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Monday, April 06, 2009


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This reminds me of what Malcolm Uggerridge once said '“How do I know pornography depraves and corrupts? It depraves and corrupts me.”
Ideas have consequences.

Muggeridge. If memory serves, "ideas have consequences" is the title of a book by Richard Weaver, another author well worth reading.

The anonymous correspondent wishes to recant.

I believe that particularly the argument in section 1 is conclusive in condemning morally the habits of indulging lustful and violent fantasies. Repetitive fantasies become rehearsals and preparations for acting out the misconduct they savor. Repetitive fantasies are depraving in the old sense of obliterating the natural repulsion (shame) we should in contemplating such behaviour. Repetitive fantasies take us to the brink of acting out, with the foolish confidence that our self-control will surely stop us. The man of perfect self-control can say “no fantasies will prompt me to disgraceful action”, but what is a man of perfect self-control doing indulging in violent and illicit sexual fantasies? There are no men of perfect self-control, and indulging in these fantasies is taking us way too close to the edge. Whatever increases significantly the probability that we will fall into “vicious” conduct must itself be accounted morally objectionable.

If we agree that lecherous and violent fantasies are morally objectionable, aren’t we drawn to the next step that whatever induces and fuels such fantasies is also morally objectionable? There is plenty of evidence that pornogarphy and extremely violent movies & games provoke such fantasies, especially in impressionable young people but also in people of all ages. So, unless a case can be made that there is also some unknown and counterbalancing greater good that comes from experiencing the pornographic and violent, we inherit a strong argument for censoring such material. Just as we feel it is right to protect our fellow citizens from bad food and drugs, we should not hesitate to protect them from influences that do nothing but increase the probability they will turn into depraved, vice-ridden criminals. I understand that the devil is in the details with a policy of censorship. We must do it with judgment and discrimination, but above all we must do it! The present system of virtually no controls has lead us to the moral nadir in which we find ourselves. Or perhaps I am too pessimistic?

With respect to the fourth argument above, I would like to offer a somewhat oblique comment. I believe there is a dereliction and a harm involved with wallowing in base thoughts, though not one involved with a Kantian duty to self (which I have never understood).

I believe I have to duty to my family to be a good husband and father. I believe I have a duty to my community to be a good citizen & neighbor. I believe I have a duty to my students to be an upright and virtuous representative of the profession I have chosen to follow. These are all roles I have elected and it is my duty to play them well. Vice, even a controlled and suppressed longing for vice, compromises these roles utterly. If others do not, I must convict myself of hypocrisy for harboring vices while trying to represent myself an example of good conduct. What kind of teacher of ethics can I be if I harbor thoughts of gross infidelities with my students!

Shame is a very powerful emotion for many people, stronger than any desires or fears. People will willingly die rather than do something they think shameful or disgraceful. We should never lose our sense of shame as a guide to living. But this is just the baneful effect of indulging in lecherous or violent or otherwise immoral fantasies. We become shameless and so capable of anything: cheating people, abusing helpless people, deserting people who depend upon us. Just the thought of doing these things, or becoming involved with them in some way, is intensely painful to a person with an uncorrupted sense of shame. There is nothing that can compel him, and he will do anything he can, to avoid these circumstances.

The soldier who shoots himself to avoid line service is a coward and he knows it. The man who allows himself to become shameless and corrupt has invalidated himself out of the roles he has taken upon himself. He is derelict & blameworthy for letting this happen.


Thanks for the fine comments. Your response refutes the notion that no one ever modifies his views under dialectical pressure.

As for the "next step," yes I think we should take it, despite its leading us into some free speech minefields. Think of the prgression: Esquire, pre-pubic hair Playboy, post-pubic hair Playboy, Hustler and beyond. At some point censorship must be seriously considered despite the extremism of ACLU-type defenders of 'free speech.' I don't quite get what feeding naked women into meatgrinders has to do with free speeech in any defensible sense.

I agree entirely with your assessment. We are in trouble as a culture. Our mass media is becoming an open sewer. Comparisons with ancient Rome are tricky and best left to classicists and historians, but I am not optimistic. Before our deaths we might find ourselves living under the control of the Chicoms or Islamofascists. The latter in particular believe in something beyond their own immediate gratification, and they are for that reason alone a formidable opponent. And you can't expect any help fromthe Left in fighting them. They are too busy tearing down Christianity which in their strange view is the real threat.

Cf. Pruss on this stuff http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2008/07/more-on-evil-thoughts.html


Thanks for the link.


I'll post something on Kant on duties to oneself.

I realize that Kant is the most popular advocate of a "duty to oneself," but he is hardly original in this insight. Traditional Christianity has always maintained that man is not his own and therefore is not absolutely autonomous (Kant is wrong here). Man's actions, thoughts, and words, then, cannot be solely morally evaluated in their social context. I think instead of calling it a duty to oneself, which carries all the baggage of Kantian Duty to Reason, a better term would be love for oneself.

"I believe I have to duty to my family to be a good husband and father. I believe I have a duty to my community to be a good citizen & neighbor. I believe I have a duty to my students to be an upright and virtuous representative of the profession I have chosen to follow. These are all roles I have elected and it is my duty to play them well. Vice, even a controlled and suppressed longing for vice, compromises these roles utterly. If others do not, I must convict myself of hypocrisy for harboring vices while trying to represent myself an example of good conduct. What kind of teacher of ethics can I be if I harbor thoughts of gross infidelities with my students!"

Philoponus, I think you have struck at the heart of the difference between Kantian ethics and traditional ethics. Any Kantian moral maxim must be rationally deduced from a strictly universal perspective. Your examples, alternatively, arise out of your particular circumstances. They cannot be rationally deduced and universally and objectively applied to all rational beings at all times. When speaking of duty, Cicero is much closer to the truth of the matter than any modern philosopher.

Finally, Bill, this is an excellent post. The distinction between simply having certain thoughts and consciously entertaining them is what, I think, makes all the difference in terms of moral culpability. I also think that dispositions are of paramount importance. Despite what modern moral philosophers say, most people would probably rather leave their daughter in the care of a man with good dispositions (i.e. virtuous) than a man who was constantly entertaining or even struggling with thought of child rape yet rationally disciplined himself into continence.

"As a man thinketh, so is he"

I agree with Bill this time. If it is true that nothing is wrong unless it actually affects someone, then failed attempts at immoral actions cannot be counted as wrong. Clearly, that is absurd.

Consider, also, that we don't think an action is wrong unless there is some inner state of organization connected with the action. A person who kills while sleep walking, or while a brain tumor overrides his conscous thoughts is not likely held morally blameworthy (unless it can be shown that prior premeditations played a part.)

The intuitions behind Bill's argument are even stronger when we examine more extreme cases than marital infidelity. Suppose an agent is obsessively thinking about sadism or cruelty for pleasure. Who could say this is not indicative of moral disorder? One of the reasons I favor virtue ethics over other theories is because of its sensitivity to these issues.

That governments don't punish and should not be allowed to punish 'thought crimes' in no way entails that thoughts cannot be wrong. It merely acknowledges the epistemic limits of government, and the potentiality of abuse that is inevitably entailed by prosecution of .thought crime.'


Actually, Kant does not maintain that man is absolutely autonomous since he does endorse the trad. Xian argument against suicide acc. to which our bodies are God's property not ours to dispose of as we wish. (Lectures on Ethics, 153-154)

Yes, dispositions are important even though they make sense only within an Aristotelian metaphysics. There are many difficult issues here. For Kant, the only thing unqualifiedly good is a good will. That seems to imply that one who does good easily from a good disposition is not ipso facto morally good -- something Aristotle would disagree with. But Kant seems close to the Stoics for whom the only good is moral good, the good that one freely chooses.

Great post -- I would add an additional argument.

Since the thought of sexuality is itself a sexual outlet (anyone deny this?), then thinking about sex with other women actually harms our sexual relationship with our wives. Premise: We don't have an infinite supply of personal sexuality, so if we "spend" it on someone else (even in our thoughts), then we're not "spending" it on our spouse, which actually does harm by decreasing the intimacy that would have otherwise been possible within marriage.

Another way to approach this is to affirm that thoughts ALWAYS have a relationship with reality (not just the potentiality to do so) -- sometimes directly, but often indirectly, in unexpected and unplanned ways. Our thoughts shape both our conscious actions AND our subconscious actions and reactions to real events in life. In this case, our thoughts shape our relationship with our wife, by taking away some of the sexuality that should have been reserved for her.

Spencer writes, "If it is true that nothing is wrong unless it actually affects someone, then failed attempts at immoral actions cannot be counted as wrong. Clearly, that is absurd." Good point. I agree with the other points as well.


You make some good points too. Mere thoughts use energy and take time and in this way leave less energy and time for physical actions and speech acts.

Here's a thought experiment.

Suppose a shipwreck lands two men on different (deserted) islands, and suppose that both men believe that they'll never be rescued. Both had, prior to the shipwreck, led lives that we would (roughly) judge as morally equivalent. Both had been effectively fighting and suppressing pedophilic and murderous desires that were both numerous and intense. After they are stranded, however, they both undergo changes. The first man finds that his solitary existence brings him closer to god. His old desires weaken and ultimately cease, and are replaced by new desires -- to know god, to help others (even though he believes he'll never be rescued and given the opportunity to help others, he genuinely desires to help others), etc. The second man, however, concludes that his time alone on the island presents him with the perfect opportunity to give in entirely to his previously fought desires without fear of consequences (both to himself and others), so he stops suppressing them and begins to indulge in ever more extreme pedophilic and murderous fantasies.

Neither man ever harms another person in any way, and, since they both believe that they'll never be rescued, neither man ever intends to harm another person. They both live the same life externally (gathering food, building and repairing shelters, resting, etc.) on their respective islands; only their internal lives differ. Would anyone honestly conclude that both were still roughly equivalent morally?

I think we should bring up a distinction between aretaic evaluations and normative "action" evaluations. In the above thought experiment, the two men differ in terms of their moral character, which is an aretaic evaluation. Eric leaves the question of their moral equivalence ambiguous since we do not know the manner of evaluation he has in mind. Now, there are moral philosophies out there that concern themselves with the level of moral analysis at the level of action. These theories are not equipped to deal with thinking apart from action, so it makes sense to think that neither man "has done anything wrong".

Bill also doesn't give us the conceptual schema of where he is deriving rightness and wrongness. Given that, we do not know how to conceptualize the evaluative judgments. I think Bill's thoughts make sense ONLY in a virtue ethical tradition where aretaic evaluation is given normative force.

"Eric leaves the question of their moral equivalence ambiguous since we do not know the manner of evaluation he has in mind."

Hi J. Edward Hackett

I was trying to keep the manner of evaluation vague to bring out our intuitions (which need not be right, of course) concerning the moral status of the two men. For example, while it's the case that, as you say, some theories "are not equipped to deal with thinking apart from action," I think the thought experiment can at least test our intuitions about such theories to help us determine whether it is indeed the case that, given their framework, "it makes sense to think that neither man 'has done anything wrong'."

And again, my point is that the vagueness conceals a real distinction--a distinction that is overlooked by the framing of the question. Some normative theories try to accommodate aretaic evaluations, yet they are not the same as evaluative judgments of rightness and wrongness of actions. Virtue ethics for sure...also trait consequentialism etc.

I would maintain that the depiction of the problem is more nuanced than the thought experiment allows. Sure, it can hone our intuitions, but the point is for me to keep around the best intuitions.

I believe Bill and I agree that it is morally wrong for me to relish evil fantasies because such thoughts contribute in no small way to the likelihood that I will eventually act out these evil fantasies. The amount of self-control people have varies, but fantasies of rape and mayhem and murder can only weaken that self-control. There is ample scientific evidence of a strong correlation between fantasies of criminal action and subsequent acting out.

If the proposition F = Bad Bob freely indulges in his evil fantasies, and A = Bad Bob subsequently acts out some of these evil fantasies, and ~A and ~F are the denials of A and F respectively, then we are saying that F is morally wrong because Prob [ A/F] > Prob [A/~F].

Suppose we modify Eric’s desert island case to stipulate that Bad Bob is someone who will never be in contact with human beings or any sentient life again. Maybe we exile Bob on a one-way rocket to an exoplanet. Maybe we do something else to Bob. The details don’t matter since we are stipulating no possible future contact. Then it follows, does it not, that Prob [A/F] = Prob [A/ ~F] = 0? So we have lost the rationale just offered for morally condemning Bad Bob’s evil thinking.

But are there other grounds for condemning Bad Bob’s evil fantasies in this situation? Possibly. Eric makes his good desert island twin a God-fearing man. If there is a God, then no matter where we put Bad Bob in the universe, he has an on-going relationship to God. Wherever he is, Bob ought to live as God wishes him to live. So perhaps we can say Bad Bob has a moral duty to live in a godly fashion?

I don’t know whether we can have moral duties to God, but I mention the possibility. The other possibility—and the reason for this comment—is that we might say that Bad Bob has moral duties to himself and that he has become grossly derelict in these because of his vicious fantasies. So then we come again to the difficult issues of duties to self, and Kant’s arguments on this topic become more interesting.

“Thou Shall Not Think Evil”

Bill has given several arguments (I counted five) that aim to support the conclusion that thoughts are subject to moral scrutiny and that some thoughts can be said to be evil in a moral sense. In this post I will evaluate Bill’s arguments but also render a tentative judgment about his conclusion. In order to do so, I will first introduce certain principles that will assist in assessing Bill’s arguments.

The Principles.
(P1) Ought implies can.
(P2) Some things are morally wrong inherently while others are wrong not inherently but because of their consequences.
(EPP) If an entity has the potentiality to become such-and-such at time t, then this potentiality rules out its actually being such-and-such at t.
(EEPP) If an entity is potentially such-and-such at t, then this fact rules out not merely that it is actually such-and-such at t; it also rules out that the entity in question possesses at t any of the properties in virtue of which something is a such-and-such.
Note: (P1) is a Kantian principle that I am assuming we all accept. (P2) is a principle that I am sure Bill accepts, even if others do not. (EPP) is a principle introduced in the previous life of the Maverick Philosopher site. Bill accepts this principle. (EEPP) was introduced together with (EPP); Bill rejects (EPP) and we still need to sort out its truth.

1) There is a systematic ambiguity throughout Bill’s thoughts about thoughts between
(a) Ascribing moral wrongness to a *person* on the grounds that the person has certain kind of thoughts;
(b) Ascribing moral wrongness to the *thought* itself.
Now, if thoughts are not subject to our will; if we cannot choose our thoughts; then virtually all of Bill’s arguments interpreted along the lines of (a) fall prey to principle (P1). i.e., if it is not possible for me to resist having certain thoughts, desires, fantasies, etc, then it is not the case that I ought to do so. And if it is not the case that I ought to do so, then it is not the case that having such thoughts is sufficient grounds for moral blame.
Someone might object: we frequently find people culpable for failing to take suitable measures in order to avoid certain types of actions or habits. Why can’t we find people culpable for not taking suitable measures in order to avoid having certain thoughts?
However, even if we are willing to extend moral culpability to failing to take suitable measures to avoid having certain kind of thoughts, the moral lacking is not pinned on having certain thoughts but rather on the failure to take suitable measure to prevent or minimize their occurrence. Therefore, if having certain thoughts is not subject to our choice, then we cannot be held morally culpable when we do have them, although we may be held morally responsible for not taking adequate measures to avoid having them.
But, someone might ask: why should we condemn people who fail to take suitable measures to avoid certain kind of thoughts unless these thoughts are evil? This question takes us to (b): Can certain kind of thoughts be subject to moral scrutiny? Are some thoughts evil?

2) Mental acts may be subject to moral scrutiny (and said to be morally wrong) for two reasons: either because of their consequences or because of their content. Let us consider each reason in turn.

2.1) Consequences: If someone desires to murder another and acts upon such a desire, then the act is morally wrong and so is the desire. The act is morally wrong because it harms another without moral justification. The desire is morally wrong because it was the principal cause for undertaking the action. So in these cases the desire to murder someone is subject to moral scrutiny because its causal link to a wrong action. It inherits the property of moral wrongness from the moral wrongness of its consequences.

2.2) Content: But, now, suppose someone has the wish that a certain person should befall a horrible death. Suppose they never do anything to fulfill this wish or suppose they cannot possibly do anything to fulfill this wish. e.g., I sometimes wish that Hitler would have experienced a terrible death instead of the one that actually befallen him. Of course, I cannot even try to fulfill this wish for obvious reasons. Still, it is not inappropriate to call such a wish evil. But in what sense is this wish evil? In this case we look at the *content* of the wish and not its consequences (there are no consequences for others except perhaps to myself). The content of this wish corresponds to a kind of state of affairs that we normally deem evil. So this wish is said to be wrong in a derivative sense. We frequently say things such as this: “this painting, movie, book is evil” meaning that the painting, movie, and book depicts or contain evil content. In such cases we do not morally condemn the painting, movie, or book: we do not *prescribe*; we *describe*. Similarly, when we say that a wish, desire, hope, or other thoughts are evil we use the term ‘evil’ to describe the content of such thoughts; we do not use this or cognate morally loaded terms to express a moral judgment about entertaining such a wish, desire, hope, or thought. It is important not to conflate the *descriptive* uses of moral terms such as ‘evil’ and their *prescriptive* or *judgmental* uses.

2.3) One of Bills argument that *mere thoughts* independently from their consequences can be said to be evil is this:

“ We do call certain mere thoughts evil. Thus we apply 'evil' not only to the act of killing a baby for fun but also to the mere thought of killing a baby for fun. Is this mere equivocation as in the case of 'bank' in 'money bank' and 'river bank'? Obviously not. It is more like the analogical use of 'unhealthy' in 'unhealthy diet' and 'unhealthy animal.' “

Bill maintains that the two uses of the term ‘evil’ above are not instances of literal equivocation between two different senses of ‘evil’ exemplified by the familiar case of the word ‘bank’. He is right. The above case does not exhibit literal equivocation. Instead, the two uses of ‘evil’ above exhibit two different performative uses: when the term ‘evil’ applies to the act of killing a baby for fun we use it in the prescriptive or judgmental sense. When the term is applied to the mere thought, then the term is used descriptively; namely, to describe the content of the thought. But, then, Bill’s conclusion that the term ‘evil’ as applied to mere thoughts proves that mere thoughts can be evil just like acts can does not follow.

3) The argument from Potentiality/Probability (here we go again!):
“if the deed is morally wrong, and the (nonjocose) verbal threat of the deed is morally wrong, then it is difficult to see why the rehearsal and mental elaboration of the deed in thought should not also be considered morally wrong given the fact that such rehearsal and elaboration raise the probability of an enactment.”

3.1) Bill is considering here cases where the thought is causally inert. He finds it difficult to imagine how we can deny that such thoughts are evil, in the prescriptive sense, given that they have the potential to, and increase the probability of, enacting the evil act entertained in thought. But, surely, my wish or fantasy that Hitler should have died a horrible death instead of the one actually befallen to him does not have the potential to enact the fantasy on Hitler himself and the probability that I should act on this wish is zero. So if the grounds on the basis of which we ascribe this wish the moral characteristic of being evil is its potential to bring about a reenactment of the wish or increases the probability of such a reenactment, then at least in this case neither conditions can be satisfied.

3.2) But there is a deeper issue lurking here. The potentiality version of Bill’s argument requires a premise that is very controversial. The premise required is that every mental act that has the potential to bring about morally wrong actions is in virtue of this potential itself morally wrong. Bill has advanced a similar principle regarding the issue of abortion and I have introduced two principles (EPP) and (EEPP) above to counter this argument. The very same principles apply in this case. Suppose that we have a causally inert thought that is identical in content to a causally efficacious thought that caused a morally wrong act. Bill will argue that such a thought, despite being causally inert, nevertheless, has the *potential* to bring about the wrong action. Suppose we agree, at least in a certain class of cases. Now, Bill further maintains that this potential provides grounds for attributing the very same moral property of wrongness to this causally inert thought merely in virtue of this potential. I deny this last step. And the reason I deny this last step is because I maintain that it is part of our concept of *potential* that the very fact that something has the potential to bring about an evil act at t rules out not only that it actually brings about an evil act at t but it also rules out that this something will already feature at t the properties in virtue of which an evil act is evil.
3.3) Bill denies EEPP in the manner I understand it. And so once again Bill and I are on the opposite sides of the notion of potentiality.

3.4) The version of this argument that employs probability is even less convincing. First, surely the claim that mere-thoughts of a certain kind increase the probability of enactment is not a conceptual claim. It therefore must be an empirical claim. But how does Bill know that mere-thoughts increase the probability of enactment? And even if they do, how does Bill know that suppressing mere-thoughts of a certain kind does not result in harm that exceeds the harm of enactment? Once we enter the empirical domain many different scenarios and hypotheses need to be balanced against each other before we are entitled to make any conclusive claims about this issue.

Conclusion: I have not reviewed all five arguments Bill gave, but I think the ones I have reviewed can offer a blueprint for the rest. I have serious doubts that Bill’s arguments as here presented show that mere-thoughts are evil in the prescriptive sense. Moreover, I think that the eleventh commandment “Thou shall not think evil” Bill appears to propose must be carefully evaluated in terms of its conceptual as well as potential empirical consequences.



A superb essay! I’m sure Bill in premeditating a rigorous response to it. In the meantime, may I nibble at one point?

Re your 3.1. You say your fantasy about torturing Hitler has no potential to be acted out. For sure. But think about this. Serial rapists sometimes begin their careers by fantasying about attacking famous actresses. Jane Mansfield cannot be sexually assaulted now, but women who look and act like her can. Fueled by their Jane Mansfield fantasies, rapists begin to hunt for women who resemble her.

Your fantasy about torturing Hitler is evil (if it is) not because it endangers Hitler, but because it turns you into a willing torturer of those who you decide are sufficiently like Hitler, or perhaps of those who you believe may become the new Hitlers of the 21st century. I see the genesis of a sadist assassin in someone obsessed with these thoughts. Once you become enamored of torturing someone wicked, you will eventually find some living person who “deserves” to be tortured.

Two more nibbles, Peter, if I may.

Re your 3.4. It certainly is an empirical/ scientific issue that repeated fantasizing about sexual & other violent crimes increases the probability of one engaging in those behaviours. But I think Bill and I are on solid grounds here. Should we trot out a long list of studies in criminal psychology? Is that necessary?

I don’t quite understand what you saying in (1b) about people being not being blameworthy/culpable if they cannot in the final analysis resist their evil thoughts. I think Frankfurt-style counterexamples apply in the realm of evil thoughts and desires. Maybe for whatever reason you must fail in the end to reject these desires, but if you don’t try and try hard and try often, I would hold you responsible for the evil fantasies that welcome and do not resist mightily. As a practical matter I don’t think we can or need to resolve the very difficult issue of what obsessive thinking you could have successfully resisted. What we need to know to excuse or not excuse is what efforts you actually made to resist. But maybe I misunderstand you here?


Excellent contribution. As I expected you to do, you noted the connections between this discussion and our earlier discussion of the Potentilaity Argument against the moral acceptability of abortion.

Since I am still working on that paper I mentioned, I don't have much time today to respond in full, but I will now address part of what you say. We agree on 'Ought implies Can.' But you seem to ignore my distinction between the mere occurrence of a thought and its rehearsal, elaboration, etc. I am not committed to saying that the mere occurrence of thoughts is under the control of the will. For example, Sam sees that a person has left her car running and has entered a convenience store. Sam thinks: 'I can easily steal that car.' That is an example of the mere occurrence of a thought. The thought is a mental ACT but not a mental ACTION, though its intentional object is a wrongful physical action. The mere occurrence of the thought is not under the control of Sam's will, but the elaboration of the thought is. He elaborates the thought by adding to it the desire to steal the car, a calculation as to how likely his success in stealing it would be, how exciting it would be, how much fun it would be to make off with a Ferrari, etc etc. Note that the elaboration includes some mental ACTIONS. The elaboration is under the control of the will. So the elaboration satisfies the Kantian principle. My point is that a certain small amount of moral wrongness attaches to Sam's elaboration of the thought in question. I don't see that you have refuted this idea.


You make a good point in your section 2.3 supra. To say of a thought that it is evil might only mean that the thought is of an evil deed. In that case, 'evil' merely describes the thought as having a certain content. From this it does not follow straightaway that the thought is prescriptively evil in the way the deed is. That would be an 'is'/ 'ought' confusion. So I admit that I muddied the water by bringing up the "ordinary language consideration."

You counted the above invalid argument as a fifth argument, but I said I only gave four arguments. That wasn't one of my arguments.

My point could be put as follows. The thought of raping a woman is evil in two senses: it is evil in the descriptive sense since it is a thought whose content is a prescriptively evil deed; but it is also itself prescriptively evil in that the harboring, and elaboration, and dwelling upon such a thought raises the probability of one's doing the deed. The deed, the verbal threat of the deed, and the mere thought of the deed are all of them prescriptively evil, though not to the same degree.

And note again that by the mere thought I do not mean the mere occurrence of the thought, but its harboring, elaboration, rehearsal, etc.

More tomorrow. But now: to bed as Samuel Pepys would say.


Thanks for your kind words.

1) I agree with your first point about transference. It is indeed an empirical fact that such cases occur. Hence, our discussion now must focus on the general question of probability. (I leave Bill's potentiality version to the side because Bill and I are at odds on this type of arguments and we still need to sort them out). What are the pertinent questions when the issue is reviewed in terms of probability? What are we looking for?

I wish to highlight here how precarious it is to rely upon studies in criminal psychology for our current purposes. What can such studies show? The variables researched in such studies are patterns of harboring, elaborating, and rehearsing certain thoughts and their corresponding actions. Suppose that researchers in certain studies find a correlation between these variables. I am willing to bet that no responsible researcher will conclude that there is a cause and effect relationship here. Why? Because any such claims require a certain research design that cannot be implemented in any of these cases.

So suppose we find studies about some correlation between patterns of thoughts and actions. What should we conclude about the question whether harboring, rehearsing, elaborating such thoughts increases the probability of enactment in the general population? Absolutely nothing! Why?

First, in order to make such claims a researcher will have to insure that no other factors contribute to the probability in question. In other words, probability claims of this sort must be stated relative to total information or total evidence. The claim is that the probability of enactment given a pattern of thoughts of a certain kind is P, given total evidence. But you can't get total evidence in such cases because you would have to consider a huge amount of factors that might contribute to the enactment given a pattern of thoughts. Even when considering merely correlations, this point looms large. For there could be a common-cause phenomenon going on here: i.e., abused when a child, for instance, causes violent behavior in adulthood and it also causes a certain pattern of thoughts. Hence, the correlation between the pattern of thoughts and the violent behavior. Other possible scenarios may be involved. For instance, you will have to rule out that the pattern of thoughts in question leads to enactment, but only if other psychologically relevant conditions obtain: e.g., a background of violent or criminal behavior, drug use, alcoholism, a history of being abused as a child, chronic depression, etc. The potential contribution of each of these factors and many others needs to be isolated, researched, and the findings need to be factored into the whole picture.

Second, even if one can somehow come up with the relevant information about the total information about the cases under study, you then need to compare the resulting probability with an alternative hypothesis; namely, what is the probability of even worst violent behavior when thoughts of the relevant kind are suppressed. For even if the hypothesis that the probability of enactment given certain patterns of thoughts is significant, this alone does not justify the conclusion that engaging in a pattern of certain kind of thoughts is worst, given the alternatives. You still need to compare the first probability with the probabilities of what happens in cases where these patterns of thought are suppressed. But, how are you going to research the probability of this second class of cases. And even if you can isolate the relevant population, it is far from clear that the conclusions will be favorable to the thesis that the probability of violent enactment is increased in the presence of a pattern of thoughts; perhaps, the results will show instead that the probability of violent behavior given a suppression of these thoughts is higher. Are you going to conclude then that harboring such thoughts is morally good?

2) In the later part of section 1 about which you inquire I make a distinction between blaming someone for having the thoughts in question vs. blaming them for not taking suitable measures to suppress them. If thoughts are involuntary, then having them cannot be morally scrutinized. But even then the person could be morally blamed for not attempting to suppress them. Under such conditions, however, we cannot infer that the thoughts themselves are prescriptively evil or that the person is morally blameworthy for having such thoughts, although they can be blamed for not undertaking measures to suppress them.



Let me now respond to your 3. 1. Again, I don't think you understand quite what I am saying. There is nothing wrong with the mere occurrence of a thought, any thought, even the thought of killing someone just to get his wallet. For the thought might arise without my willing it to arise. My point is that once it has arisen, once it is present to my mind, it becomes a legitimate object of moral evaluation, whether or not that particular thought is followed by a corresponding action.

I don't see the relevance of the Hitler case since I made it clear that I am referring to thoughts that do not, but could, lead to corresponding actions. No 'evil' thoughts in respect of Hitler could lead to actions in respect of the dictator.

Hi Peter,

All the things you say about the requirements for establishing a correlation scientifically are correct. But I believe there are ample studies in criminal psychology that meet or come very close to meeting these standards. I don’t think skepticism is a very defensible position here.

One thing, I would avoid like the plague trying to speak of cause and effect here. The relatioship between habits of thought and action is much too complex to fit any causal model I know of.

No doubt there are many contributing factors to violent crime. You mention alcoholism, drug use, depression, an abusive childhood and others. Many criminals have these conditions in their background, but a very small percentage of depressed alcoholics with an abusive childhood become violent criminals. Some other “triggers” are needed to turn troubled people into violent criminals. By contrast, pleasurable mental rehearsal is a very common factor, especially with some of the worst criminals, serial rapists and murderers. People like Ted Bundy are compulsive rehearsers. They begin with elaborate mental rehearsals of the attack they want to perform. At first they are anxious and uncomfortable because of everything that can go wrong, etc. But the more they plan and anticipate everything, the more pleasurable becomes the rehearsal. The next stage is several physical rehearsals of the crime. These in turn become more pleasurable. There is a kind of psychological build-up in pleasurable anticipation of the event. The attack becomes more and more attractive to them. This is a key part of their psychology.

Do you remember Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment? Raskolnikov’s pleasurable reheasals of his murder of Alena are terrifyingly real, almost a textbook view of the mind of someone becoming a psychopath. Dostoesky shows us the psychological process by which someone can become ready and able to murder. Pleasurable rehearsal and anticipation are key.

We all have murderous thoughts about doing in some bad people. The process arrests for most of us at the next step, where we actually think about how we would do it. That “rehearsal” provokes so much fear and shame and disgust that the whole process aborts at that point. But what if we have a warm & fuzzy feeling at the thought of doing a Lizzie Borden on our wicked neighbor? We go out to the garage and get an axe and have an intense feeling of pleasure as we handle it. That neighbor better move quickly while he can still do it in one piece.

Do I begin to persuade you, Peter, or am I missing your point here?


One further thought. We train ourselves for the virtue the same way as we train ourselves for vice. If I wish to become more courageous—or teach courage to my children—an excellent way to begin is reading stories of heroism. We don’t need to turn to fiction: the bios of many of the VC and CMH awardees are remarkable. So are the stories of the Carnegie Medal winners. We imagine ourselves in their situations. We feel fear, yes, but maybe also something else, something exhilarating and something like pride? We do this again and again, and our emotional response to these situations becomes more stable on the positive side, more enjoyable. We want to feel like the brave man feels risking his life to save his comrades. We then go out to look for real venues in which to actualize these pleasurable fantasies.

A revulsion to cowardice can be inculcated in the same way. Read Lord Jim and imagine yourself deserting the Patmos. Jim’s life becomes an inner nightmare after that one disgraceful act. Much better to have died in the storm, but not much of a story that way!

I don’t understand how someone can deny that this sort of inner training, repeated rehearsal in thought, is an important and effective part of he process of creating strong habits, virtuous or vicious.

Bill, Phil,

I wish to distinguish three theses:

(A) Single mere-thoughts that feature certain contents are immoral;
(B) Repeated mere-thoughts that feature certain contents are immoral;
(C) Thoughts with certain content that are an integral component of a pattern of violent or otherwise immoral behavior are themselves immoral (e.g., the Bundy case Phil cites).

Thesis (C) involves the kind of cases Phil has cited in his last couple of posts. I concede thesis (C). It appears that both Bill and Phil accept thesis (B). I am not convinced. I am uncertain whether Bill or Phil accept or reject (A).

We clearly disagree on thesis (B). The only viable argument on behalf of (B) is the probabilistic argument. For reasons that I have stated in a previous post, I am not convinced that a probabilistic argument would give credence to (B). First, I have stated previously some of the difficulties that confront an attempt to ground the probabilistic argument on psychological research. Now I will raise another question about the probabilistic argument. Any claims of probability will have to take into account a large number of people who have a pattern of thoughts with certain content without ever acting on them or having any violent or otherwise a pattern of immoral behavior. Given the enormous size of this population, the probabilities will be skewed against the claim that having even a pattern of such mere-thoughts increases the probability of enactment. It is for this reason that I am extremely skeptical of (B).

Moreover, the converse probabilistic hypothesis needs to be evaluated as well. For it could very well be that in a normal population without a history of violence having a pattern of mere-thoughts with certain content decreases the probability of performing the corresponding actions because having such thoughts suffices to release the psychological pressure to actually engage in the actions themselves.

Phil asks: “I don’t understand how someone can deny that this sort of inner training, repeated rehearsal in thought, is an important and effective part of the process of creating strong habits, virtuous or vicious.”

This question pertains to thesis (C). I do not deny thesis (C). However, let me point out that Bill’s original thesis was attractive, though provocative, precisely because it did not merely endorse the proposition that a pattern of thoughts that are induced for the purpose of and are an integral part of rehearsing and planning horrendous acts are immoral. My original understanding of Bill’s thesis was that it was intended to apply to cases of type (B) and even to cases covered by (A). Here is what Bill says in one of his responses to my posts:

“There is nothing wrong with the mere occurrence of a thought, any thought, even the thought of killing someone just to get his wallet. For the thought might arise without my willing it to arise. My point is that once it has arisen, once it is present to my mind, it becomes a legitimate object of moral evaluation, whether or not that particular thought is followed by a corresponding action.”

Unless I misunderstand what he intends to say here, Bill appears to endorse here thesis (A); i.e., that even a single mere-thought with certain content is “a legitimate object of moral evaluation” and the verdict of immorality. Notice that moral scrutiny applies to the thought, not the person (I suppose because, under the conditions specified, the person is shielded by the principle “ought implies can”). I, of course, have argued against this position in my first reply post. But I suggest that before we continue this debate let us be clear about which of the three theses (A), (B), (C) we endorse or reject.


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