Monday, June 23, 2008

Morality and the mind

There is a popular misconception that morality does not apply to the life of the mind. The misconception comes with an argument:

  1. Morality applies only to actions.[note 1]
  2. No thought is an action.
  3. Therefore, morality does not apply to thoughts.
The conclusion manifestly follows from the premises, but premise (2) is false. Voluntary thoughts are actions, and it is only to voluntary thoughts that morality directly applies, just as it is only to voluntary bodily movements that morality directly applies (the person who "shoplifts" while sleepwalking has not done anything wrong because she has not performed any action strictly speaking).

Let me argue that voluntary thoughts are actions. First of all, they figure in deliberation in the same way bodily movements do. Thus, we may press buttons in order to attain some effect we are aiming at, but we might also think a thought in order to attain some planned effect. In both cases, the effect may be mental or physical—all four combinations of cause and effect types are possible. Thus, I may press a sequence of buttons on my computer in order to learn whether zebras can interbreed with horses: a physical action, ultimately leading to a mental effect. Or I may press a button to launch a rocket, a physical action leading to a physical effect. Or I can choose to meditate on an embarrassing episode in order to redden my cheeks (e.g., if I am on stage), a mental action leading to a physical effect. Or I can think about an aspect of one philosophical problem in order to shed light on another, a mental action leading to a mental effect. Thus, our actions can include thinkings as means, just as much as they can include physical movements as means.

This is particularly clear in the case of others. If I am the boss, I may solve one problem by asking a subordinate to think about it, and solve another problem by asking a different subordinate to make a prototype. The employees' thinking and physical movement can equally be a part of the boss's plans, and the employees can be paid for thinking and for moving. Typical jobs include both components.

In fact, we can turn the initial argument around to show that some thoughts are genuine actions:

  1. Some thoughts fall in the scope of morality.
  2. Only actions fall in the scope of morality.
  3. Therefore, some thoughts are actions.
To see that (4) is true, consider the case of someone who promised to spend some time each day thinking about a particular person or issue. Clearly, thinking then can be the fulfilling of a promise, and hence something morally required.

Perhaps a part of the intuition behind thinking that thoughts are not subject to morality is an idea that thoughts are involuntary. But that is plainly false. The life of the mind is full of choices: Do I think about this aspect of the problem or that? In what way should I approach this difficulty? Should I first try to prove or to disprove this mathematical statement? Should I think about his faults or his merits or both when reflecting on what I should do in regard to him?

Or maybe the issue is simply that there are not a lot of clear rules about how one ought to think. But even if that were true, it would not follow that morality is inapplicable to thought. Morality is not always tied to clear rules—sometimes it is tied to the judgments of the prudent person. And anyway, there are a lot of clear rules about how one ought to think: the rules of logic, a deliberate failure to follow which is a wicked self-deception.

It's worth noting that just about all major ethical systems will make some thoughts fall under the scope of morality. Consequentialism: Thoughts have consequences. Some thoughts are more likely to make one help others, and other thoughts are less likely to do that. So some thoughts are wrong on a consequentialist system and others are right. Kantianism and Natural Law: Thoughts aimed at self-deception are wrong, since they are contrary to the nature of rationality (Kantianism) or the truth-directedness of our minds (Natural Law). Virtue Ethics: Clearly, spending all one's time thinking only about the wickedness of others is going to make one cynical, and is not what a virtuous person would do, so that such a habit of thought is immoral.

1 comment:

Tim Lacy said...
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