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


The title of this blog is a nod to Boethius, a Roman philosopher of the 5th and 6th centuries. Lady Philosophy has her consolation, to be sure, but never without consternation.

I will use this space to consider any philosophical topics I find interesting at the time; usually not at the level of depth of a seminar paper or similar, but I will try to show why one might find the question interesting and important. Given my own interests, the posts will tend to focus on questions in moral philosophy, including meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.