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Tuesday, April 14, 2009


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I'm pretty sure Augustine thought it was possible to do something wrong while asleep--i.e., while dreaming. Ish Haji takes this up in chap. 14, Moral Appraisability (OUP, 1998). Related items in 'Involuntary Sins' R.M. Adams, Phil. Review (1985).

Martin Luther once claimed: "I can't stop the birds from flying into my hair, but I can keep them from making a nest there."

We must distinguish between the (spontaneous) occurrence of a thought with objectionable content and our reaction to that thought. The argument here has been that the latter, and not the former, is the proper subject of moral evaluation, and that in particular, even when our reaction does not involve any public behaviour, there is something morally wrong with welcoming and finding pleasure in objectionable fantasies.

All that seems correct and appealing, but I have one small worry. Let’s assume that Bob is experiencing some very violent fantasies about dealing with his odious neighbor and the neighbor’s bark-all-night-long hound. Bob (so far) is reacting appropriately to the fantasy: he is disturbed by them and rejects them. But the fantasies aren’t going away, and lately they begun to infect his dreams as well as his daydreams. What if anything should Bob do? I mean “should” both in reference to his mental health but also in a moral sense.

It could be argued that Bob has no further moral responsibility here, that he has done all he needs to do in rejecting them whenever they occur. Perhaps, but consider for a minute the question of where Bob’s fantasies are coming from. Not from the aether! They are surely creations and creatures of his subconscious. True, he didn’t intentionally conjure them up, but he did create them in his mind based on something. Suppose further that Bob’s nightly dose of TV includes plenty of very violent vigilante movies. Remember the Bronson Death Wish series? So now Bob, binging on these movies, begins to have daydreams and dreams of engaging in the same kind of mayhem against his neighbor. I wonder why?

I want to say that is not OK for Bob to be having these violent fantasies. The continuing occurrence of fantasies is bad, despite the fact that Bob so far continues to reject them. Granted, Bob does not deliberately choose to have these fantasies, but they seem self-inflicted, in no small part due his wretched diet of cinematic violence. Some people can take a diet of violent movies and be unaffected, other people like Bob can’t. They react badly to it: a pathology develops that is probably going to get worse rather than better unless it is treated. The natural untreated progression of Bob’s condition, keep in mind, is from fantasy to reality. Bob will start to act out.

I hold Bob responsible for continuing to have dangerous fantasies, when there are things he could do to rid himself of them. Turn off the TV violence. Read some moral philosophy. Meditate. See what the results are within a week or so. Yes?

Bill touches on precisely this issue in part 1 of his post when he speaks above thinking that may be under the "indirect control of my will." I hope he will forgive me a bit of frontrunning, but this is the issue that jumped out at me in the neat schema we are trying to develop about control and responsility. "indirect control" is going to be a hard notion to deploy, but we do seem to censure people for objectionable thinking that they did not conjure up willfully but could take steps to eliminate. Or so I fancy.


Thanks for those references. I recall a paper Harriet Baber read at the APA years ago entitled "Nocturnal Permissions." There was mention of Augustine and the question of the culpability of giving into sexual temptation while dreaming. I can't remember the details of Augustine or of Baber's paper, but here is a scenario: You are dreaming, you know you are dreaming, in the dream you are having illict sex, and you reason in the dream that, since it is only a dream, you may as well enjoy it, so you go ahead and ejaculate. You give nocturnal permission to an emissio nocturnis. In the light of day you see your nocturnal emission was not merely dreamt.


Sounds like the good doctor had quite a few bad hair days. Seriously, though, it is an apt simile.

Phil writes, "I hold Bob responsible for continuing to have dangerous fantasies, when there are things he could do to rid himself of them. Turn off the TV violence. Read some moral philosophy. Meditate. See what the results are within a week or so. Yes?"

I agree. This was what I was alluding to when I distinguished between thoughts under the direct control of the will and those under indirect control. Like you, I don't understand how a steady diet of cinematic violence could not have an effect on people, especially young and impressionable people, either by desensitizing them or by inclining them to have violent thoughts. Now we are moving one step further from Peter's position. For now the suggestion is that not only that the harboring but also the arisal (emergence) of certain thoughts is subject to moral evaluation.

Three categories: thoughts whose harboring is under the direct control of the will; thoughts whose arisal is under the indirect control of the will; thoughts whose arisal is not under the control of the will either directly or indirectly.

Now suppose Cain has a thought so envious that it is murderous: he contemplates murdering his brother, Abel. That might be an example of the third category. Next stop: Original Sin! There are different theories of OS -- even Schopenhauer has a theory of it -- but I find it very counterintuitive that guilt is inherited. How can I be morally responsible for what other people did? Issue in modern dress: How can a white man be made to pay reparations to a black man when the white man is innocent of any wrongdoing (and the black man is merely the descendant of blacks who were wronged?)

It is, perhaps, worth noting also that we can be held morally blameworthy for thoughts that fail to arise - as when it does not occur to us to consider the feelings or interests of others, for example.

1) In several posts Bill, Philoponus, and others defended the view that there are certain kind of causally inert thoughts that are (a) suitable subject to moral scrutiny; and (b) are morally impermissible. What are the relevant properties of these thoughts? The following partial list emerged:

(i) Thoughts that belong to the relevant class are causally inert;
(ii) They feature a content that depicts morally impermissible actions;
(iii) These thoughts are harbored, maintained, elaborated, and embellished by the person who has them.

I shall call thoughts that satisfy (i)-(iii) E-thoughts. I think that the manner I have characterized E-thoughts conforms to Bill’s characterization above. We no longer need to deal with thoughts that arise involuntarily, no matter their content.

2) Bill, Philoponus, and others maintain the following thesis:

(T) E-thoughts are subject to moral evaluation and are morally impermissible.

What are the grounds that make (T) true? What are the grounds to think that (T) is true? The first question belongs to the metaphysics of morals; the second to epistemology. Let us start with the metaphysical question. It is important to recall the distinction I proposed in a previous post between descriptive and prescriptive assessment of E-thoughts. We may describe an E-thought as evil and by that mean only to convey a gruesome content it depicts. Such descriptions unaided by some other considerations do not suffice to yield any prescriptive judgments. Let me be clear. The nature of the content contained in E-thoughts is clearly essential to the question of whether they are a suitable subject of moral scrutiny and furthermore whether or not they are morally impermissible. The question is whether they are sufficient. I think that the proponents of (T) do not endorse the view that the nature of the content contained in E-thoughts suffices for moral condemnation. For such a position, if adopted, would require the proponents of (T) to endorse the absurd view that books, movies, paintings, and so forth that contain identical content are also morally impermissible. Such excessive moralism is not easy to defend and will not be a comfortable position to adopt.

3) What are the additional conditions that are required in order to make (T) true? Bill appears to make a proposal in this direction:

“Thus the thoughts involved in deliberating how most effectively to seduce my neighbor's wife or kill his dog are mental actions, and are, as such, under the control of the will and morally evaluable as either morally acceptable or the opposite. If Peter is denying this, then he is saying that NO thoughts which are mental actions are subject to moral evaluation as either morally acceptable or the opposite, which is equivalent to saying that ALL thoughts are morally neutral or indifferent. Would not Peter need to argue for such a sweeping assertion?”

The argument seems to be that E-thoughts are mental *actions* and qua-actions are suitable subjects for moral scrutiny. But this proposal begs the question. The dispute arises precisely because E-thoughts, unlike actions, are causally inert and consequently do not have in and off themselves detrimental effects upon others. It is this causally inert feature of E-thoughts that distinguishes them from immoral actions and causally efficacious thoughts and it is for this reason that the question arises whether or not E-thoughts qualify as suitable subjects of moral scrutiny. Bill’s argument brushes aside this rationale and, thus, begs the question.
Moreover, and for similar reasons, Bill’s claim that denying that E-thoughts are suitable subjects of moral evaluation commits me to the view that “NO thoughts which are mental actions are subject to moral evaluation as either morally acceptable or the opposite, which is equivalent to saying that ALL thoughts are morally neutral or indifferent.” These consequences do not follow because we have defined E-thoughts as the class of thoughts that are causally inert. Consequently, I can consistently hold that E-thoughts are not suitable subject for moral evaluation because of their causal inertness and simultaneously maintain that many causally efficacious thoughts are proper subjects of moral evaluation and our judgment ought to be that they are immoral.

4) In a previous post Bill offered a potentiality argument, a probabilistic argument, and a dispositional argument in support of (T). I shall ignore now the potentiality argument. I have noted previously that the probabilistic argument is an empirical argument. The claim appears to be that having E-thoughts increases the probability of realizing the corresponding actions compared to cases where no E-thoughts are present. If we interpret probability here in terms of frequency, then we have the sort of metaphysical facts that might suffice to render (T) true. For we are thereby claiming that there are certain facts in the world such that the frequency of the presence of E-thoughts together with the subsequent realization of the corresponding action is significantly higher than the frequency of the realization of type-identical actions without the corresponding E-thoughts. We may interpret the probabilistic argument epistemically in terms of degree of belief. According to this interpretation, the claim is that our degree of belief in the proposition that suitable actions occur, given E-thoughts, is higher than our degree of belief in the proposition that suitable actions occur in the total absence of corresponding E-thoughts.

5) I have challenged the probabilistic argument in the previous post. I have argued that since any research that might attempt to confirm the claims made by the probabilistic argument will have to appeal to the total population and that once we realize this fact, it is far from clear that the results will confirm the kind of probabilistic facts Bill et al., need to appeal to in order to tell us what conditions make (T) true. The epistemic interpretation suffers from the same problem, because these sorts of probabilities claims must be stated in terms of total evidence. I have no idea why should we have a higher degree of belief in the proposition that suitable actions occur with a history of E-thoughts, *given total evidence*, than the degree of belief in the proposition that suitable actions occur without a history of E-thoughts, *given total evidence*. If no grounds are given for an elevated degree of belief in the first proposition, given total evidence, then we have no epistemic grounds to believe (T).

6) The dispositional argument proposed by Bill in a previous post falls prey to the point I have made in (3) above: even if we grant that E-thoughts are realizations of the same dispositions as those realized by the corresponding actions, it will beg the question to conclude that they are equally suitable subjects to moral scrutiny. However, I think there is room to deny the premise that E-thoughts and their corresponding actions are realizations of the same dispositions. This question, however, I must leave for another occasion.

7) In conclusion, the question remains: What are the conditions that make (T) true? The proponents of (T) must answer this question, for otherwise we have no idea why E-thoughts are said to be morally impermissible.


This excellent comment by Peter is for Bill to answer, but I see a confusion that can be addressed briefly.

Neither Bill nor I believe that evils thoughts are causally "inert”, or inefficacious, in the morally relevant sense. On contrary, we believe evil thoughts have the most dire consequences both for those they corrupt and for the people who end up becoming the victims of these vicious fantasies. What Bill and I acknowledge is that some cases these fantasies do not in fact end up leading to harm being inflicted on others. My fantasies of butchering my neighbor have reached the point of my starting to sharpen the axe when I hear, with great disappointment, that a heart attack has killed him. “Goddam! Oh well, next time I’ll be quicker.” My fantasies were not involved in my neighbor’s death, but very likely they would have lead to his grisly murder. They were by no means inert or powerless in moving me toward that action.

I set a booby-trap for you that will explode and kill you when you open your front door. You disappoint me and drop dead of natural causes on your walkway. That my booby-trap did not in fact kill you does not mean it was not lethal, and criminal and culpable as such. It is criminal and culpable because it was intended to and very likely would have killed you. In a similar sense, my fantasies of butchering my neighbor might well have lead to/contribute to that result. Not all murderous fantasies lead to murder, but enough do, and many come too close, only forestalled by chance, that it is much too dangerous morally to play with these fantasies, relying on our overestimated self-control to hold us back.

I agree with Peter that thoughts had no power to move me to action against others cannot me condemned. But being the impulsive irrational creatures we are, with the most unreliable self-control, it is much too dangerous to ourselves to develop fantasies of doing terrible things to others.


I think everyone agreed, and in a previous posts I stated so, that E-thoughts that are causally implicated in an immoral act are thereby immoral. I objected to pushing the envelop further and ascribing the very same moral verdict to E-thoughts that are not so implicated but have the type-identical content. So far as I understand, this was the question in front of us. Your example above will count as implicated in the planning of an immoral act and, therefore, is similarly wrong, although there may be some legal distinctions to be made which are beyond the purview of the present issues.


Hi Malcolm,

Good point!


Like Phil, I have a problem with your last response right at the outset. You characterize E-thoughts as causally inert. But notice that if a mental event does not have a physical effect, that it not to say that it causally inert, for it might cause other mental events. Thus the thought of knocking over a liquor store might cause the thought of killing the proprietor, and then the thought of killing any witnesses, and then the thought of stealing a car for a getaway, etc., even if the initial thought does not eventuate in a physical action.


"You characterize E-thoughts as causally inert. But notice that if a mental event does not have a physical effect, that it not to say that it causally inert, for it might cause other mental events."

Agreed! So we can restrict causal inertness to outer physical action (which was my initial intent in characterizing E-thoughts as causally inert anyway). Thus, E-thoughts are causally inert with respect to physical action but not with respect to other mental events. (T) is appropriately adjusted. The question is whether you accept (T), given these amendments. i.e., Do you think that E-thoughts so characterized are suitable subject for moral evaluation and are to be deemed immoral?



I profoundly understand your concern when you say "...being the impulsive irrational creatures we are, with the most unreliable self-control, it is much too dangerous to ourselves to develop fantasies of doing terrible things to others."

However, I suspect that human psychology proves to be more complicated. Terrible things are done by humans for causes that vary wildly. I am not convinced that impulse, lack of self control, etc., are the predominant causes of the majority of the most horrendous deeds humans have and are capable of doing. While they command a fair proportion, impulsive and irrational mental states are just one among many antecedent conditions for evil acts. Others, many others, are far from impulsive: they tend to be calculated and rationally justified by their perpetrators.
If the argument on behalf of (T) rests upon psychological hypothesis of the sort you invoke, then (I repeat) we must consider all the relevant facts. We cannot simply pick and choose our favorite cases and draw conclusions as if they exhaust all the phenomena. And once the whole field is considered, I am not convinced that it will conclusively point towards the conclusion that a person with a tendency towards E-thoughts without a prior intent to commit a corresponding evil deed is more likely to end up committing such deeds than someone that has no particular inclination towards such thoughts. In fact, I strongly suspect that the opposite is true. Many evil deeds are committed in the heat of passion or as calculated deeds driven by desires for profit etc., without E-thoughts playing a prominent role in their origin.


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