With reference to the subject matter treated in these questions:

Can the act of having certain thoughts be unethical?

Evil thoughts without actions?

EDIT: The below "thoughts" can be labeled unethical, immoral, evil or any pejorative evaluation as judged by an arbitrary external agency, such as community norms or religious proscription. "Thoughts" are speaking to immanent or definite intent to action, rather than being inquisitive or evaluative, that is if you speak your thought (you know) others will judge you negetivly.

It occurs to me that when cognizant of a particular thought, there can be different degrees of (conscious) involvement towards it. A crude scale may look something like:

1) A fleeting thought. For instance a flash image of strangling someone, immediately dismissed by reflex.

2) A suppressed thought. A fleeting thought that need be dismissed by conscious effort.

3) An entertained thought without intent. An evil thought consciously contemplated, yet without the will to effect it.

4) An entertained thought with intent. Contemplating an evil act and how to effect it.

5) An overbearing thought. A thought that is so forceful that conscious intervention is not possible.

Conceivably there can thus be graded response to mental acts...

Is there any literature dealing with this aspect?

  • Probably you need to involve something like virtue ethics here. In fact a pragmatist could easily answer "yes".
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 11:00
  • There are painful thoughts, which to an old-fashioned utilitarian would be immoral to entertain. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 18:22

1 Answer 1


Note : I will keep to your terminology of 'unethical thought' rather than 'evil thought' because evil extends beyond the merely unethical and also because I think all the key points can be made simply by focusing on the unethical.


What would an 'unethical thought' be ? (1) 'Can I steal from this shop while the owner isn't looking ? Depends on whether there are surveillance cameras and whether my hood conceals my face effectively.' I suppose these would count as unethical thoughts. They do not consider the morality of stealing but only whether I can get away with the theft. I have these thoughts and have the intention to steal if I reckon I can get away with it.

Here there is a clear and firm link with intention to act. I would say that the weaker or more distant the link with intention to act, the less unethical is the thought. For instance, if I had the thought, 'Can I steal from this shop while the owner isn't looking ? Depends on whether there are surveillance cameras and whether my hood conceals my face effectively', but then (2) what Steven Pinker might call 'the angels of my better nature' induced a pang of conscience, so that I suppressed the intention, the unethical thoughts would be mitigated when one took the whole episode into account. In (2) the unethical thoughts are disconnected from action.

Moral responsibility

It's pretty common ground that we cannot control our thoughts completely. I generally cannot prevent a particular thought from coming to mind. But I am responsible within limits for the state of mind in which certain thoughts occur or are likely to occur. If, for instance, I am prone and know I am prone to unethical thoughts as in situation (1), then I can try to dismiss such thoughts when they occur, I can seek psychiatric advice on how to acquire a mindset in which these thoughts do not occur - or do occur but with much less force, I can join a self-help group of people who have ethical problems similar to mine.

If I do nothing then the act of thinking in my old ways can be unethical because I have not even attempted to acquire the means of thinking differently.

  • Once again you highlight some distinctions I should have made. ;) - added edit.
    – christo183
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 12:47
  • Well, I don't think "evil extends beyond the merely unethical" because good-evil distinction is only a part of moral objectivism which is only one of a few ethical positions.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 12:54
  • I meant only that something, such as not returning a misdelivered letter, could be unethical, without being evil. Evil is a much stronger notion than the merely unethical : the Stalinist show trials were evil in a way that my envious thoughts about my neighbour are not; those thoughts are only unethical. I don't assume moral realism or moral objectivism or any other substantive ethical position. I am merely keeping to the way 'evil' and 'unethical' feature, and differentiate, in ordinary moral discourse.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 13:08

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