that would have big implications, right, that would mean it’s a pretty big problem. If both internalists and externalists at least need to consider it further.

Dr. RC: Yeah. I mean, if you thought internalism was the type…internalist moral theories are the ones which are uniquely saddled with this problem, right, it’s only the internalist theories that are committed to – along with these other premises – committed to the existence of morality in dreams. That would be a tick in favour of internalism, right?; you’d think that yes, that’s a good reason to become an externalist or adopt some non-internalist view of moral evaluation. But: I think there’s good empirical evidence supporting the claim that what we do in dreams does in fact have consequences in our waking lives; consequences that externalists about moral evaluation will typically be interested in. So, there’s lots of evidence from empirical studies suggesting that what we do in our dreams, and what we dream, has impacts on our emotional lives when we wake up; has impacts on the sorts of decisions that we make. People report making quite important decisions, solving problems, on the basis of things that they’ve done in dreams. There’s a nice study in 2014 showing that individuals who have had dreams in which they’ve committed acts of infidelity reported that the next day they had more tense relations with their partners, that it was having effects on their waking life.

RP: So just to be clear, the thought would be like…if you’re an internalist you care about intentions and what the agent is thinking when they’re carrying out these actions. That leads into all sorts of problems with the standard argument with, erm, it leads to dream morality basically because if the intentions and stuff like that are relevantly similar in dreams [indecipherable] it seems pretty clear. Externalists could be like ‘well, I don’t only care about those internal states, those intentions, I care about things that actually happen in the real world’ – there’s the obvious like where I get to not be in this kind of bother, and then you turn around and say ‘no, wait a second, there are actually really clear links here between your dream actions and then the real world’. So it’s not so clear then, that there’s that mismatch.

Dr. RC: That’s right. So in a nutshell you can’t just deny the existence of dream morality by saying, well look, morality is an effect in the real world and dreams don’t have effects in the real world – because dreams do have effects in the real world.

AC: So if we do agree that there is morality in dreams, what are the implications of committing ourselves to a belief that there is morality within dreams?

Dr. RC: Well, does it mean that we need to start chastising each other or taking reports from one another every morning? ‘So what did you dream last night?’ And I should say, I mean I [laughter] I’m not sure if I accept this conclusion.

RP: I had a feeling you might not accept it, to be honest.

Dr. RC: But if, if the conclusion is true, right, if it turns out that what we do in dreams is sometimes morally assessible then it’ll depend upon what type of moral assessment that is, right? So, if it turns out that we only ever do things which are wrongful but not blameworthy, then you probably shouldn’t do anything right? We shouldn’t be blaming ourselves for what we do in dreams; we shouldn’t be blaming other people for what they do in dreams; we should maybe just shrug our shoulders and say ‘ahh, that was sort of unfortunate, I wish that hadn’t happened’. Another thing you might say here is that if it turned out that somebody you knew was persistently having dreams about torturing other people – firstly that might lead you to think that they may have some dubious desires in the background that are kind of producing these dreams. So that might be some evidence about their character. And it might be evidence to them, it might be something they don’t realise about themselves.

RP: So it might not be that we say, ‘you’re wrong for having that dream last night – stop it, stop it’. We may still say ‘there’s maybe something going on there’. And that’s ok, you can leave it at that with the moral assessment.

Dr. RC: Yeah, I mean there are two different issues here. One is – do dreams sometimes provide us with evidence of people’s characters? And you might say, yes they do. Second question is – do people actually do things in dreams that are morally assessible? So rather than dreams providing evidence for moral assessment, dreams actually involve people committing acts which are themselves morally assessible. And I suppose if you think that dreams do sometimes give us an insight into people’s characters, then that might itself be a reason to think that what people do in dreams is morally assessible. The mere fact that we do take people’s dreams, or what they do in dreams, to be some evidence of their character, might be a sort of reason to think that what we are doing in our dreams is not outside the domain of moral assessment. One last thing I want to say about how to proceed if it were true that there’s dream morality – even if it’s the case that we are often doing things in our dreams which are right and wrong, it might nevertheless be the case that we don’t have the standing to point out to other people that they’ve done wrong, and certainly to blame them for what they’ve done in their dreams. Partly that might be because you might think that dreams are sort of private, and it’s sort of that person’s business, and it’s not really down to you to be sort of interfering with that aspect of their life even if we admit that dreams do sometimes have waking consequences. But also just like, epistemologically you might think because we don’t have a very clear handle on what dreams are, and we don’t often have a very clear handle on what we’ve actually dreamt, if someone wakes up and tells you ‘yeah, I dreamt that I killed somebody’, it might not be particularly helpful for you – and you might not actually have the moral standing – to say to them ‘well that was wrong of you to do that’ even if you’d be saying something true. Because it’s none of your business perhaps, and also you really don’t have enough evidence or knowledge at your disposal to sort of justify that conclusion, given that we don’t know enough about dreams, uh, at this stage.

AC: So where would you want the field to go from here? How do you see the process of thinking about morality in dreams developing in the future?

Dr. RC: Well I think that the place…so I think it’s worth saying that research in this is at a really early stage and hardly anyone has written on this. And I’ve only kind of started to begin writing about it. So I think the place to look at the moment is at this standard argument and looking at the four assumptions that we spoke about: internalism; the sort of empirical claim about dreams; the orthodox view of dreaming; and the sort of ‘no special condition’ assumption. And looking at those assumptions, and seeing if they are true, and seeing if replacing those assumptions with alternative claims enables you to avoid dream morality – I think that’s where we are at the moment, in terms of dream morality research. It’s trying to work out the scope of the problem. If we do think it’s sort of problematic to believe that we are morally assessible for what we do in dreams, then how do we avoid this conclusion, then? What views do we need to give up, or what new views that we’ve not even thought of yet that we have to develop in order to avoid it? So I think that’s where we are at the moment. A very early stage, but that makes it kind of more exciting, I think, that there’s lots of stuff to be done on it.

RP: For sure.

AC: I think we need to wrap up, cos the sound team is really going to kill us. [laughter] We really did enjoy the conversation, um, thank you for being on the show.

Dr. RC: Good, it was fun.

AC: Thank you to everybody for listening, and remember you can find us on social media, Facebook under Thoughts UofG, on Twitter under the same name, and on Instagram under Thoughts_UofG. See you everybody next time.

Transcript written by Frances Darling