Sep 14, 2010

A puzzle for moral norms governing thought

It's tempting to think that morality concerns not only actions- donating to charity, for example- but also mental states like intentions, beliefs, desires, and emotions. Applying moral norms to mental states, however, raises some interesting problems.

A commonly discussed problem is whether we have the kind of control over our mental states that would justify thinking that they could be subject to moral norms. This is a version of 'ought implies can': if we ought to have this or that mental state, it must be the case that we can bring it about that we have that state, or so one might think.

But there's another problem that's less commonly discussed. It's plausible that if I care about following a moral norm, I will try to check from time to time whether I am in fact following it: a conscientious moral agent monitors his own adherence to moral norms. The problem, though, is that for moral norms governing our thoughts, self-monitoring can be counter productive. For instance, suppose there's a norm that I ought not think about cookies while on a diet. To monitor my adherence to this norm, I might think, "Ah, now let me see- have I thought about cookies lately?" And this very question may either itself involve thinking about cookies, or, as an empirical matter, very likely lead me to think about cookies. (For a more serious example, this one from Christian ethics, we might consider the claim that "every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." [1]) So, we see how self-monitoring can be counter-productive. And if it is deeply counter-productive, it would seem that the morally conscientious agent should not engage in this kind of self-monitoring, at least not in a rather wide range of cases. That's a surprising result.

There's a lot going on here. We need to spell out what moral norms on thought content might look like in more detail. And we need an account of the content of a thought. These are tall orders. At the very least, though, I think we've seen that self-monitoring of mental content raises important issues for any moral theory that proposes to bring our mental states into the moral domain.

[1] Matthew 5:28, RSV


  1. That's a really interesting question. The Jesuits recommend a nightly examination of conscience, and keeping track of one's progress vis-a-vis one's sins. I suppose there is a danger of getting into some evil thought by examining whether one has engaged in it. However, context is important. If the context is one of expressing sorrow for one's sins, the danger is lower. It's still there, I suppose. But I think with practice, it is possible to exercise a control over oneself where one may be able to recall whether one engaged in a particular type of sin without vividly visualizing the instances of it. It is also possible to make note of having committed a sin right after one has committed it.

    My impression is that the Christian spiritual tradition, while very alive to dangers to purity of thought, has not found there to be a serious danger in regular examination of conscience. So, empirically, the danger may not be there, or at least not there to a significant degree.

    Of course, some particular individual might have a particular configuration of problems, and may need to consult with a wise spiritual advisor whether the benefits of including something in the examination of conscience outweigh the harms (and if the benefits do outweigh the harms, then one may be able to apply Double Effect). Prudent discernment may be called for.

  2. I suspect that every moral theory will say that there are possible circumstances where one ought to attempt to control one's inner states. One case is when someone with a mind-monitoring device promises a horrendous outcome if you have such-and-such an inner state.

    But even without such weird scenarios, there is the fact that our thoughts and emotions influence our action. For instance, some attitudes towards a student make one less likely to be fair in evaluating the student's work. Since every moral theory worth its salt will say that typically we are morally required to give the work a fair evaluation, we may likewise need to eliminate these attitudes.

  3. Nice blog so far. I encourage you to answer questions as well as ask them (your initial post mentions raising questions).

    I like Alexander's response. I haven't heard of many cases where even a thought is super dangerous. I don't know that I have the vocabulary to discuss this intelligently, but I've heard of people saying you shouldn't "dwell" on a bad thought. So, the thought of wringing someone's neck might pop into your head, but you needn't rejoice in it and relish it. I agree that this sort of thing can be complicated in some instances (what with "occasions of sin", for example). But I think monitoring one's thoughts is definitely doable, though maybe not easy.

    One analogy might help: some thoughts are willed and some are not. Some actions are willed and some are not (though I guess this is pretty rare). The thoughts and actions that are not willed can still be influenced in some cases. E.g. If you sleepwalk, maybe put up guardrails on your bed. If you have violent fantasies, maybe don't keep things in your house that will anger you.

  4. The above post should say: "I haven't heard of many cases where even an unwilled thought is super dangerous." I mean the sort of random pictures and words that pop into one's head.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I should perhaps have drawn a clearer distinction between two worries: (i) cases where self-monitoring is necessarily counter-productive because of a close conceptual connection between the thoughts you need to have to monitor your adherence to the norm, and the thoughts you ought not have according to the norm;
    (ii) and cases where self-monitoring is counter-productive only because of some contingent psychological tendencies (e.g., perhaps when you think about your adherence to the norm of not thinking jealous thoughts, you're more likely to have jealous thoughts.)

    Alexander, you're right to point out that how serious this problem is may depend a lot on some particular psychological facts about the agent. I'm not yet sure that it will completely depend on individual psychologies, though, as there may be some cases falling under (i), above.

    I agree, as well, that almost any moral theory might be faced with this problem. So it's not so much a worry for one theory rather than another, but rather a general question we might ask about any moral theory. The problem might be stronger for some theories rather than others, though.

    I think you're right that we can distinguish between thoughts that we have deliberate control over, and those that we do not. We might think that even thoughts that seem to spontaneously come before the mind can be morally relevant, however- they might speak to facts about our character, for instance- and we might have some responsibilities to influence those thoughts.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  6. What if the Christian focuses on the virtue of Chastity instead of on the sin of Lust? Does that get around the problem a bit?

  7. Patrick-
    That's an interesting suggestion: perhaps focusing on positives (what to do or think) rather than negatives (what not to do or not to think) helps get around this problem.

    I don't think this is a complete solution, but it very well may help in some cases.