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Most moral philosophers consider only physical actions, speech and thoughts that may have an impact on others as within the scope of morality, while many religion believers who suppose the omniscience of deity (deities) think that there are ‘immoral thoughts’, even though they are not expressed or manifested. For example, the Buddhists sometimes mention ‘bodily, verbal and mental karma’(trīni-karmāni in Sanskrit).

Can you provide examples in philosophy that address thoughts themselves as moral or immoral, independent of any actions that may or may not result from those thoughts? In other words, above is an an example (and there are many others) of how a religion that posits an omniscient being might believe that a thought, independent of action, could be immoral. Are there any equivalent ideas in philosophy?

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    If Morality is about "certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior", inner thoughts are not social and are not acts. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 8:15
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA What is "social" in the SEP definition is not the conduct but the acceptance of it. For example, masturbating is clearly not a social activity yet many people condemn it.morally. Furthermore thoughts like motivations to act are part of one's "conduct" and thus potentially subject to a "code of conduct". Focusing on the acts only would basically nullify all of deontologism, a significant branch of thinking about morals. OP's question is relevant.
    – armand
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 11:20
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    it's kinda come up before philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/14271/… I can't vote to close, anyway
    – user62233
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 11:44
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    Jesus taught that to think lustfully about a woman was to commit adultery in your heart, and to hate was to commit murder in your heart. He also taught that if your hand or your eye causes you to sin, you should cut them from your body. To paraphrase these teachings as "there can be immoral thoughts" is a bit shallow.
    – user10479
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 1:00
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    Indeed certain inner thoughts arriving at options-choosing decisions (such as to do this or not to do) are said to be the only source of morality since all later self-communicated illocutionary acts can only come from such (human) agent's thoughts and self-understanding while a non-intelligent computer program doesn't have such source thus it's plain knowledge that only agents can have morality... Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 5:57

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Great question. We have some intuition for the possibility of at least some thoughts to be subject to morality, for instance, beliefs based on prejudice. However, many thoughts of ours are involuntary (for this reason, many thoughts are not actions), and people (at least in the Kantian tradition) tend to think that we are only morally responsible for what is within our control. Secondly, one could argue that thoughts themselves are private in the sense that they do not directly affect others, and so no one should point fingers at us for what we think (though this is not exactly the same as saying that our thoughts are not subject to morality).

Here's some literature (in the analytic tradition) that might interest you. Generally, the topic you want to look up is the Ethics of Belief.

For an overview, check out this SEP entry on EoB.

Other interesting reads:

  • W. Clifford (1876). The ethics of belief.
  • R. Basu (2019). The wrongs of racist beliefs.
  • P. Hieronymi (2008). Responsibility for believing.

I'm also interested to learn what other traditions make of this question, particularly East Asian / Buddhist ones!

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    Although beliefs are a subset of thoughts which may be morally relevant, they're perhaps not the only ones. For example "I hope you get eaten by alligators" might be a thought which some people would deem immoral to entertain, but because it doesn't correspond readily to a truth claim about the world it's not really a belief. Even so, beliefs do seem like a very interesting subset and well worth the mention.
    – Josiah
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 17:15
  • @Josiah You’re completely right. I don’t know of any ‘complete taxonomy of thoughts (or equivalently, mental attitudes?)’, but definitely beliefs are only one type of them. Desires, like the one you mentioned, are also a big part. Besides, there are intentions and volitions, such as ‘I intend to steal something from the store’. I only know of discussions on the ethics of belief in the analytic tradition, so would be interested to know about the other categories.
    – Quae
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 18:26
  • That intuition is responsible for the idea that prejudice is wrong is not at all given. In fact, I'd suggest the opposite is true. Prejudice is intuitive.
    – user10479
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 1:01
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    @Quae: You surely cannot exclude intentions and volitions from ethics altogether. Intention could be the sole difference between a murder and an accident. Obviously, in that case there is an associated act, but the mental state is ethically relevant.
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 1:17
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According to Kant's deontologism, your actions are moral only if you do them out of a sense of duty. It is to say that more than your actions, it is your motivations that are under scrutiny.

The same act of giving food to a beggar can be done thinking "this makes me feel good about myself" or "it is my duty to help a fellow man". Kant would consider the former immoral and the latter moral.

In that sense, he would probably consider your private thoughts as the primary concern when it comes to morality.

I think a case for thoughts self regulation could be made in the case of utilitarianism. Negative thoughts make us unhappy while making no one happy, and therefore are a net loss in global utility value. Arguably, one can't control what thoughts come to their mind, but one can make a conscious effort to see the bright side in every situation (or at least try to find it). It's something I have exerted myself to do for years, so it's perfectly doable. It seems adequate to consider such a thought exercise to be moral in a utilitarian way.

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It is your inner thoughts that give rise to action- thus bad deeds begin in the heart.

EDIT: To expand further based upon the comments, it is not the case that if you don’t actually act upon evil desires that therefore there is no sin. What differentiates a good, sinful, or neutral action? First and foremost it is the intent, the will behind the action. When one nourishes and fantasizes evil intent in their hearts - that is itself harmful and the seed that gives birth to carrying out such evil intentionally.

Luke 11:39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.

1 John 3:15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

Matthew 5:28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

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    Although it will be clear for almost everyone, you might want, for clarity, make clear that this answer is informed by an explicitly Christian perspective.
    – Muschkopp
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 7:28
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    @Will no, I would not agree that one needs to consider all options to make a moral decision. In the first place, we often can’t think of all possible options and do a detailed analysis of the consequences on the spot; that would make moral decision making impractical. And, more to the point, a mere intellectual consideration of a hypothetical is a little different from what is being talked about in the above. When speaking of what is in the heart, these are matters of desire and hope - the things you fantasize about and wish for. This is different from an exercise like the Trolly Problem. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 8:46
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    Adding "according to a Christian perspective" would make the answer seem less like you're trying to claim that Christian morality is the only valid moral framework.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 12:11
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    You might want to expand a bit on this answer. You can still argue "yes" or "no" based on what you've written. Since thoughts give rise to actions, yes, thoughts are subject to morality. On the other hand, you're saying the problem is thoughts giving rise to actions, so thoughts that don't give rise to actions won't be a problem and no, thoughts shouldn't be subject to morality because it makes more sense to just judge the resulting actions.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 12:15
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    @Will Thinking about something evil is not the same as thinking an evil thought. Police investigating a crime have to consider what the perpetrator was thinking, but that doesn't make them criminal thoughts.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 13:27
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Your inner thoughts are often the basis for your action so of course they are crucially important. Similar to how the motivation and intention for a deed can change it's moral value. Though practically speaking you can't look into someone else's head and guessing their intentions is difficult and might require invasions of privacy that are themselves considered immoral. So in terms of your own morality it crucially matters, but for others it's hard to tell and so some might skip over that part.

Also it's probably important to distinguish between conscious and unconscious thoughts. Like idk not every weird middle in the night thought tells you that you are a good/bad person, but if you contemplate longer about something and make an informed decision that thought might be as important as the act itself.

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Philosophers do not generally restrict morality to physical actions, but to controlled actions having a potential impact outside of the mind. BUt most mental processes either do not classify as controlled actions or do not have any significant impact outside of the mind.

Some examples of things that can go on in the mind:

  • A person is secretly homosexual
  • A person is secretly in love with someone else than their marriage partner
  • Someone is planning the steps for a theft
  • Someone is innerly amused about a racist joke that just came to their mind involuntarily
  • Someone who is supposed to be coming up with marketing slogans is fantasizing about holidays instead
  • Someone who is supposed to be listening to their partner complaining about their hairdresser is instead thinking about their shopping
  • Someone who is supposed to be focussing on the road traffic ahead is instead worrying about the health of their parents
  • An abusive partner refuses to go to a training to prevent future transgressions
  • A judge gives a longer sentence to a person having committed a crime based on an evaluation attesting that the cuplrit has lots of criminal thoughts

It seems to me that while most mental processes are outside the scope of morality, those that can be controlled and can have an impact in the real world are subject to morality as mental actions. For thoughts that just arise, for personality traits, for emotions, and plans not carried out, morality is not relevant.

Instead, for those things not covered by morality, psychology and spirituality are relevant areas.

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Perhaps the easiest ethical system to connect to a concept of immoral thoughts is virtue ethics. Under virtue ethics the core moral goal is to nurture a virtuous character. That is to train oneself "to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways." (quote source) The first six of these eight could reasonably be described as "inner thoughts".

Of course, virtue ethics is different enough from consequentialist or deontological models that things start to get a little blurry even using the same language. With the shift in focus from activities to agents, we should more properly say that a virtuous person has more of certain kinds of thoughts rather than categorising the thoughts themselves are right or wrong. Indeed, it's not even proper to tally up the thoughts except as some sort of inductive evidence of that training toward right character. A virtuous person wouldn't be someone who did or thought right vastly more than wrong over the last day or decade, but someone who placed in a situation to choose now would choose right.

Nevertheless, if we allow the sloppiness of talking of virtuous thoughts as being those which a virtuous mind entertains, there's room to say that thoughts of gratitude are better than thoughts of resentment, thoughts of reconciliation are better than thoughts of violence, careful evidenced reasoning is better than outbursts of prejudice, thoughts of respect are better than thoughts of lust or envy, and so on.

As always with virtue ethics, it interacts with the real world a step later. There is a virtue requirement to train ourselves toward conciliatory thoughts, because it increases our capacity to behave in a conciliatory way and to achieve mutually beneficial consequences. That's where consequentialist or deontological schools could fit in. A consequentialist might say a firefighter ought do press-ups in order to improve the probability of her achieving the consequence of rescuing people from the fire, or a deontologist might say it is the firefighter's duty to exercise to equip herself to do her duty in rescuing people from the fire. So likewise they might say she should prepare her mindset to be courageous, to prepare her value judgements to place rightly high value on other people, to apply herself to studying and rehearsing her trade, and in other ways to align her thoughts to better be able to do her duty or achieve good consequences.

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On the one hand, people can have awful thoughts in OCD and be excused of them and presumably not just because we pathologize those experiences.

Our thoughts and feelings can reflect on our character. Also, we can lie about them to others. In addition to these consequences, Kant's Categorical Imperative may prohibit lying to ourselves.


Myself, I cannot see any deontological problem with any way of thinking, unless you want to say that all irrational mistakes in thinking are morally prohibited.

This sounds strange, and a counter intuitive take on its basic principles. But the act must be capable of always bring about the effect

“I will A in C in order to realize or produce E” where “A” is some act type, “C” is some type of circumstance, and “E” is some type of end to be realized or achieved by A in C.

Here, it cannot ever do so. It'd be like formulating a maxim of the sort "to have children, have sex with an infertile man".

a maxim may reveal inconsistency even when universalising is not brought into the picture... [e.g.] an impossible aspiration... both popular and reclusive (Immanuel Kant: Critical Assessments, p50).

Personally, I might think that works out as an reductio ad absurdum of a prohibition against any thoughts: thoughts can't fall under A, acts. Religions are strange.

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