By: Daniel Tippens
When I was a teenager, I regularly attended church, I was actively engaged in the youth group, and even played the drums in the church band. One thing that I was taught and took as unquestionable moral dogma was that having certain thoughts was morally bad, simply by virtue of having them. It wasn’t just that acting on certain thoughts or ruminating on them for too long was bad, but somehow a thought with certain propositional content entering my mind was morally bad by itself.
Consider the following thoughts:
1. God doesn’t exist.
a. Does God exist?
2. Murder is morally good.
a. Is murder morally good?
3. I wish my annoying coworker were dead.
In (1), I entertain the thought that God doesn’t exist, or perhaps I ask myself whether God really exists. I am entertaining a thought or question about some factual proposition. A proposition about whether or not there is an entity we refer to as God. In (2) I entertain the thought that murder is morally good, or I ask if it is good. I am entertaining a thought about what is right and what is wrong. In (3), I have what seems to be a morally repugnant desire. I am not concerned about what is true or false or right or wrong, I just have a strong desire that my agitating coworker should die.
Note here that I said in cases (1) and (2) I was entertaining a thought. To me, this means simply holding the thought in mind, without endorsing it, rejecting it, or evaluating it (feeling good or bad about the thought). From now on, I will use “entertain a thought” or “have a thought” interchangeably.
When I was young, I would have believed that all three thoughts were morally wrong to have, simply by virtue of having them, regardless of how long I entertained them or how many times. As soon as the thought entered my mind, I believed, I had done something morally wrong and needed to atone.
It is easy to understand why I felt that I had done something wrong, if you examine things according to Divine Command Theory. Divine Command Theory states that what is morally good and what is morally bad is whatever is commanded by God. So if God commands us not to doubt his existence, his moral tenants, or to wish a poor fate upon another, then it is wrong for me to have such thoughts, regardless of the consequences. Since I believed divine command theory and thought that God commanded me not to have the aforementioned thoughts, I felt that having these things to enter my mind was morally bad.
But now toss out Divine Command Theory. On a secular moral view, is it the case that certain thoughts are bad simply by virtue of having them? If so, what makes it the case that having certain thoughts are bad? Certainly questioning whether or not God exists wouldn’t be morally bad on a secular view (just ask Richard Dawkins). But what about having the thought that murder is morally good? Or wishing that your coworker would die, even if only briefly and never again?
I sit in on a class at NYU every Thursday, and this question came up. I realized that I do not have an answer, and so I would like to get people’s intuitions. Here, I will briefly illustrate how it does seem to be the case that most people have the moral intuition that, on a secular view, having certain factual thoughts, moral thoughts, or desires is bad simply in virtue of having them. Then, I will state why one might think having certain thoughts is bad according to some moral theories, and discuss some concerns for how these moral theories would explain why certain thoughts are bad to have simply in virtue of having them.
Let’s start with illustrating how certain desires can be bad to have, simply by virtue of having them, by way of a familiar case from the first-person point of view. All of us have had some days where we have had wishes or desires that we consider to be particularly wrong or heinous. I might wish my coworker who is stressing me out would die, but as soon as I have this thought, I feel a rush of moral anxiety, “I can’t believe I just had that thought! That is a terrible thing to think!” We take ourselves to have done something wrong in having this desire.
Now look interpersonally at the third-person point of view. Suppose I confide in my friend, Jim, about how I feel toward my coworker. “Jim, Tom consistently messes up our projects, causing extra work for me. He also blames me for his mistakes. I swear man, I wish Tom would just go and die.” My friend replies, “That’s a terrible thought to have, man, you really shouldn’t wish that on Tom.” This kind of situation has no doubt happened to most of us (as either the confidant or the confider) and seems to indicate that not only do we take ourselves to have done something morally wrong, in having certain thoughts, we take others to have done so as well.
The same kind of thing happens with certain factual propositions as well. Suppose you think to yourself, “you know, black people really are not as smart as white people,” or “women are really only good at cooking, cleaning, and making babies.” Assuming you are not a chronic racist or misogynist and these were random transient thoughts that popped up into your head. You would likely have that rush of moral anxiety. “Did I really just have that thought?!” Others would likely judge you for having that thought as well. Some factual thoughts are just off-limits.
Certain moral thoughts might be bad too. Thinking “genocide is morally good” or “rape is morally praiseworthy” would probably cause you to have a moral crisis. Even more salient would be how others react when certain moral judgments are made, revealing what thoughts one has had (This kind of case was brought up in class last night). Suppose three people, Derek, Saul, and Jack are reading a newspaper. The headline says, “20 year old girl raped in Central park.” The photo beneath the headline shows the 20 year old girl wearing a low-cut shirt revealing some cleavage. Jack immediately says the first thought that comes to his mind: “She was asking for it, with the kind of clothing she wears.” Derek and Saul, of course, respond “Wow man I can’t believe that you actually think that the victim is the one who is at moral fault here.” We could go on and on with these kinds of cases. It really does look like we take certain thoughts to be bad to have simply in virtue of having them. Is this true, and if so, why?
Clearly the answer can’t come from a Utilitarian outlook. After all, having a thought need not have any consequences at all. Suppose I wish that my coworker were dead. I don’t act on my desire, and I don’t ever think this thought again. Not only are there no negative consequences, rendering the entertainment of this thought morally permissible, having the thought probably makes me feel better in some cases, which would, according to utilitarianism, mean that wishing my coworker were dead and not acting on it is a morally good thing.
So what about some duty-based account? Well, the problem here is the familiar ought implies can. In order to have a duty to do something or refrain from doing something, it must be the case that one can refrain from, or perform, some action. But I can’t help which thoughts pop up into my head, so I can’t have a duty not to have such thoughts. That’s what is so puzzling about this to begin with. I can’t change which thoughts pop up in my head, but I still feel they are morally wrong to have simply in virtue of having them.
That leaves us with virtue ethical reasons, which seem to hold the most promise. Perhaps having certain thoughts shows something about my character. Wishing that my coworker were dead shows that I am the kind of person who would wish extreme ill-will upon another simply because they are annoying. But I do have one concern for this.
Typically we infer something bad about another person’s character only after a pattern of thoughts or behavior. If someone consistently wishes that his or her coworker were dead, only then would we infer that this person has a very bad character deficiency. We wouldn’t, however, infer a bad character trait because of one isolated bad thought. After all, most of us have isolated bad thoughts in an inconsistent fashion. If this is right, then having a single thought in isolation isn’t bad for virtue ethical reasons, only having a thought frequently or in some patterned way is bad. So, we haven’t explained why it is wrong to have certain thoughts simply in virtue of having those thoughts.
Thus, we have a puzzle. We clearly do think that having certain thoughts is morally wrong simply in virtue of having those thoughts, but we lack an ability to explain or justify why we feel this way, or at least I do. So let the crowd surfing begin! Do you think that some thoughts are morally wrong to have? Please explain your answer. See you in the comments thread!
Daniel Tippens is co-founder of The Electric Agora and a research technician at New York University School of Medicine.