Repugnant Thoughts

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.

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42 Comments »

  1. Nice piece. Let me just say, however, that your thinking on this subject is heavily Christocentric. Jews do not think thoughts are bad, only actions, and I find the intuitions you describe alien to my own way of thinking about my “bad” thoughts.

    Jewish law prohibits adultery. It is a Christain innovation — found in Matthew — that renders the mere thought of your neighbor’s wife adultrous.

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  2. Hey Dan,

    Would you agree that there are is a widespread moral intuition that certain thoughts are bad simply in virtue of having them? I feel like we hear people indicate they have this moral intuition through ordinary language all the time, hence all the cases I outlined.

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  3. If there is a fact of the matter about right and wrong then I cannot see why private thoughts should be exempt

    For most Christians, there is nothing wrong with doubting God’s existence because they think that God wants us to be free and to use our conscience and judgement in all things.

    From a practical and secular point of view, on the other, we should consider that there is not such a sharp distinction between private thought and public action as some seem to think.

    If someone spends his life thinking erotic thoughts about children I doubt that his behaviour could be entirely unaffected by this, even if he intended never to carry his desires into public.

    And his train of thought would start to condition his attitudes so that he will be more tempted to take those attitudes into action, to look for pornography which will occasion child abuse, or to abuse a child directly.

    So, yes, whether from the standpoint of moral realism or from a purely practical point of view, private thoughts cannot be considered a special case in morality or ethics.

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  4. Hi Robin,

    “If someone spends his life thinking erotic thoughts about children I doubt that his behaviour could be entirely unaffected by this, even if he intended never to carry his desires into public.

    And his train of thought would start to condition his attitudes so that he will be more tempted to take those attitudes into action, to look for pornography which will occasion child abuse, or to abuse a child directly.”

    Remember that I am not concerned, in this paper, with what make repeated thoughts bad. Those, according to you, could be bad in virtue of their consequences – leading to bad actions.

    However, I am concerned only with whether or not certain thoughts can be bad to have simply in virtue of having them, regardless of duration or frequency, and regardless of whether or not they inspire any action.

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  5. I think that most of us have extrinsicly entertain ideas of what we believe and value that place our notions of ourselves in a positive light. These beliefs and values may not overlap with our actual reactions in context to experiences in the world. Noticing and being receptive to a disconnect between the two is I think crucial to becoming the type of person we would like to be. I think those who have the least overlap between the way they see themselves and the actual thoughts that they tend have are more likely to be ones who think just having certain thoughts is morally wrong.

    Research shows that people who rate their own willpower the highest actually perform worse on instant gratification tasks. I disagree with your statement that we no control over the thoughts we tend to have (or ‘pop into our head’). I do not think the way incourage the types of thoughts we would to have however is in any way helped by banishing certain thoughts. I think this just lead in internal conflict. Much better to notice our reactions to context if we hope to influence our intrinsic patterns going forward.

    So I’m not a moral realist and I don’t think it is useful to label specific thoughts as amoral especially outside of situational context. I do think it is very useful to practice noticing when our thoughts conflict with who we think we are who we would like to be.

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  6. This piece reminds me of why I have problems when the subject of intuition–moral or otherwise–arises. Dan K touches on this when he suggests that your characterization of a thought as “good” or “bad” may be predicated or contingent on priors. Perhaps, there are times when it is neither. Take a neutral subject. Let’s say, for example, that you are working on a paper for The Electric Agora. What standards would you apply in deciding whether to characterize it as good or bad or satisfactory? Perhaps, you would solicit opinions from those you respect. Would this added information settle the matter or simply confuse the issue for you? If you subscribe to Divine Command Theory or Dan T Theory, then you might well believe that your desire to see your antagonist “die” might be “bad” and be justified in so characterizing it. Most of us engage in self-censorship and self-assessment. Otherwise, you might only see it as an exaggerated emotional response that is metaphoric in nature. You might regret telling him to “Piss Off” too, but in this case if he happened to unexpectedly disappear, would you see some relationship between his disappearance and your thought? Would you then characterize it as good or bad?

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  7. Hello there, I think that’s a worthwhile post that would be worth picking apart. In advance I really apologise for the longwinded post.

    Primarily my point is this; although I do restrain myself when such a thought comes to mind I do so because the chains of thoughts and events that I allow to open by spending my time thinking it are obviously less what I want than those of other thoughts, not because I suddenly feel a pang of guilt or because my actions are mysteriously ‘immoral’. (Mysterious to the extent that it springs up a question like this, asking why you feel your thoughts are immoral, or what that means.) I suppose this is a defence of the utilitarian position.

    In my case, and I suspect in many others, though you seem to assume most are more like yourself, I perceive these kinds of thought as little more than a result of previously uncontrolled emotion and do not benefit me or anyone (if I were to follow them out I would either, by definition, be doing something I don’t agree with or be saying something that would make people think less of me (rationally or irrationally.)) This doesn’t mean that I blame myself or see myself as immoral because of this.

    Likewise in the situation in which a friend approaches me as you have put, my reaction would not be to shame them. They are simply expressing their frustration. I just don’t really see the immorality precisely as you just do. In the case that they have clearly allowed themselves to dwell on this feeling or to have lent respect to what is an emotional outburst, if for example they start saying how they would like to do it or how they’ve been actively planning it, I would begin to reproach them as they are beginning to act in a way that increases the probability of them ‘cracking’ later. If there is immorality or blameworthiness here they are on a scale set to the increasing probability of them actually doing undue harm to Thomas. (for instance if they deny that murder would be an overreaction and tell me they still want to do it, that would be high on the scale and more worthy of shame.)

    Likewise with the rape situation, blaming the victim is bad because it increases the shame of those who are innocent and removes the appropriate blame on rapists and potential rapists. The thought is bad only in so far as it either unfairly shames or admonishes you or perpetuates the counterproductive thought in yourself, in this case making the statement is even worse as it perpetuates the judgement’s reproduction in society. As you point out, many or most people would feel disgust at one making the given kind of statement and probably not for the simpler reasons that I am giving. Your question is why people feel the way they do, not whether they are justified. This is a psychological question. As such I’m afraid the next 3 paragraphs miss the point a bit. If instead you are looking for a justification for why some thoughts are immoral as some people think they are, looking for this in utilitarianism is a bit like trying to perform a calculation until you get the right answer and then throwing out the method when you don’t succeed (similarly picking and choosing ethical systems based on whether they justify your reaction is a little suspect.) Nevertheless it may well have some kind of answer that you’ve overlooked. Utilitarianism need not only concern itself with the actions that definitely happen (the fact that desires need not lead to consequences isn’t necessarily relevant), if we take into account the probability of consequences then as I have said we can see people’s thoughts of, for instance, murder on a rising scale where a momentary flash is indeed less harmful than its minutely soothing benefits, but a long dwelling on the subject isn’t. Sure, this doesn’t mean people actually think like this but how people actually reason really need not conform to labels like deontology, virtue-ethics and consequentialism.

    If your question is why we think like this then the wisest answer is unsatisfying: we don’t know. There could be very, very many reasons why we end up thinking certain thoughts. Take a look at the fields of evolutionary psychology or human behavioural ecology which have shown fairly convincingly that some of our thinking and mental operations have evolutionary bases, guilt could have a vague explanation of this kind; in traditional psychology or psychotherapy there are innumerable reasons given for people’s thoughts, some convincing but often contradictory and with little in the way of satisfying methods to choose between them. Here, your willingness to berate yourself for your thoughts might well simply be based in your Christian background where self-blame is more common and accepted than it might otherwise be, other people around you might be similar because of a similar history (personal or cultural). Other people’s willingness to shame other people for their thoughts on rape might be for any number of reasons, from judgement that their attitude is increasing the chances of people being raped to simple disgust at what people call ‘rape culture’ (even, to be extremely cynical, simply because it is the socially acceptable thing to do). Perhaps the point of your post could be rather to look for these kind of suggestions and it might be interesting to see the results but in short, we don’t know why people come to blame themselves when they have these thoughts anymore than they know how they came to have those thoughts in the first place.

    Sorry again for the long post, and apologies if I inadvertently broke any rules of politesse. I appreciate your reading.

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  8. One should make a difference between mature and childich thouhgts maybe the ones who bring you back to your childhood. One can set out on this premise harboring guilty thoughts, others have no such qualms. Thus the guilty thoughts are already soaked in prejudicial juice. Some when seeing a generous decoltee, thoughts jump to how soon can one date here. Some confronted with a nice ,generous decoltee thoughts jump to how can one date her. The version in the article, should this lovely creature be attacked, the thoughts go to ‘She deserved it, walking around dressed like that. These kind of thoughts are not worthy to discuss. They are sick and infantile. Assuming the same lady walks around covered with ample jewelry, is this justification to rob her? Thoughts in ones head are a mix of the trivial, the important,the creative- ideas are born that way, the banal and a little compartment up there that harbors the thoughts one expresses to no one out of embarrasssement and becasue, and this is pre-facebook, it is nobody’s business. In closing- I carry them always with me, never know when I yearn for a real, good , fat embarrassement.

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  9. Dan: For my own part, while I certainly could *label* thoughts good or bad, I would do so, primarily because of the behavior to which they might give rise. Certainly, I would never deem some one worthy of condemnation, simply for thinking something.

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  10. Hi Dantip,

    Well you did mention Utilitarianism.

    I suppose it comes down to why the act itself is considered to be wrong. If the act is wrong because it causes harm, then obviously the mere thought does no harm and cannot be considered wrong by that criterion

    If someone says that no act is objectively wrong, but that there are some things, like murder, rape and child abuse, that most of us abominate and therefore try to prevent, then I guess we are back to practicalities.

    For me, well I think there probably is a right and wrong thing, although I could never prove it, (just as I can’t ultimately prove anything) and I.very often have difficulty in seeing what the right thing is and even when I do I often don’t do it.

    But, as I said, I see no reason why private thoughts should be exempt. For me, there are private thoughts that are wrong. For example, entertaining thoughts of cheating on one’s partner is disloyal. Nor just finding someone attractive, because we can’t help that, but deliberately entertaining fantasies of being with another person.

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  11. Re. that line about adultery in Matthew (Wittgenstein’s favourite gospel by the way and supposedly the most Jewish of the four)…

    I agree that this kind of thinking is more characteristic of Christian than Jewish practice today. Would there be some rabbis still around who might say similar things, I wonder?

    It’s a long time since I saw Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ which could be seen to exemplify an interesting, generally secular, Jewish perspective on questions of morality. A key conceit was the idea of the eyes of God watching us. They were imagined in flashback by a child in a funny, literalistic kind of way – the child became an ophthalmologist. Presumably these spooky eyes would see ‘into our hearts’ as well as seeing what we actually did. But, if I’m not mistaken, the focus – in line with Dan Kaufman’s comment – was very much on the doing (and having done) rather than the thinking.

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  12. What my tongue dares not, that my heart shall say
    The groom in Richard II, Act V

    We can entertain repugnant thoughts precisely because they are hidden. But thoughts are dangerous things because they can be father to the deed. Our thoughts go through a progression, which once started, become increasingly more likely to be realised and this is where the danger lies.

    There are three dangers
    1. Opening
    By admitting repugnant thoughts to our consciousness we open ourselves making it more likely we will repeat the experience.
    2. Normalisation
    By considering repugnant thoughts we normalise them over time and they become less repugnant.
    3. Alteration
    The active consideration of repugnant thoughts changes our character.

    The consideration of repugnant thoughts is a slippery slope progression:
    1. Awareness.
    We become aware of the idea, possibly stimulated by something external.
    2. Examination
    We turn the idea over in our minds, examining its contours.
    3. Entertain.
    We begin to entertain the possibility of realising the thought. This is the beginning of intent
    4. Intent.
    We form a clear intent to realise the thought.
    5. Action.
    We perform the repugnant act.

    This raises two questions:
    1. At what stage should we stop this progression?
    Clearly we cannot control (1), awareness, nor should we ever reach (4), intent. I suggest the answer is to discard the thought at stage (1) and not continue by examining it(unless for academic reasons). This will become clearer in the answer to the next question.

    2. At what stage do we become blameworthy?
    Here we must introduce the concept of guilt vs shame. Guilt is an interior state of moral blameworthiness while shame is is a reaction to external moral blame. Once we admit a repugnant thought into an internal process of active consideration we deaden our feelings of guilt and can no longer rely on it as a restraining force. A powerful test is to imagine a third party reaction to our repugnant thoughts. This appeals to our great sensitivity to shame and is the defining way to clarify when our thoughts become morally blameworthy.

    The Third Party Test
    Imagine three people
    1. a person you love, who loves you and who’s opinion of you is very important (your daughter?)
    2. a person you respect and has power over you (your boss?)
    3. the target of your repugnant thought.

    Would you be prepared to share your thought with your daughter?
    What would she think of you?
    Would you be prepared to share your thought with your boss?
    What would she think of you?
    Would you be prepared to share your thought with the target?
    What would the target think of you?

    Honest answers to these questions will immediately clarify what is permissible. If you answer NO to even one of the three questions then this is a thought you should not take beyond stage 1, awareness.

    Virtue ethics is all about an internal moral state where the person trains himself to achieve greater moral awareness and thus learns to discard repugnant thoughts at the earliest stage. By shifting attention from vices to virtues repugnant thoughts are displaced making them less likely in stage 1, awareness. The Third Party Test can be considered a form of training in this respect. It strengthens our capacity for feelings of guilt and lessens our reliance on shame.

    Dan-K is right when he says that the emphasis on internal guilt is the great departure of Christianity from Judaism and this also explains why Christianity has embraced virtue ethics.

    Dan-T, I congratulate you on this fascinating essay.

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  13. More on repugnant thoughts.
    The third party test I mentioned above has great utility as can be seen when one considers the complex problem of inducements, or more bluntly, bribes made plausibly deniable.

    Once one has significant purchasing power the problem of how to react to inducements raises its head. Consider the following slippery slope (all of which have happened to me)
    1. you are offered a pen or tie as a gift(ostensibly to maintain cordial supplier relations)
    2. you are taken out to an informal lunch,
    3. you are taken out to an expensive dinner.
    4. you are given a crate of expensive whisky as a Christmas gift,
    5. you are offered an all expenses holiday at a top end game ranch,
    6. you are offered a free weekend in Berlin at the most luxurious brothel. (Ye Gods, why me!)

    Yes, business is venal.

    Once on the slippery slope it is difficult to halt the progression. I reacted by staying off the slippery slope, refusing even the smallest inducement such as a pen or a lunch. Unfortunately this raised suspicions in our internal audit department who thought I must have something to hide and so I was investigated. While I was cleared it left a damaging stain.

    The answer was a version of the third party test. I proposed to our management team that a public(and easily accessible) register of gifts should be kept. You may accept any gift if you declare it on the public register. Failure to declare any gift, no matter how small, was a dismissal offence. Thus each person had to consider how his bosses, colleagues and subordinates would react if he accepted the gift.

    This is a practical example of how consideration of exposing the hidden(repugnant thoughts or inducement gifts) to public examination is a powerful guide to what is morally acceptable. That is because adopting a third party perspective enables us to see the matter more clearly, free of our desires or needs and this makes us aware that other people hold us to high moral standards.

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  14. Neither the Jews nor the Buddhist and their like share this view of thoughts. It appears to be completely impractical. Perhaps it would become an issue, as Seth notes, when we deliberately indulge or encourage certain thoughts.

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  15. HI Daniel,

    Certainly, I would never deem some one worthy of condemnation, simply for thinking something.

    I think that there is a difference between deeming something wrong and deeming someone worthy of condemnation for doing it.

    I think that cheating on your partner is wrong, but I have known many people who have cheated on their partner and I don’t condemn them for it. I am just not that saintly that I can go around condemning other people’s actions.

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  16. Same arguments hold re art (eg computer games). An edge case might be thoughts in mental illness eg rumination in depression. If not intrinsically morally repugnant, reducing such thoughts by eg cognitive behaviour therapy is the morally correct thing to do.

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  17. Hi DanT, that was an interesting essay, though most of it was foreign to my own way of thinking. While I might have thoughts that concern or bother me, I have never viewed them in terms of morally right or wrong. Your end approach from virtue ethics, that thoughts say something about your character is much closer to how I would view it.

    To start with, the mind is actively throwing up all sorts of thoughts in response to its environment (or in considering past events). A sort of active game playing. We select from within these, either rejecting, noting for further deliberation (including fantasy play), or accepting to move toward action.

    Wishing a coworker dead does not necessarily say everything about your character, if you also regret or in some way reject that wish. The totality of your character includes what you do with your thoughts, which means the additional thoughts you have about your original thoughts.

    Feelings of bad or good regarding a thought are forms of internal censure. They can be internalized expectations of social reaction to your thought (if you were to say it out loud or act on it), or personal reactions based on relevant experiences. Such feelings help guide your actions to better fit within your community as well as matching your array of desires.

    In some small sense, Robin was right that habitually accepting thoughts along one line can result in acceptance of action. A person’s internal character is built by the thoughts one reinforces over the thoughts one rejects. But his model of habitual thought to behavior is overly simplistic. It for some reason rejects the concept of accepting limits for thoughts within a certain scope (fantasy for example) which can alleviate desires which may have negative consequences when acted upon, and ignores the reality that people can end up acting on thoughts (out of frustrated desire) that they routinely deny (in order to be “good”) or legitimately feel are “bad”.

    Treating our internal fantasy worlds as equivalent to, and so open to the same moral concerns as external activity in our shared material world is problematic. At the very least it ends up demanding Platonic levels of censorship.

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  18. I’m going to take a slightly different tack, based on my reading of Dennett, Ryle, et al, the idea of subselves, the idea of the power of the subconscious and unconscious mind, (invariant on theories of what its actual drivers are), etc.

    Dan T., is it “you” who “has a thought”? And, how do you even know, one way or the other? Per Dan K., at least within the western tradition of thought, as far as religious influences, this is much more Christian than Jewish, where you were coming from. (I have no idea of Muslim doctrine on such issues.) I am reminded, as may be others nearly my age, or older, of Jimmy Carter’s comments in 1976, in fact.

    In that sense, as issue becomes “yours” through the act of following out a thought by action, under the theory that for any person not a schizophrenic, action must be unitary.

    At the same time, we must not draw a radical dividing line between thought and action, either. Habitual thoughts become habits just as much as habitual actions do, and there’s plenty of feedback loops between the two, not just in the “external world” which is out there, but inside our own skulls. I just finished reading “The Biology of Desire,” which is about issues in addiction by a neuroscientist rejecting the “disease theory,” and it covers this issue of feedback between habitual thoughts and habitual actions in some depth. While we stilll may not condemn a habitual thought, at the same time, it doesn’t lead a separate life.

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  19. Labnut:
    Once one has significant purchasing power the problem of how to react to inducements raises its head. Consider the following slippery slope (all of which have happened to me)
    1. you are offered a pen or tie as a gift(ostensibly to maintain cordial supplier relations)
    2. you are taken out to an informal lunch,
    3. you are taken out to an expensive dinner.
    4. you are given a crate of expensive whisky as a Christmas gift,
    5. you are offered an all expenses holiday at a top end game ranch,
    6. you are offered a free weekend in Berlin at the most luxurious brothel. (Ye Gods, why me!)

    Well, I’m impressed.

    Sounds like a big part of the structure of politics today. Due to the last 3 decades or so redistribution of wealth to the top end, ultra-rich influences no longer have to operate within a budget; they need no tit-for-tat, which is the basis of legal chargers of bribery, and much of what they do is done to players before they reach elective office, like the transfers of wealth to George W. Bush through sinecures or over-eager investment when he was dabbling in oil, and then the Dallas Cowboys. Once you are out of office, you can also be sure that if you’ve acted in “good faith” (from a particular point of view), more sinecures, rich lecture fees, etc, will fall into your lap, or like that great intellectual Rick Santorum, if the extremity of your politics causes you district to turn you out, you will get a plum “think tank” position.

    It is a sad thing when major office-holders with 6-figure salaries (very quaint by CEO standards) are played like little purchasing agents.

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  20. Hey all, I will try to reply and keep this discussion going as soon as I can. My awful NYC apartment has a nasty leak coming through the ceiling at the moment, so my Halloween might be filled with brown water instead of candy and alcohol.

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  21. Hello Daniel Tippens,

    In order to answer your question in a sensible way, we must surely have a useful definition for the term “morality.” But there is no “is” regarding definitions of morality (or any of our terms) — rather there are simply more and less useful versions of a given term in respect to our various arguments. So please do consider whether or not my own definition of morality does seem reasonable to you. From here I’ll be able to answer your question, either from the definition I provide below, or rather from the definition which you provide.

    “Morality” as I define the term, only exists in us as a product of two human traits — “empathy” and “theory of mind” forms of qualia. The empathy side references a trait by which we feel good/bad in a corresponding manner that we perceive good/bad to be experienced by others. Then the theory of mind side concerns how we seem to feel good/bad in a way that corresponds with what we think others are thinking about us. So without yet elaborating, I would say that in a void empathy and theory of mind forms of qualia, all morality does become lost to us.

    So is this a reasonable definition of morality from which to answer your question, or would you instead like to provide us with another definition? Or perhaps we can go both ways?

    I was going tell you not worry about getting back to me for a while. since you were probably going off to a great Halloween party. A leak coming down from the unit above? Well at least you don’t own the place! 🙂

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  22. Hi SocraticGadfly,

    “At the same time, we must not draw a radical dividing line between thought and action, either. Habitual thoughts become habits just as much as habitual actions do, and there’s plenty of feedback loops between the two, not just in the “external world” which is out there, but inside our own skulls… While we stilll may not condemn a habitual thought, at the same time, it doesn’t lead a separate life.”

    I agree that thought and action should not be considered entirely separate, in general. But I disagree entirely with the idea that thoughts cannot lead a separate life, which I take to mean separate from action.

    Humans tend to lead compartmentalized lives. This is as much true in the material world, with different groups of friends or acquaintances matched to different interests, as it is in the imaginary world within one’s mind. There is an idea that people wear different masks and following that metaphor the mind offers an extensive mask shop where one can try out and enjoy all sorts of identities.

    One can lead a completely separate fantasy life, that has no bearing on actions (except perhaps getting art to enhance one’s fantasies) within one’s own material life. That is to say unless there is a break down in an ability to discern between fantasy and reality.

    Of course this dissociation is also thought dependent. If you get into the habit of thinking “I really hate X” about specific or very real people, it would tend to reinforce further negative thoughts and likely negative actions toward them.

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  23. DB, yes, I’ll accept that correction/modification, at least to a degree.

    That said, maintaining compartmentalized lives, if different compartments are highly different from each other, and even somewhat antagonistic to each other, requires some degree of active monitoring, maintenance and upkeep. (Think of a GOP Congresscritter, or a conservative minister, having sexual affairs, for example.) But which “who” is doing that? While not totally undermining Dennett’s “no Cartesian meaner,” the idea of a “compartmentalization maintenance subself” would indicate that maybe Dennett’s idea needs a bit of modification?

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  24. Dan-K,
    Certainly, I would never deem some one worthy of condemnation, simply for thinking something.

    Try telling your neighbour that you had been fantasising about seducing his young daughter and you will discover what condemnation means in a swift and painful manner. And then try telling your wife that you were thinking about committing adultery with your neighbour’s young daughter. Or, for that matter, try telling your boss that you had been thinking about sodomising his young son. In all these cases you will experience well earned and probably painful condemnation. What do you think your friends, colleagues and community would think of you if they learned of your lascivious inclinations? Would they not forcefully condemn you?

    If it appears clearly wrong when exposed to the eyes of your community then how can hidden repugnant thoughts be right? Concealment does not, of itself, make something right. The moment we accept that concealing a wrong thought makes it right we open the door to thinking that concealing a wrong act makes it right. If I can get away with it, why shouldn’t I? And in any case they deserve it, etc …, etc …, and it is unfair that, etc, etc.

    The third party test restores a sense of perspective and reality, rescuing our judgement from being self serving and halting the process of rationalisation.

    I am not arguing for Mother Grundy, village gossip style of moral regulation. I am only suggesting that the third party test is a useful way(but not the only way) to clarify our thinking about moral problems

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  25. All,

    This discussion has been a fascinating one. It is also interesting that there seems to be a divide in intuitions about the question of whether or not certain thoughts are wrong to have simply in virtue of having them.

    DBholmes,

    Thanks for your comment, I found it quite interesting. I just wanted to ask you about one thing. You said:

    “Wishing a coworker dead does not necessarily say everything about your character, if you also regret or in some way reject that wish.”

    You seem to imply here that if you have the wish for your coworker to be dead and don’t regret it afterward, then having the thought was bad. But this seems incompatible with your claim that having certain thoughts is bad simply in virtue of having them. If wishing your coworker were dead (without ever acting on it) were not bad simply in virtue of having it, then why should you regret it afterward? We typically don’t regret things that we don’t think are bad, right? I’m curious if this means you don’t want to fully commit to the idea that having certain thoughts are bad, at least to some degree, simply in virtue of having them,

    Hi Robin,

    “I think that cheating on your partner is wrong, but I have known many people who have cheated on their partner and I don’t condemn them for it. I am just not that saintly that I can go around condemning other people’s actions”

    I completely agree that we need to separate blameworthiness from moral wrongness. One can lack blameworthiness, while still behaving in a morally wrong way. Thanks for reminding us of this!

    Hi Labnut,

    You said, “Try telling your neighbour that you had been fantasising about seducing his young daughter and you will discover what condemnation means in a swift and painful manner. ”

    Just curious, do you think that your neighbor would condemn/lash out at you because they see perceived risk to their beloved daughter? Or simply because you had that thought?

    Hi PhilosopherEric,

    I must say I am a bit puzzled by your use of the term “qualia.” This is a technical term in philosophy of mind that refers simply to the “what its like” to undergo a certain experience. There is something its like to taste coffee, or to smell oranges. You seem to have a different usage in mind, though?

    Hi Mark English,

    “I agree that this kind of thinking is more characteristic of Christian than Jewish practice today.”

    Yeah I think I agree with you and Dan-K about this, but does this mean you do not think that atheists also share the intuition that having certain thoughts are bad simply in virtue of having them? I think many of them do (I can certainly feel the tug of the intuition, for example), just about different sorts of thoughts than christians.

    Hi Thomas Jones,

    I had trouble seeing exactly what you were getting at with your comment, but I feel like there is something particularly valuable in it. Could you restate it in different words for me? Sorry I can be slow at times!

    Hi Duncan,

    “Your question is why people feel the way they do, not whether they are justified. This is a psychological question.”

    I was really thinking that we, or many people do, have the intuition that certain thoughts are morally wrong to have simply in virtue of having them. I was wondering how this could be justfified. If they can’t be justified, then yes, there is just a psychological question about the causal explanation for why people have these thoughts. But I was really wondering about the question of justification.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you all! I will likely raise many of the points made in this discussion in my class on Thursday, so thanks a lot!

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  26. Dan-T,
    Just curious, do you think that your neighbor would condemn/lash out at you because they see perceived risk to their beloved daughter? Or simply because you had that thought?

    They would condemn you because
    1. new information has been revealed about your character,
    1. their perception of your character would have changed and become strongly unfavourable,
    2. they would feel their implicit trust had been betrayed,
    3. with the new character assessment would come an increased perception of risk. Ultimately we base our moral risk assessments of other people on our understanding of their character and this is why we are natural virtue ethicists.

    It is important to understand that we conceal information about our inclinations as a form of reputation management. That is because we wish to preserve other people’s good opinion of our character. Once more, we are natural virtue ethicists.

    Give us some feedback about your class. It should be very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Hi DanT, ah let me clarify that for sure! I was definitely not trying to say the thought itself was bad, only that it might/might not say something about your character.

    So if you wished your coworker dead and didn’t have second thoughts about it then that does mean you are the kind of person who wishes coworkers dead for such and such a reason. Which does not necessarily mean bad.*

    If you wished the person dead but had second thoughts then you are the kind of person who might have such immediate reactions given such and such a situation but have other feelings/ideas beyond that concerning that person. Which I should add does not make you good.

    I was just trying to free assessment of one’s character from evaluations based on single thoughts, and particularly the most basic thoughts (which are usually knee-jerk feelings that don’t stand up to personal scrutiny).

    *As for the initial thought (or a person thinking it) being called bad, that is meaningless to me. You don’t like it? OK. Others don’t like it? OK. If it were made real it would be unjust? Cruel? Ill-advised? OK. But “bad”? That doesn’t tell me anything except maybe you don’t like it but I don’t know why.

    And those descriptors I gave are where the source of regrets usually turn up. Like, whoa what he did wouldn’t merit death (unjust), gotta calm down a bit. Or, that would really hurt a lot of people for no reason, including the person wished dead (cruel) and I’m not the kind of person that wants to hurt other needlessly, so ease up! Or, OK the person has really pissed me off lately but if that person dies I’d really miss them, they mean more to me than the mistake. So I should work something out.

    What would “oh that was a bad thought” get me? Think good thoughts instead? Bad and good are bags that always need unpacking to be useful. 🙂

    Hi SocraticGadfly, you are totally right about the required monitoring and that seems to be what our brains are built around. The neural nets have so many feedback (and forward) systems so that it’s a virtual panopticon in there (though DanT seems to have made the point that flavor does not effect vision). Of course constant high level vigilance would be pretty tiring. Thats what letting our guard down is all about, and why we need space to say stupid things in private without major repercussions… without everything we say being taken so seriously.

    And you have a point about what compartmentalization means for Dennett. Well, one thing I’d give him is that it isn’t a single minder. It’s more like a whole group of people watching each other. 🙂

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  28. “Theory of Mind” is neither qualia, not “what it is like”. You are normally not aware of even having theory of mind skills, it is just something you do (or don’t do).

    For my part I usually become bored and/or irritated at the suffering of those close to me. But I recognise that as the wrong response, not because of what people will think of me, but because I know that they are suffering and that I am the person who is able to help. So I suppress the “do I look like a doctor?” sort of responses that immediately spring to mind and show the concern and willingness to help that they are expecting.

    So I don’t think that morality can be entirely a matter of empathy and theory of mind.

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  29. dantip

    ” … does this mean you do not think that atheists also share the intuition that having certain thoughts are bad simply in virtue of having them? I think many of them do (I can certainly feel the tug of the intuition, for example), just about different sorts of thoughts than christians.”

    Well, first of all, I think our upbringing can still play a part whatever our current beliefs might be.

    I didn’t comment directly on your question because I think it assumes a view of morality which I am doubtful about. Is having certain thoughts bad, as you put it, simply in virtue of having them? I’m not sure that the question makes sense (unless you have certain assumptions about guilt and so on that I don’t share).

    Certainly thoughts could have potentially bad effects; or they could say something about you as a person that may lead me (if I find out about them) not to like you or to see you in a different way.

    People do things which we want to condemn – or justify. And certain people would condemn certain thoughts in other people (if they found out about them). But do we need to condemn or justify our own casual thoughts? I don’t think so.

    I personally hate the idea of dogmas, and there are a lot of political and social dogmas around today. Political correctness and all that. Ideally our private thoughts will be free of that kind of thing, but politeness (and self-interest) requires us to be careful sometimes how we express ourselves.

    Sexual (and murder-related) fantasies seem to be in a slightly different category. I would say that as long as they are casual and not going to lead to bad actions they are fine. They do say something about ourselves, however. I would find it hard to relate closely to someone whom I knew was addicted to certain kinds of fantasies – bloody, violent fantasies, for example. I might think he was a bit sick. And more so for fantasies relating to sex with very young children. I just don’t get this.

    But more normal (to my way of thinking) casual fantasies about actions which might be quite inappropriate as actions are par for the course I would have thought and possibly beneficial.

    There is one area where I happen to have a strong intuition which is not unrelated to what you are talking about. It involves not taking pleasure in watching, say, a video clip of someone’s violent death (say somebody jumping out of a burning building, or even a plane crashing on a television news report). I avert my eyes not because I don’t want to see it but because I do want to see it!

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  30. I think the additional bit here is concepts of moral responsibility for unconscious tendencies, whether thoughts that bubble up, or acting out unconscious biases. My own simple minded attitude is that all humans have the full repertoire of antisocial behaviours “built-in”, ready to be acted on in particular situations, so a certain number of socially inappropriate, say laviscious thoughts, are normal, and it would be superogatory to beat yourself up about them. Labnut’s comment about revealing these to others is interesting only in the sense of the old joke – “I’m so protective of my daughter because I know exactly how young men like you think…”

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  31. Privacy, the moral gap and hypocrisy.

    We all have moral shortcomings and many are internally aware of their moral shortcomings. Repugnant thoughts are the suppressed expression of our moral shortcomings that we dare not reveal to public scrutiny. Because of our acute need to manage our reputation we present ourselves as we think we should be and and hide our moral shortcomings. This moral gap is a form of hypocrisy. But then hypocrisy is a deadly social sin and we dare not admit it. We conceal our hypocrisy by concealing our thoughts and thus maintaining our reputation.

    We also need to maintain our self-esteem and thus we deny our hypocrisy to ourselves, making us guilty of double hypocrisy(a form of double jeopardy). The high cost of admitting our own hypocrisy makes us resort to rationalisation by denying the wrongness of our own thoughts. This internal hypocrisy weakens our moral fabric.

    The Catholic Church has a surprisingly useful way of dealing with this, through the practice of Confession.
    1. It begins with an open acknowledgement that we are all morally imperfect(we are ‘sinners’, subject to ‘temptation’),
    2. a commitment to becoming a better moral person(the Church holds up a tangible example of moral perfection),
    3. an internal examination of our moral shortcomings (consult our ‘conscience’),
    4. recount our shortcomings to a third party(the priest) and thus ending our hypocrisy (‘confession’),
    5. admit our regret for our moral wrongs (‘contrition’),
    6. resolve not to repeat our moral wrongs (‘repentance’).
    As the old saw goes – wash, rinse, dry, repeat, …. ,

    A psychologist would tell you that this periodic self examination, with the intent of moral self-improvement, is a very healthy practice, even if you do not subscribe to its theist underpinnings. Importantly, it ends that most damaging thing of all, internal hypocrisy, and replaces it with a striving towards moral perfection(becoming a ‘saint’).

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  32. Hi Robin,

    Perhaps my reply below will help with what I’m getting at here. Regardless, I simply don’t find it useful to answer whether or not thoughts in themselves can be “immoral,” without a provided definition for the term. It seems to me that this will or won’t be immoral, based upon the definition that’s used.

    Hi Dantip,

    I must say I am a bit puzzled by your use of the term “qualia.” This is a technical term in philosophy of mind that refers simply to the “what its like” to undergo a certain experience. There is something its like to taste coffee, or to smell oranges. You seem to have a different usage in mind, though?

    Well not really, since the “what it’s like” is exactly what I’m referring to. A computer might chemically analyse the air and identify the presence of coffee, but presumably without any associated qualia. Furthermore we presume existence to be perfectly inconsequential to the computer, specifically given that we presume it to experience no qualia. So apparently it’s this “what it’s like” stuff, the taste of coffee, or broad things such as pain, hunger, jealousy, love, regret, curiosity and so on, which constitute good/bad existence for you and I.

    Regardless my question was, do you find it useful to define “morality” such that it’s entirely a product of our empathy and theory of mind forms of qualia? On the empathy side, without such qualia you would be able to do utterly horrible things to others, but feel absolutely nothing about doing so, and quite regardless of their screams for mercy and such. Then on the theory of mind side, without this qualia you could think that others are thinking horrible/wonderful things about you, but without feeling bad/good about this at all. Here you would never experience the qualia of “respect,” or “humiliation.” It seems to me that a person without either form of qualia, would not function with the moral dynamic that we’re discussing. Nevertheless, this is simply one definition for the term, and all definitions are arbitrary tools. So shall I use this one to answer your question, or rather a different one?

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  33. I’m with Dan K on this, I don’t recognize any of your intuitions. It struck me as a case of intellectually rejecting Divine Command Theory while retaining the feeling of Divine Command Theory. The closest I can really come in my personal experience is when I’m trying to change a bad habit, say eating junk food, but my mind wanders and thinks about junk food. I don’t feel it as a moral failing, but there is definitely frustration due to the fact that thinking about junk food makes it harder to avoid.

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  34. Thanks for your reply, Dan T. I hope your situation at home has improved.

    You remark in your response to me:

    “I had trouble seeing exactly what you were getting at with your comment, but I feel like there is something particularly valuable in it. Could you restate it in different words for me?”

    And, you know, I thought the same about my comment when I reread it. 🙂 But other commentators have done a better job of expressing some of what I wanted to say. In the last paragraph, you write: “We clearly do think that having certain thoughts is morally wrong simply in virtue of having those thoughts . . . .” But I’m not certain that you have made a clear case for this conclusion. Nor am I entirely satisfied with what follows: “we lack an ability to explain or justify why we feel this way . . . .”

    Actually, when you explore some of the moral theories, you are in fact providing assorted justifications. The question is whether any of them taken alone is satisfactory in consistently moving across the is/ought divide. This is why I earlier expressed reservations about the problematic nature of “intuition–moral or otherwise” and introduced the subject of priors. Look at your third example differently. What if, instead of wishing for the death of your antagonist, you confided that he must be going through some trying times and you hoped he worked them out. Is your response now morally laudable? Is one response more justified than the other? And what is it that makes this a matter of morality? To my mind you are drawing on certain priors to frame what is an acceptable thought/response in this situation.

    Or consider this: You say or do something and your significant other responds, “Oh, you make me so mad I could gouge your eyes out!” Wouldn’t it suffice to conclude that you’ve–maybe unwittingly–provoked her to indulge in hyperbole? After all, she hasn’t actually gouged your eyes out. Yet.

    Part of the problem here, I think, is the manner in which you frame and limit the notion of “thought.” You implicitly assume a moral perspective where none may exist. For example, you write, “It wasn’t just that acting on certain thoughts or ruminating on them for too long was bad . . . .” And later add: “To me, this means simply holding the thought in mind, without endorsing it, rejecting it, or evaluating it.”

    It is not at all clear to me how one “entertains” a thought without at some point “evaluating” it within a framework, be it moralistic or a matter of practicality, especially in light of the implications of studies in cognitive theory, and especially when you apparently remove outlier examples like obsessive-compulsive disorders or worse from this thought experiment. It would seem that the outliers do suggest a weakness in concluding that a random or repeated thought pattern can be characterized as “good/bad” simply on one’s prior convictions. One might simply argue from the vantage of what is functional or dysfunctional, helpful or unhelpful instead of unnecessarily assuming an inherently moral/ethical content.

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  35. Hi Labnut, I have always found the concept of confession intriguing. It seems like an early form of psychological counseling, using a wood box instead of a more comfortable couch. It is one of the practices I like about Catholicism since it offers a sort of relief valve, though how it is handled does invite some hypocrisy in how one lives and moralizes against others (of course people shouldn’t moralize against others!).

    But my main problem with it (as differentiated from counseling) is indicated by the phrase you used: moral shortcomings. There is a lot that is required to be confessed that to my mind has nothing to do with shortcomings. It seems that simply being sexual puts one in the doghouse (fantasy, masturbation), and being contrary to mainstream sexual appetites is even worse (homosexuality, nonmonogamous). Much of this seems to be apologizing for the way one is, rather than learning how to actually work with who one is.

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  36. “When a thought lingers within a man, this indicates his attachment to it; but when it is quickly destroyed, this signifies his opposition and hostility to it.”

    St. Mark the Ascetic
    On Those Who Think They Are
    Made Righteous by Works (89)
    Philokalia

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  37. Robin Herbert made an excellent observation to me over at Plato’s Footnote (found here: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/platos-suggestions-3/comment-page-2/#comment-692) which may help convey my message. It was essentially that the normal concept of theory of mind, doesn’t inherently concern qualia. As he said, “You can have a full set of functioning ToM skills and not give a toss what others think of you.” Quite right!

    I’ve lived with my own models and definitions for such a long time, that I really should tend them better while in public. Perhaps this does also help explain why Dantip thought I might have been using a nonstandard definition for “qualia” (which I believe my last comment did sufficiently address to the contrary).

    No, I’m not bonding theory of mind itself with morality. Rather I’m saying that if there does happen to be any qualia associated with what a given person thinks others are thinking about him/her, then it would seem useful for this to be included as part of his/her “morality.” For example, given the passions associated with our community here, I would guess that every one of us does give more than a toss about how we are thought of — with associated behavioral implications.

    My question remains. If a person had no ToM qualia, as well as no empathy, does it seem useful to say that he/she would have no moral driver? What else might usefully be included? Observe how well this definition does conform with the “intuition” condition that Daniel Kaufman proposed a month ago (post found here: https://theelectricagora.com/2015/09/21/intuition-and-morals/). Furthermore note that my definition references a sociological aspect of our behavior exclusively, not what’s “actually” good/bad for us. As he mentioned, “…[it] is folly to think that a moral theory can provide some sort of mechanical way of assuring a correct answer.”

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  38. Dantip,
    sorry for being late to this game; but the truth is that, both as a Buddhist and a Pragmatist, I don’t believe we ‘own’ our thoughts at all. Thoughts are generated by electrochemical activity in the brain, responding to previous experiences. There is no reason to claim them as ‘mine,’ any more than I can claim that what I see is somehow generated by my eyes. The sun rises, the sun sets – have I control over seeing this? Thoughts about neighbors, or employment, or politics – is any of this ‘me’?

    “Me’ is just an existential convenience; thus and thought ‘me’ entertains is simply that fiction re-investing itself in its own existence.

    Problems arise when people think they own their thoughts, and that such ownership requires action. What a waste of time!

    There are no ‘good’ thoughts, and none ‘bad.’ There are physiological responses that demand ‘I’ respond to ‘my’ thoughts, and there is recognition that all thought is, on one level or other, simply what passes through a brain too enamored of itself and needing practice to learn otherwise.

    (Also, as someone who has written a bit of fiction as a hobby, I should note that good fiction writers need to think unthinkable thoughts, if they are to get to the truth of their characters. Dostoyevsky wrote brilliantly – from the inside – of murders, as did Poe. Neither committed murder, as far as I know. They didn’t have to – they knew their fictions were just that. All our thoughts are fictions, sometimes useful to act upon, sometimes not. It is misguided to believe otherwise.)

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  39. Hi Dan,

    Nice piece, and lots of interesting comments.

    As Dan K mentioned Judaism moves the bar ‘forward’, a saner social policy as far as I can tell.

    I can look at the transition from the precursors of having a thought to the having of that thought in the same way that I can look at the precursors of a behavior to carrying out that behavior, but the latter appears to me as a much less complex and more ‘visible’ process so a better place to exact social vigilance.

    At the individual level it gets more interesting!

    Some loose thoughts

    Thoughts occur, good or bad, like a smile or a pimple on my cheek. I can think like I can walk, I can articulate quietly, a process of reasoning or discovery. I can think like a rehearsal, like a preparation to say or do. I can step back a bit, I can be startled, passive, pleased …

    And then there’s emotions (and everything else).

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  40. Dan-T
    I will likely raise many of the points made in this discussion in my class on Thursday, so thanks a lot!

    Was there a useful/interesting outcome on Thursday?

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  41. Thanks for this fairly clear statement of the question. Here’s some of my thoughts about it.

    I want to explore two things which stood out for me and which should not, in my view, merely be accepted. First, the idea of conflating ‘having’ a thought with ‘entertaining’ a thought. The degree of involvement or participation with a thought is not morally meaningless. I also went through Catholic schooling and eventually rejected most of it, but I never got the feeling that merely ‘having’ a bad thought was sinful. I think this is even built into the catechismal language. Consider for example the usual 9th and 10th deontological commandments:

    9) Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods
    10) Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife

    The verb covet carries an inherently obsessive quality; it happens repeatedly over time, is even savored. It goes far beyond just popping into your head. (All this despite the fact that these are strictly O.T. injunctions carrying the ‘telos’ of preparing a suitable vehicle 40 or so generations on for the Messiah incarnation — still it illustrates the point.) Virtue Ethics (VE) conveys the idea, moreso than Kant or Consequentialism, that deliberately cultivating a habitual practice will of itself deepen one’s ability to weigh the moral flavor of a choice in the moment. I’d contend that this character building practice also has the side effect of beginning to mitigate against unwanted thoughts.

    Bringing me to the second point: your remark about not being able to control what pops into your head. This is true, maybe for many, without inner work. But it needs to be said that most inner work paradigms have as a bedrock aim altering this status. Rampant uncontrolled thought association is the first thing most contemporary and traditional mindfulness practice is seeking to obliterate. Here too, VE is the better approach, for it places the responsibility and agency directly within for sensing how balanced one’s deeds and thoughts are in relation to some specific virtue, while promising improvement over time with continued effort. Regardless of how practiced one’s thought control is, what matters after we ‘have’ a thought is how we ‘entertain’ or dispose of it.

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  42. Hi Labnut,

    Yes a couple of things came out in class which were helpful.

    For one, my instructor mentioned to me that he has found the intuition is much easier to get if, instead of asking “is having certain thoughts wrong?” one asks “is person x a worse person than y for having such thoughts, all other things being equal?”

    I think he rightly is pointing out that terms such as “wrong” or “right” carry a bit too much baggage to make it easy to get an intuition going about the moral status of having certain thoughts.

    We also mentioned far more types of thoughts that might be candidates for making someone a better or worse person. Perhaps someone takes pleasure in another’s pain (without this happening many times), or feels displeased when another person is successful.

    Hi Stolzyblog,

    ” First, the idea of conflating ‘having’ a thought with ‘entertaining’ a thought. The degree of involvement or participation with a thought is not morally meaningless.”
    ________________________________________________________________

    I was “conflating” the two terms merely for convenience, not to say that one couldn’t draw a distinction between the two. I was indicating that for the purposes of my post here, I would be using the two interchangeably to refer to “holding the thought in mind, without endorsing it, rejecting it, or evaluating it (feeling good or bad about the thought).”

    “The verb covet carries an inherently obsessive quality; it happens repeatedly over time, is even savored. It goes far beyond just popping into your head”
    ________________________________________________________________

    Maybe, but I at least learned that things like lust, for example, were sins in vitrue of happening in an isolated instance. It wasn’t necessary that you have repeated instances of lustful thoughts in some obsessive manner in order to be counted as having sinful lustful thoughts.

    “Bringing me to the second point: your remark about not being able to control what pops into your head. This is true, maybe for many, without inner work. But it needs to be said that most inner work paradigms have as a bedrock aim altering this status.”
    ________________________________________________________________

    Very nice insight, though I am unsure what it contributes to the issue at hand. It doesn’t seem that most of us (even practiced and learned mindfulness experts) have the right kind of relationship with our thoughts to fall into morally relevant sense of “can” in the ought implies can principle. Even the most practiced experts can’t control their thoughts in the same way or with the same level of guidance that we can control our actions, for example.

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