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Can a thought without a corresponding action be morally wrong?

More fully, under which approaches to morality do thoughts, in and of themselves, carry moral significance?

In particular I'm looking for approaches that yield affirmative answers to the initial question.

In in some (naive) utilitarian approaches, I can see arguments in the negative: since there are no (significant -- maybe there is some very minor self-harm) negative outcomes from just the thought itself, they're not really bad. This is where my intuition lies.

The only positive case I can think of is under theism: the thought can be an affront to God. But I have only vague notions on this so any elaboration on the idea of "thought sins" under specific religious dogma would be appreciated.

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Thoughts are fine. I had my car stolen out of my carport one time. For months after that I fantasized about lying in wait all night with a gun and confronting the next car thief. Crazy, right? I got over it. It's perfectly ok to have any kind of thoughts you have, no matter how horrible. What characterizes a civilized human is the ability to have a thought and not act on it. –  user4894 Jun 26 at 23:05
    
not sure when last someone went to prison for thinking about murder. –  gerdi Jun 26 at 23:24
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I am starting to think that this question should be protected or something, we're getting lost of very short, subjective and reference-less answers. –  iphigenie Jun 27 at 12:02
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1984 anybody? Don't go committing any thoughtcrimes. Big Brother is watching. –  dc2 Jun 27 at 16:26
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I think that can you shade the transition from thoughts to actions: from the thought of killing someone as an abstraction, then the speculation of killing someone, the fantasy of killing someone, the desire (but not intention) to kill someone, the intention of opportunity if there are no consequences, the intention even if there are consequences, to finally, the actual act of killing someone. Somewhere in that spectrum we all draw a line and say "at this point its evil/sin." –  RBarryYoung Jun 27 at 18:18

12 Answers 12

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If thoughts have a statistical tendency to lead to actions the more they are thought about, then how does one prevent evil action-causing thoughts from leading to actions? There does seem to be some need to think evil action-causing thoughts, in order to understand those committing evil actions. So perhaps there are ways to protect against those actually manifesting. (We don't want our Behavior Analysis Unit people to start committing serial murder.)

Some, including I think Josef Pieper in The Concept of Sin, would argue that actions aren't evil, only character can be evil. One's 'character' would be defined as the entity which plays the critical role in allowing/encouraging certain thought patterns to be expressed, while barring others. This is because many actions are ambiguous without knowing intention. Society does a pretty good job of preventing many non-ambiguous, seemingly-quite-evil actions from being done on a whim; and so, people will produce various ambiguous indicators that perceptive people could see as possibly leading to truly evil actions. I'm also drawing upon the idea of an "intelligent action" from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Ultimately, I'd say that someone's telos, or final purpose, is what can truly be evil. I don't want to go Machiavellian and ignore means, but MacIntyre makes an excellent case that means without ends are indistinguishable from good-seeming means that are merely a way of cloaking terrible ends. Morality can be a façade for the Nietzschean imposition of power by the strong upon the weak. The solution to this is something like Aristotle's polis, in which all citizens would agree upon a shared telos, in which all would then play their various parts. This minimizes the chance that people will be taken advantage of in a way not clearly visible, and it maximizes each person's ability to will something much bigger than themselves.

In summary, yes, thoughts can be evil. If my final purpose is to impose Communism and I am willing to force-starve millions of people, the evil started well before the starving. One might say that the evil started when I decided it was ok to sacrifice innocent people.

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I don't understand the second sentence of the third paragraph; and it seems useful/important. Could you elaborate? –  Dave Jun 26 at 18:59
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If you are starving millions of people, then it is your actions that are immoral. OP specifically asked about thoughts without corresponding actions. –  user11177 Jun 27 at 5:39
    
I too noted that the first and final paragraphs made the jump from thoughts->actions (and that this jump is important for them to have their intended meaning). I still can't get over the idea that unactualized ill will is "less bad" that actualized bad behavior. Given this intuition, it is hard to identify when/where/how ill will should be considered a moral failing/defect. –  Dave Jun 27 at 11:51
    
tl;dr: evil thoughts (may) increase the probability of evil action –  josinalvo Jun 27 at 13:50

There's a famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus seems to establish mental purity as a moral standard: Matthew 5:21-28

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder,[a] and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny. Law of adultery 27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery.[b] 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.

Former President Jimmy Carter famously referred to the passage when asked about his moral character, by saying he had "lusted in his heart."

Generally, however, this is viewed as part of the central Christian doctrine that no human being is free of sin, rather than as an achievable goal.

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This does not seem like the language of the Bible. It seems too modern. "everyone who is angry with their brother or sister", "they will *haul you before the judge", etc. Also, no "thy"s or "thee"s or "thou"s. –  trysis Jun 27 at 18:40
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@trysis: Hah, yeah. I always wondered why that thee/thou stuff was so common - as no part of the Bible was written in English, it's just a translational convention. I guess using archaic grammar makes it feel grander or something, same reason they translated it into Latin first... –  cloudfeet Jun 27 at 19:49
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@trysis Lots of language sounds less archaic when translated into less archaic language. –  Joshua Taylor Jun 27 at 19:49
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This would have been my answer. I'll add to it what Martin Luther is quoted to have said about the inability to fully control every thought that might enter the mind: "You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair” " –  TecBrat Jun 27 at 20:40
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@trysis There are at least 20 English translations of the Bible in common use. biblegateway.com/versions While I do like the poetry of the King James version (the one with the "thees" and "thous") some of the more modern translations tend to be easier to understand. It's also worth noting that the use of "thee" and "thou" was not archaic when the King James version was released. The entire reason we associate that mode of speech with the Bible is because the KJV continues to be one of the most beloved translations. –  Chris Sunami Jun 27 at 20:41

Yes. Jesus said: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man;" Matthew 15:19,20

An evil thought emanates from the inner man as an immoral act. Hence, the penalty for pre-meditated murder is higher than murdering someone in a fit of rage: less evil thinking took place in the latter case.

And ultimately: For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7

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Welcome to the community and thanks for an awesome contribution :) –  user132181 Jun 26 at 19:12
    
Evil thoughts are one of the most important thoughts in the universe --- they and only they alone bring us closer to full understanding that the SOURCE of all evil lies deep inside of us. –  Asphir Dom Jun 29 at 22:18

Today, it seems that religious traditions more often hold the position that thoughts in themselves can be immoral. However, the idea originally came from the Pagan philosophers. For one example, consider Cicero:

“Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind (animi) in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom (prudentiam), justice, courage, temperance.”

(As translated on Wikipedia's article on Cardinal Virtues, taken originally from De Inventione). Thus, if virtue is a habit of the mind, clearly actions alone do not suffice in being virtuous.

My understanding is that this line of thought was also held by Plato and by the Stoics, although I'm short on time to dig up further examples.

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Morality is subjective, with every person having their own, unique interpretation of what is right and wrong. Therefore the answer to the question is strictly affirmative.

Since thoughts are physical, electro-chemical processes, thinking is in itself an action, even though the direct effects of the action are (in the absence of MRI and similar instructments) almost undetectable. On this basis, there is no difference between a thought and any other kind of action, and there are numerous other actions that an individual can take that have equally undetectable effects - consider for example moving your eyes from one character on a page to the next. A more meaningful distiction would therefore be on the measureable effect of the action.

From a logical point of view the question could therefore be rephrased as 'can an action with no significant consequences be morally wrong?' It could even be extended to include actions with significant consequences that have no harmful effects. If the answer to this is 'yes' (which it is according to my first paragraph), then the implication is that some people are being judged by others as being wrong, even though they have caused no harm, distress, discomfort or other negative effect to anyone or anything else.

A more profound question would be to ask whether a moral system that does consider thoughts, or any other action that causes no harm, to be morally wrong is in itself morally wrong. To me, the answer to this is also, absolutely yes!

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I don't understand the question.

Why would you be unable to judge thoughts as being morally wrong? If someone is thinking about kidnapping me, I'm perfectly within my rights to judge their thoughts as being immoral, and to claim that they are thinking evil thoughts. Why wouldn't I be? I don't see what would make thoughts immune to moral evaluation.

I believe you may be confusing our ability to morally judge with the concept of acting upon those convictions. For example, we can imprison criminals because they have committed such behaviors that society has the right to protect itself from them. We don't imprison people for though-crime, because it's obviously almost impossible to prove, and doesn't directly harm anyone until the thoughts manifest as actions.

To answer your question:

Can a thought without a corresponding action be morally wrong?

Yes it can. There is nothing stopping your from morally evaluating a thought.

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Could you explain what you mean by "directly harm" since by my understanding it doesn't indirectly harm anyone either –  Richard Tingle Jun 27 at 11:18
    
I guess the word directly was wrong in that sentence, I probably meant to say actually. As in thinking about hurting someone won't won't actually cause them harm (unless you're a jedi.) –  user11177 Jun 27 at 11:34

There is no such thing as an evil thought. Or, maybe to say it another way - the evil in thought exists only in the condemnation of said thoughts.

As soon as a thought is classified as evil, there is resistance to that thought. That thought then begins to gain traction, substance, power. The more the thought is resisted the greater it becomes and the more likely it is that the thought will transform into some action.

Conversely, you can have all the horrible thoughts that you want, and if you allow them to exist, they vanish into the emptiness of their own insignificance.

There is a Buddhist quote that says something like,

Be careful what you say. Words have a way of turning into physical things.

Thoughts are basically words spoken to ones self. These words can be incredibly powerful and can (and do) devastate human life. Think about the evil actions that take place in the world. They all spring from either internal or external conversations. It is impossible to take an action without some accompanying dialog (internal or external).
Note: I am not including Zen-like states of action without an actor.

That said - looking at my above statement about words vanishing into the emptiness of their own insignificance might seem contradictory.

However the power of any dialog can only exist if the listener grants the words weight. If someone says to me, "You're an assh*le!", that may or may not impact me. The only way it will impact me is if I repeat it to myself and give it substance.

I can either give it substance by resisting it - I'm not an assh*le. What do you mean? How can you call me an assh*le when you are always..blah blah blah - or by succumbing to it - I guess maybe I really am an assh*le. God, what a loser I am. Maybe I shouldn't even try...blah blah blah. In either case, it is the power of my internal conversation that grants any power to the external conversation.

My thoughts are extremely powerful in the above case - and they unquestionably have an evil edge to them. Either they are weighted with self-deprecation or self-protection - both of which are a mask or buffer between life and the SELF (God would perhaps be an appropriate synonym here).

But if instead of any of the above nonsense, I relate to the external conversation as it is, and give it space to exist without identifying with it, then it will disappear and it will be meaningless - something like Oh, he said I'm an assh*le. Then the thought/words are not evil and contain no power.

There is no requirement that another person be involved for this type of scenario to manifest. I make a mistake - I have a thought; I see something that reminds me of a personal failure or loss - I have a thought; I am sitting in my car with breeze blowing in my hair - I have a thought.

My father suffers from OCD. He will have images in his head of murdering his wife and son (he remarried and has a young child - my brother). These are terribly painful images that he will never act on, but that have nonetheless caused him a great deal of anxiety. He was terribly ashamed of having thoughts that seemed to come from out of nowhere, and he thought the fact that he would even have such a thought meant something terrible about him.

Then one day he had an insight. He realized that thoughts don't mean anything. Since he knew he would never do what these mental projections suggested, he began to relate to them the same way he relates to a sneeze or a burp.

All that happens is that something floats across his field of consciousness. This something has no weight nor any bearing on anything real. When he has an "evil thought" nowadays (note: their frequency diminished greatly once he stopped resisting them), he just says to himself, "Thank you for sharing", and lets the thought pass; and it does - soundlessly vanishing into the ether from whence it came.

The evil in a thought is never inherent in the quality or content of the thought - but in the response one has to the thought.

Something James Carse said seems apt:

"All evil is an attempt to eliminate evil".

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IMO, 'intent' must be a component of the entire thought before it crosses into 'morally wrong'.

I do a lot of work with network security and auditing/compliance. To be effective for customers, I must seek out and imagine ways that might compromise customer systems. I can't do that without those ways being expressed as thoughts.

If having those thoughts should be judged similarly to the actions implied by those thoughts, then 'evil thoughts' should be judged similarly to 'evil acts'. But there is a delineation that involves intent, and that indicates to me a clear difference in quality.

To me, a negative thought about someone crosses into immorality when it carries with it a feeling that could be expressed as "I would like this to happen." The mind is a blend of cognitive thought and emotive feeling. Those two general aspects of 'mind' shouldn't be considered separately since we cannot hold them separately in our minds. When judging a thought, judge it in its entirety; or don't judge at all (which is usually best anyway).

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I believe that this is a matter of your self-conception. You can decide for yourself

Thoughts that, would they be uttered, could provoke negative reactions by fellow human beings because they are incompatible with the idea of moral that has been adopted by the larger part of the respective society would be considered evil by those.

This can vary through time and location. For instance, if you had lived in the middle ages and thought about burning witches, I assume that it would have been likely that other people would share your opinion. Your thought would not alone be considered unevil, but even the opposite.

So I would say that the only factor that matters is, are you feeling like you are thinking evil thoughts?

One can't judge the thoughts of others without a certain narcism. Have you read Orwell's '1984'? In the dystopic world where the novel takes place, people get judged by the tought-police for thinking thoughts that are classified as intolerable by the party.

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Morality exists as a system of principles to determine what is considered "good" and "evil". The term "evil" is defined by the system of morality which has deemed a concept as contrary. When most people use those terms, "evil" thoughts cannot be considered "moral" thoughts, because one term is defined as contrary to the other.

The "negative" that your intuition leans toward necessitates that negative consequences define what is considered "morally wrong" (which you have separated from the term "evil").

In this case, the moral axiom you have defined, is simply that you aren't the cause of negative consequences, meaning that thoughts aren't "morally wrong" - only if they don't cause negative consequences.

However, under these conditions, you have allowed for the existence of what you call "evil thoughts" that would not be considered immoral - by your use of the terms.

If you hold this to be true, then you are consistent and are able to have "evil" thoughts without having "morally wrong" thoughts.

Though, conventional use of the concept of morality contradicts your proposed use of the concept of morality, as well as its relation to the concept of "evil".

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I never used the term "evil thoughts" in the question. –  Dave Jun 27 at 13:36

"It is bad for your sooooooooooooooooooul!!".

Mmmh, might be but I can't know for sure about it personally.

What I know though is that, even if you are theoretically free to think whatever you want, bad thoughts can/could drive you crazy.

Also, in some cases it could drive you to eventually make that action, which could be bad.

Overall though, having thoughts is something normal that you can try to regulate, don't take it too seriously unless it is clearly driving you too crazy.

Bad thoughts though, IMO, aren't generally good for yourself but what really matters, I guess, is how far you get that idea.

I prefer, personally, trying to have self-discipline and trying to have peaceful thoughts: As a challenge, as something making me feel more peaceful with myself and feel better overall and because, ultimately, violence ain't ever solved anything the right way. :)

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Oh, minus one? :) I'd love to know why. I wont downvote rage, not my style. –  JeromeJ Jun 27 at 14:30

I assume you'll agree that actions performed by using physical body parts can be classified as right, wrong, or neutral.

Depending on whether you are willing to extend the same classification to the actions performed by the mental parts of the body, thoughts can get classified as right, wrong or neutral too.

What you consider as the criteria for classifying an action as right/wrong/neutral is a different matter altogether.

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Not really an answer. –  Dave Jun 27 at 13:33

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