On the basis of Western morality, the Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian one, behaviors like killing, betraying, cursing are considered immoral. Christianity imposes that thoughts can be corrupt, therefore immoral; and there is logic, since thought represents - before desire and/or intention - the conception, the consideration that a given alternative is possible, and even plausible.

However, if the mind can have immoral productions, can it also arouse something unethical? In particular, can thoughts — internal mental processes in which no one is harmed other than possibly the thinker itself — possibly be unjustifiable in a typical society's set of principles?

Reflecting on killing someone can certainly be immoral, but can it be unethical, even when the act has not been perpetrated yet?

For short: jumping a queue is immoral, because it goes against society's informal rules, but ethical if you are in a hurry for an urgent meeting, since the act is justifiable in this circumstances. Can immoral thoughts be seen in such a light?


Terminology used:

  1. Immoral: an act, reasoning, behaviour or reaction deemed improper by the modi operandi of a given society respective.
  2. Ethical: as in Applied Ethics, but used in a more abstract manner; the act, ... that: even when judged immoral, may and should be carried out when it represents a greater good done than bad be it concerning individuals or groups, shall be permitted given the circumstances of an individual in an alarming situation, or is justifiable in the sense that the agent of such act should not be judged guilty when the context is avaluated. E.g.: homicide in legitimate defense; thus homicide is (unconditionally) immoral, but ethical in this situation.
  • But AFAIK immoral = unethical. – rus9384 Apr 10 '18 at 23:02
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    @Dave My question more of gives an answer to 'Evil thoughts...' saying it is immoral and goes one step beyond asking whether it can be ethical (justifiable) even when morally wrong. – William Apr 11 '18 at 1:19
  • The terminology is confusing. "Immoral" and "unethical" are used interchangeably, and when the distinction is made it is not along the lines the post attempts to. The real question seems to be whether society is justified in discouraging "immoral" thoughts (not policing them, that is impossible anyway). And the answer is obviously yes since "bad" acts are less likely to happen on average if entertaining them is discouraged except in special contexts, such as crime prevention. – Conifold Apr 11 '18 at 2:15
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    To be clear, you are defining unethical as the act that, even when judged immoral, may and should be carried out in such and such a situation? I ask because your example uses the inverse definition. – Please stop being evil Apr 11 '18 at 3:56
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    It seems the difference with the duplicate is primarily one of terminology. If this question is substantially different, please edit it to clarify how. If you do so, it would also be good if you could phrase it more in an objectively answerable way (to avoid answers that come from a particular point of view without putting it in context). – user2953 Apr 11 '18 at 9:50

Ethics and morals are not identical. There are distinct types of ethics. In philosophy normative ethics holds more weight. The name normative ethics implies certain things so it is worth looking into separately if you were not aware it existed.

The slang and frequent use of ethics or morals get used interchangeably because people may be unaware of distinctions in ethics. You can also have descriptive ethics which simply describes what things are they way they are. So if act x is wrong in the society of Cancun this only means the people there and not everywhere consider act x wrong. Act x may be considered permissible somewhere else. This is descriptive ethics. Notice it does not mention should people consider act x wrong or why is doing x wrong to begin with. Should act x be considered wrong? Descriptive ethics does not deal with that. Descriptive ethics deals more with emotions, culture, authorities, etc. This is the most frequent use of the term morals.

Religion often gets mixed up in poor communications with using the wrong terms. When referring to Christianity and behavior the term morals is again misused. In your context you seem to express SIN. Sinful thoughts are wrong is what you mean to say. However, normative ethics is not based on religion. With or without any religion normative ethics could still exist independently. You seem to tie morals only with religion. There is an ethical view that expresses that as well. Divine command theory expresses God defines what acts are moral and what acts God does not accept are immoral.

You specifically mention thoughts as immoral. I would say only ACTS are immoral which is different from sin. Sin by Christian context expresses anything against the will of God (which implies getting to know God by studying the word). So a thought can be a sin. For instance the lustful look without physical contact is a sin. A thought focused on too long and entertained for too long can very well turn into an act. Perhaps your intentions are going in this direction. Sins can fit inside the immoral category depending on the context but they are not one and the same thing. An act can be immoral and be still be legal for instance. Perhaps you can make a point that all immoral acts will fall under a category of the definition of sin.

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  • I would say only ACTS are immoral - why? – André Paramés Apr 11 '18 at 9:02
  • Because immoral acts usually involve physical actions & alleged justifications that go against facts. We cannot always evaluate thought. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can't. This would make this method unreliable. – Logikal Apr 11 '18 at 9:09
  • @Logikal: While I think you are overall correct; I disagree with your comment here. My car is yellow, even if some (blind) people cannot perceive it to be yellow. Whether we can consistently evaluate an assertion to be valid is unrelated to the validity of the assertion itself. – Flater Apr 11 '18 at 9:22
  • @flater, propositions can't be valid. Inferences & arguments can be valid. When we report something we can sense verify this is correspondence theory. Validity & truth are not the same thing. Your car actually being yellow is a corresponding fact not an assumption. Because you might not be aware the proposition is true is a personal issue. Truth values are objective. Truth values are concepts. Corresponding truths are PHYSICAL. Please note concepts are only in the mind. You can apply a concept to the physical world. Do not confuse a truth value with a physical aka corresponding truth. – Logikal Apr 26 '18 at 23:53

A first-rate, intriguing question. I think we need to draw some distinctions, though. Are 'thoughts' mental images (as when one imagines someone in a sexual position), or propositions (as when one entertains a crude and unfair generalisation about a group, 'Xs are lazy and dishonest') or practical possibilities that present themselves ('The shop-keeper is not looking, I can pocket this tin of beans'). One can have any or all such thoughts in a 'bracketed' way, disconnected from intentional action altogether. (Gottfried Vosgerau and Matthis Synofzik, 'A Cognitive Theory of Thoughts', American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (JULY 2010), pp. 205-222; W.J. Ginnane, 'Thoughts', Mind, New Series, Vol. 69, No. 275 (Jul., 1960), pp. 372-390.)


Some thoughts in any of the senses I've listed can occur involuntarily. I cannot completely control the workings of my mind, which can throw up absurdities, fantasies, and (whether I like it or not) immoral thoughts such as the above. (Assuming for the sake of argument that they are immoral thoughts.) What I can't control, I can't be responsible for; and if I can't be responsible for these thoughts then they are not 'unethical'. Responsiblity has some connexion with choice; and in respect to these thoughts I had no choice about their occurrence.

In a word, I am responsible for doing only what is in my power to refrain from doing; and it isn't in my power to refrain from involuntary thoughts. (G. P. Henderson, '"Ought" Implies "Can"', Philosophy, Vol. 41, No. 156 (Apr., 1966), pp. 101-112; Robert Merrihew Adams, 'Involuntary Sins', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 94, No. 1 (Jan., 1985), pp. 3-31; Robert C. Solomon, '"I can't get it out of my Mind": (Augustine's Problem)', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Mar., 1984), pp. 405-412.)

☛ Dreams

Separate case : can I have unethical thoughts in a dream ? In what sense are the thoughts mine ? I should say, I can't have such thoughts in a dream since dream-thoughts just happen 'in me' : they are involuntary in a different sense from the kinds of involuntary thought considered so far. But I have no theory about what that different sense is. (William E. Mann, 'Dreams of Immorality', Philosophy, Vol. 58, No. 225 (Jul., 1983), pp. 378-385; Gareth B. Matthews, 'On Being Immoral in a Dream', Philosophy, Vol. 56, No. 215 (Jan., 1981), pp. 47-54.)


I think for a thought to be unethical, at least three conditions need to be met (adapted from Gareth B. Matthews, 50):

(1) I have a thought which I recognise as a 'suggestion' to do something ethically wrong.

(2) I have a positive attitude towards this suggestion; I like it, it gives me pleasure, or at any rate I see it as a live option.

(3) I adopt it and include it in my practical reasoning, my decision about how to act.

Roughly these conditions are defined in

Here choice and responsibility are involved; and I should regard thought here as unethical.

Even if the action fails, or if I think better of it and abandon it, at the time the thought occurred, the three conditions were met; and the thought was unethical.

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We have Freedom Of Thought, defining "thoughtcrime" is unethical

One of the ethical standards that the world has reached consensus about is:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 18 of the UDHR states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

If we adhere to this article, then it become unethical to limit thoughts. Therefore any proclamation that paints some thoughts to be wrong or unethical, is therefore unethical in itself. By this article, thought can only be considered unethical, if we adhere to — this is no joke — unethical ethics, because we must disregard an article of ethics (Article 18 of the UDHR) to implement anything that paints thought as unethical.

The UDHR was drafted in 1948 and while article 18 was the subject of some contention, it was never freedom of thought and conscience that was up for debate, but freedom of religion and the right to leave/change religion. Some theocracies were not happy with that, but they eventually relented.

In the spirit of the period, while the UDHR was being worked out was the same time that George Orwell put to us that thoughtcrime is a violation of human rights, as so eloquently described in his famous 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The definition of what thoughcrime is, and why it is bad, is perhaps the main reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered a very important piece of literature.

So the answer to your question is: if we are adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or in any other way keep entertaining the notion that defining "thoughtcrime" is unethical, then thought itself cannot be unethical. This is because we have instead preempted any such ethics — ethics that state (some) thought to be unethical — by saying such ethics are unethical in themselves.

By curious consequence: this argument makes most of the world's religions unethical, since they all define at least one form of thoughtcrime, the most famous in western culture of course being the Ten Commandments, along with defining the Seven Deadly Sins

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In order for a thing to be potentially 'unethical' (here defined as a thing which ought to be done in a given circumstance), we only need to show that it ought to be done in even a single circumstance. That is, if we can show even a single example where thinking something contrary to societal norms (as we have thusly defined immoral) is good, given the context, then we have shown that thoughts can be potentially 'unethical'(again, remembering that this is here defined in a manner more akin to how 'ethical' is usually defined).

We have not, for the purposes of this question, defined moral goodness, so for the purposes of this answer I will be using the following definition1:

1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together.

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Now, we must find a thought with a morally good object, end, and circumstance (which here means something that is a superset of typical usages for 'consequence'). Any such thought will suffice, because our definition of 'immoral' requires only that an action be "deemed improper by the modi operandi of a given society" and societies are quite capable of deeming anything improper.

Most readers, I think, will agree at least one of the following suffices:

  • Successfully meditating on Word of God. The object is thought, which is a good, the end is Wisdom and the Love of God, which is a good, and the act is in this case successful and brings about a part of the will of God, which is good.
  • Successfully introspecting in order to combat racism. The object is the action of self-awareness, which is good, the end is lessening ones participation in racism, which is good, and the act is successful without negative side effects.
  • Reading a book that efficiently communicates perfect ethical and metaethical truth and from it obtaining the ability to knowingly choose good actions in all circumstances, which one will in fact later choose to do. The object is to be good, which is a good object, the end is ethical perfection, which is a good end, and the consequence is good actions, which is a good.

  1. I believe this to be a reasonable definition for this question's purposes as you give examples from a Judeo-Christian background, though it is possible, given your very unusual choices for the definitions of other terms, that this is an error in premise.
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I up voted your question, which is intriguing. I've asked the same question many times.

Here's a way of looking at it logically...

Person A fantasizes about murdering millions of innocent people. However, he can't do it because he's a trapper who lives in the wilderness. He has no skill with demolitions, biochemical weapons, etc.

Person B has the same fantasy. However, he's a public official. In fact, he's the leader of a powerful nation. He orders the military to slaughter millions of innocent people.

We could argue that only B has committed an immoral/unethical act. However, he never would have committed this act if it hadn't been preceded by a cognitive event - the thought of doing the deed. There's an obvious link between the thought and the deed.

A had the same thought - and he would have carried it out if he had the ability to do so. If other people knew what was in his mind, they would probably steer clear of him, or maybe even report him to the authorities.

But your question has another ramification - what about thoughts that just pop into our minds momentarily? Imagine someone who reads a really disgusting book about a serial murderer or sadist. They suddenly find themselves asking "Wow, what it would be like to do something that disgusting?!" Before you know it, they're acting it out in their mind.

In fact, I'd wager that most of us have had horrible thoughts that caused us to react with disgust. "My God, how could I even think such a thing?!"

I would argue that the thought cited in the first example I offered is indeed unethical. But the second example is not unethical, because the person thinking it has no intention of carrying it out. It's merely an example of someone lacking total control over their mind, or someone who's merely exploring an idea.


I erred in treating ethics and morals as one and the same (see Logikal's response). To make the distinction clear, the only immoral act in my examples was when B ordered the military to kill millions of innocent people.

However, I would argue that A and B are both guilty of unethical thoughts - thoughts that both would act on if they had the ability to do so.

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  • Thank you for the response, but there is only one thing missing: how is your first example unethical when it hasn't done anything that could be of harm to society? If one was to be aware of the thought of A, one would be outraged and heavily disapproving of A. But still, being opposed by someone, or even by the enterity of society does not make something absolutely unethical, since debate is still possible; however can the thought be justified? If I may haste part of the answer: a reaction is not necessarily justifiable when provoked by passions (strong emotions). – William Apr 10 '18 at 23:40
  • First, I erred in lumping ethics and morals together (see Logikal's response below). In fact, Logikal's response puts my own response in better perspective (for me, at least). I'll edit my response to make it more clear. – David Blomstrom Apr 11 '18 at 0:06
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    "someone lacking total control over their mind" - what thing, outside their mind, is there to control it? – user253751 Apr 11 '18 at 2:53
  • @immibis - That's a good question; what DOES control the human mind? Ironically, when people make a conscious effort think about something (X), they can't help but think about X. – David Blomstrom Apr 11 '18 at 22:27

No, unless one believes thoughts have a direct impact in the physical world.

Being unethical is to act in a way that breaks societal/cultural/group norms. If you do not act unethical you are not unethical, imho.

If someone is externally nice to everyone but actually wishes everyone harm but never acts on those thoughts, is the person nice or evil? I say they are nice because, I believe, words and deeds are all that translates into the physical world.

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