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Evil Thoughts

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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kbell
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Evil Thoughts

#1 Post by kbell » April 12th, 2008, 3:55 pm

Is thinking evil thoughts immoral? Or do ethics/morality only have a bearing on actions that affect other people?

Just wondering.
Kathryn

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wizzy
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#2 Post by wizzy » April 12th, 2008, 9:23 pm

Do you have specific evil thoughts in mind, or is that a general question?

I think it depends on the situation and how much you mean the thought. I often hope that some people "get their just desserts" but nothing really awful. I think it can be cathartic to think evil thoughts at times, but as I said it depends on how much you mean it.

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Alan C.
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#3 Post by Alan C. » April 12th, 2008, 11:35 pm

Autumn
Is thinking evil thoughts immoral?
Can you define an "evil thought"? Evil is something invented by religion and as such, I dont think there is such a thing as evil, let alone "evil thought"
You might like to expand?
Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#4 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » April 13th, 2008, 12:50 am

Alan C. wrote:Evil is something invented by religion ...
Nah, it's not, you know. It was taken over by religion, maybe. But it can be easily reclaimed.
Alan C. wrote:... and as such, I dont think there is such a thing as evil, let alone "evil thought"
I don't think there's such a thing as "evil", in the sense of some kind of entity or force. But Autumn was using the word as a simple adjective.

Evil derives from the Old English word yfel, which is related to the Old High German ubil or upil, which comes from an Old Teutonic word that is usually referred to as the root of "up" and "over". "On this view," the OED says, "the primary sense would be either 'exceeding due measure' or 'overstepping proper limits' ..."

The first definition given is: "The antithesis of GOOD in all its principle senses.
"In Old English, as in all the other early Teutonic languages except Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement. In modern colloquial English it is little used, such currency as it has being due to literary influence. In quite familiar speech the adjective is commonly superseded by bad, the substantive [noun] is somewhat more frequent, but chiefly in the widest senses, the more specific senses being expressed by other words, as harm, injury, misfortune, disease, etc."

I use the word "evil" a lot. I like it. (Remember that old Eartha Kitt song, "I want to be evil"?) I like to say things like, "There's an evil smell coming from that dustbin." Or, "He's an evil bastard, that Silvio Berlusconi." So for me, "evil thoughts" could cover a multitude of ... erm ... sins. Still, I'm assuming that what Autumn had in mind was something along the lines of: thoughts about doing something that would be widely or even universally considered immoral if one actually did it, but without the follow-up of actually doing it, and without even the intention of actually doing it. On the other hand, "evil thoughts" could be: planning to do something immoral, fully intending to do it, but then in the end, for whatever reason, not actually doing it.

To my way of thinking, the first kind of evil thought is not immoral. There is no harm, and no intention of harm. However, I'm not such a consequentialist that I can say that the second kind of evil thought is not in any way immoral either. To take it one step further, if you shoot a bullet at someone and miss, and the bullet harmlessly buries itself in a hillock, then you've caused no harm. But you intended to cause harm, and that, in my view, is immoral. Similarly, if you point a gun at someone, fully intending to shoot them, and then you change your mind, the original intention was still immoral. And similarly, if you buy a gun, fully intending to use it on someone ... And similarly, if you decide to buy a gun, fully intending, etc., etc. ... However, the degree of immorality does, I think, diminish with each step your intention is further removed from the reality of murdering someone.

In summary, then, I'd say if there's evil intention, it's immoral, to some degree; if it's just an evil idle daydream, it's perfectly OK. However, the distinction between the two might not always be entirely clear-cut. There's doubtless something of a murky moral grey area in between. (And, of course, it also depends on the severity of the immoral deed one intended to do. I chose shooting someone, but I could have picked something less heinous.)

Does that make any sense at all?

Emma

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xman
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#5 Post by xman » April 13th, 2008, 3:23 am

There are no Thought Police! your thoughts are yours. I've thought about visiting all manner of hurtful violence on those who have hurt me. We may even show ourselves yet more moral than those who think and do joyous things alone by suppressing such volatile impulses. the greater truth is that I don't believe anybody lives a life without thinking about hurtful things. Lao Tzu says "One can know good as good only because there is evil". You know what evil is. We all do. The Thought Police would arrest us all.

X
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Occam
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#6 Post by Occam » April 13th, 2008, 3:32 am

Let's get off of the nit-picking about precisely what, if anything, is meant or defined by "evil". I'm sure the nit-pickers can question the following, too, but I'll try it. Replace the word "evil" by the concept of thoughts which desire harm to another. (Stop. Don't start up with, "what do you consider harm?" Settle for what you think harm is.)

(I stress that the following is MY idea of the limitations of ethics and morality. You may have a different idea, and that's fine, but don't nit-pick my idea - just state your own and build from there.) If one is alone on a desert island, there is no such thing as ethics or morality there. These can only exist in relationship to, and by your actions impacting, another being.

As such, the Ninth Commandment of the Decalogue (don't covet your neighbor's wife, etc.) is not an ethical prohibition.

A person who is gentle and always helps others but has very private bloodthirsty, cruel, perverted fantasies may be in need of psychiatric therapy, but cannot be called ethical or immoral. Of course, if one acts on those ideas, that shifts it the other realm and the action is unethical or immoral.

Occam

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jaywhat
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#7 Post by jaywhat » April 13th, 2008, 6:32 am

What springs to mind, as has been suggested by others is that we can have thoughts which, if they stay as thoughts, do not affect anyone else. The idea is that they affect the person having them.

Can you commit adultery in your head? In other words, is just thinking it as bad as doing it? Obviously not, but the idea is something worth discussing philosophically.

You might have the private thought, when you hear that a child abuser/rapist/ murderer has been killed (by others or by suicide), that that is probably the best thing that could have happened.
You feel guilty about thinking it and you keep it to yourself, but what harm has it done you? How wrong is it?

I say it is wrong, but what can you do about it?

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#8 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » April 13th, 2008, 9:43 am

Occam wrote:Let's get off of the nit-picking about precisely what, if anything, is meant or defined by "evil".
I wasn't nit-picking, Occam. I was disagreeing with Alan C.'s claim that evil is something invented by religion, and giving reasons why I disagreed [---][/---] a perfectly reasonable thing to do, it seems to me. I then made an attempt to answer Autumn's very interesting question as I understood it. If anyone wants to point out the weaknesses in my argument then I would welcome that.
You may have a different idea, and that's fine, but don't nit-pick my idea - just state your own and build from there.
Is that what a discussion is? Just starting from scratch each time, not engaging with any of the previous contributions? "This is what I think." "Well, this is what I think." ... That doesn't seem particularly constructive. I find that I learn a lot from engaging with other people's arguments, and from them engaging with mine.

Still, if that's what you want ... Image

Emma

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#9 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » April 13th, 2008, 10:30 am

xman wrote:There are no Thought Police! your thoughts are yours. I've thought about visiting all manner of hurtful violence on those who have hurt me. We may even show ourselves yet more moral than those who think and do joyous things alone by suppressing such volatile impulses. the greater truth is that I don't believe anybody lives a life without thinking about hurtful things. Lao Tzu says "One can know good as good only because there is evil". You know what evil is. We all do. The Thought Police would arrest us all.
The question was whether evil thoughts were immoral, not whether they were illegal! Of course I don't think a person should be locked up for thinking about doing something evil. Even if they actually intend to do it. And in any case, no one else can really know whether there was genuine intent. Only the person thinking those thoughts can know that. (I think it's significant that the English language is so ambiguous about the difference between intent and imagination. "I was thinking about doing such-and-such" or "I was contemplating doing such-and-such" can mean simply that I was imagining doing it, but it can also mean that I was wondering whether I should do it, perhaps beginning to intend to do it.) So, deciding whether a particular thought is immoral has no relevance to anyone but oneself. We can suppress our own "volatile impulses" if we recognise them as such, but no one else can do it for us. As you said, there are no Thought Police. (Yet.)

However, there can come a point when mere intent crosses the line into preparing to do something evil, and I don't think it's always easy to work out where that is. I was very shocked when Samina Malik was found guilty of terrorism offences, and I was glad that she wasn't sent to prison. According to the Crown Prosecution Service: “Samina Malik was not prosecuted for writing poetry. Ms Malik was convicted of collecting information, without reasonable excuse, of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

She didn't harm anyone. She claims she didn't even intend to harm anyone. There was a lot of talk at the time about her being convicted of a "thought crime". Matthew Parris wrote an article about it in The Times on 17 November last year, called "Think no evil? Are you serious?". Anyway, strictly speaking, she wasn't convicted merely of evil thoughts, or even evil speech; she was convicted of deeds that were seen as being preparatory to evil deeds. But how can we know whether they really were preparatory without being able to read her thoughts?

I'm still inclined to characterise Ms Malik's poems about what she would like to do to non-Muslims as "immoral". Not because she thought them, not even because she wrote them, but because she published them. Her volatile impulses were not suppressed [---][/---] at least, not before they were widely shared. I think that's crossing a line.

At what point, though, is the line crossed between mere immorality and illegality? Only when one's words are seen as likely to incite violence? Or, in the case of acts preparatory to terrorism, only when someone starts preparing a weapon? But what if that weapon is a box cutter and flying lessons? Hmmm. It's all very ... thought-provoking.

Emma

kbell
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#10 Post by kbell » April 13th, 2008, 11:00 am

Edit: I'd just finished this post when I saw Emma had posted again. Sorry that I haven't yet read your latest post Emma but I'm in a hurry to go out. This is what I said:


Thank you so much for your very interesting contributions. I bashed out the OP after a boozy lunch yesterday because it somehow emerged as a topic of conversation and my mind was still on it. I think most of you got what I meant by using the word 'evil' (I thought Occam's post was directed at Alan rather than Emma, personally). I meant it as an adjective to cover something that hurts others.

At lunch we were examining our prejudices and one person admitted that, as an employer, he really wouldn't want to take on someone who wore strict islamic dress e.g. a jilbab, regardless of how nice a person they seemed and how good their references were. If he could refuse to employ such a person and get away with it, he would, but if he/she was obviously the best candidate it was likely he'd take them on and resent having to do so but would treat them no differently than anyone else. I think there was a degree of sympathy for his feelings but things got a bit heated when I asked whether it was OK to feel like that if someone simply had a different colour skin rather than religion. (The response was that religion was a choice). The conversation then rambled onto people who might have fantasies of sexually abusing or torturing people but who would never act on them.

xman and jaywhat's post raises an interesting point. I'm sure we've all had thoughts of revenge when we're hurt and sometimes these are acted on and sometimes people end up in trouble with the law because of they didn't control themselves and quite right too. But then we can perhaps understand and to some extent sympathise with people who've been hurt and sought vengeance. What of the people who commited the acts of rape or child abuse? They may have fantasised about their acts for a long time before deciding to go ahead with them. Were these fantasies amoral? Shouldn't they have tried not to have them in case they got out of control? Perhaps tried to understand why they had them? Sought psychiatric help?

I'm not making a case for anything here - just expressing a few random thoughts.
Kathryn

mdean
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#11 Post by mdean » April 13th, 2008, 10:52 pm

Talking about not starting from scratch. This is a question that has been answered to some degree by a lot of ethical standpoints.

According to some catholics, having the thoughts are as bad as doing the actions. Hence the famous guilt complex.

Most Buddhist thinkers I'veread take a different view. From their stand point of kama, there is a graduation of culpability from the spontaneous impulse thought, thought dwelling in it to the planning of a bad act to doing it. Interestingly they recognize that the brain can cast up these ideas without conscious effort and that is our response to them that creates responsibility. They also have the concept not of insulting a higher being but of usefulness to oneself and others. Some above have mentioned the cathartic nature of some 'bad' thoughts.

Most of the ethical thinkers of the ancient world simply took it as read that human nature included the passions and the reason and they variously put reason above passion (Plato), reason in concert with passions (stoics, epicurinsa etc) and some of the later lot put passions above reason (the romantics etc).

Just a brief historical thought.

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Ninny
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#12 Post by Ninny » April 14th, 2008, 9:32 am

Can you commit adultery in your head?

Is there something I should know, Jaywhat? :kiss:

Moonbeam
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#13 Post by Moonbeam » April 14th, 2008, 11:47 am

mdean wrote: Most Buddhist thinkers I'veread take a different view. From their stand point of kama, there is a graduation of culpability from the spontaneous impulse thought, thought dwelling in it to the planning of a bad act to doing it. Interestingly they recognize that the brain can cast up these ideas without conscious effort and that is our response to them that creates responsibility.
Sounds as if the Buddhists have got it about right.
Autumn wrote:Were these fantasies amoral? Shouldn't they have tried not to have them in case they got out of control? Perhaps tried to understand why they had them? Sought psychiatric help?
No, yes, yes and perhaps.

The fantasies may be amoral or immoral (it's highly subjective) but the question is surely about the act of thinking them.

Thoughts may arise spontaneously but we have some control over what we do with our thoughts. Do we suppress them or do we indulge them? There is a point at which a thought also becomes an act even it stays in the mind. Deliberately constructing a fully fledged fantasy is an act of will even the method of construction is sitting back and allowing a free flow of unfettered consciousness. Is the act of constructing such a fantasy immoral? What about the act of writing it down and sharing it with others in one's circle of friends? Does it make a difference if one's friends are academics or pedophiles? What about publishing it in a book or making it into a movie? I can't see that the act of thinking is immoral as long as the thoughts stay private. As Emma put it, "if it's just an evil idle daydream, it's perfectly OK". Acting the sadistic fantasy out on a real-life unwilling victim would, without question, be immoral. The question of whether sharing the thought (without acting out the fantasy) is immoral has preoccupied us for years and the jury is still out.

Actually thinking evil thoughts that one intends to act might be called 'planning' and definitely qualifies as immoral, as far as I'm concerned.

Ted Harvey
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#14 Post by Ted Harvey » April 14th, 2008, 7:21 pm

I'm reading this thread with fascination as I 'make' myself think evil thoughts in the course of my ‘wanna be a playwright’ activities. There have been the odd moments when I have worked through a stream of conscienceness on a painful or distressing scene or character and I have gone into some pretty dark and disturbing imaginings. Is that ‘evil’? I could say “no, because it’s all fantasy”. There again, another guy lusting after someone else’s partner might excuse his prurience on the basis that it’s only harmless fantasy.

I do know that in my primary school Roman Catholic days we were left in no doubt that bad thoughts were sinful. To an extent that’s one of the legacies I still yet feel faint echoes of, with feeling privately a bit shamefaced about some ‘bad’ thoughts – but there again it was the Jesuits aim to plant an enduring sense of guilt in all of us.

I wonder if the current state of discussion about evil and thoughts of it are a bit like the arguments that used to be applied about sex; it was argued that just thinking about it was bad or evil because that led to temptation and that left to sin and wickedness. I suppose that was an example of taboo being operated. Whilst I wouldn’t agree with its application in that context, I have gradually come around to the view that whilst taboo is more and more seen as a socially outmoded concept, it can in fact be a force for common good and ethical behaviour.

One taboo that has gone is the link between ones behaviour to another individual or individuals in your so-called private life and your ‘public’ life if you are a figure of high public profile authority, respect or whatever. I have never accepted this perspective – that you can betray your marriage/long term partners in deceitful and degrading ways and that somehow you will apply a different quality of honesty and truthfulness in your ‘public’ life. My long enduring experience is that if someone betrays, degrades and reneges in one aspect of their life, they are not to be trusted not do it in another.

I see a possible link between taboo and ‘not having evil thoughts’ – the practical link being that taboos indicate the ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ things you shouldn’t even be thinking about.

Sorry that’s all a ramble, but it reflects the challenges and issues thrown up for me by the thoughtful insights from posters on this thread.

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wizzy
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#15 Post by wizzy » April 15th, 2008, 8:36 pm

Autumn, I think you're starting point of the employment question is not just a thought, your colleague said he would actively discriminate if he could get away with it, which probably if the difference between the first and second best candidate was not huge, he probably could.

Re thoughts of torture/sexual abuse it's gradiated. Possible people can't help having these thoughts and as long as they are definitely not going to act on them it's okayish. But maybe they should consider therapy to try not to have that kind of thought. I would agree that in some ways having a desire to carry out an immoral deed but never acting on it is a postive moral non-action. However if I had a child I wouldn't want to leave them with someone I knew had a desire to abuse children, even if they'd never done it.

kbell
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#16 Post by kbell » April 16th, 2008, 8:11 am

wizzy wrote:Autumn, I think you're starting point of the employment question is not just a thought, your colleague said he would actively discriminate if he could get away with it, which probably if the difference between the first and second best candidate was not huge, he probably could.
You're right of course, wizzy. Even so, everyone has prejudices and the thing I'm interested in is whether having prejudices is immoral even if one never acts on them. I've concluded that it depends on why one has them ie. whether they are rational or not - or is a 'rational prejudice' an oxymoron? (Come to think of it, how do we define prejudice?)

Anyway, the way I see it at the moment is that we are all human and none of us is perfect. People's sexual orientation is their own business and nobody ever flew a plane into a building in the name of gay liberation so I think homophobia is an irrational prejudice and therefore immoral. People have done that and more in the name of Allah and they've done so in living memory. We frequently see Muslim fundies spout hateful messages on the news so it seems to me that feeling suspicious of or uncomfortable around Muslims who wear their religion on their sleeve, so to speak, is somewhat less irrational. But actually discriminating against someone in the employment situation described isn't rational - not if they are the best candidate for the job - and because it hurts an innocent person, it is ethically wrong.
Kathryn

Diane
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#17 Post by Diane » April 16th, 2008, 6:04 pm

wizzy wrote:
Re thoughts of torture/sexual abuse it's gradiated. Possible people can't help having-t these thoughts and as long as they are definitely not going to act on them it's okayish. But maybe they should consider therapy to try not to have that kind of thought. I would agree that in some ways having a desire to carry out an immoral deed but never acting on it is a postive moral non-action. However if I had a child I wouldn't want to leave them with someone I knew had a desire to abuse children, even if they'd never done it.
Of course you wouldn't! I think that indulging in fantasies of child abuse or torture is immoral because, so far as I know, the reason for doing so is for sexual gratification. Sexual gratification is a powerful motivator and people do vile things for it and other people do vile things to make money by exploiting this basic human need. But it isn't an uncontrollable human need and, as long as we pretend it is, the potential for harm is there. Arguing that one 'can't help' what one thinks about is the thin end of the wedge to arguing that one can't help but act on ones impulses.

I'm not arguing for a thought police or punishment or legacy of guilt but I do think we should strive towards a culture that says, recognise hurtful ideas for what they are and try to understand and combat them rather than indulge them.
Ted Harvey wrote:I'm reading this thread with fascination as I 'make' myself think evil thoughts in the course of my ‘wanna be a playwright’ activities. There have been the odd moments when I have worked through a stream of conscienceness on a painful or distressing scene or character and I have gone into some pretty dark and disturbing imaginings. Is that ‘evil’? I could say “no, because it’s all fantasy”. There again, another guy lusting after someone else’s partner might excuse his prurience on the basis that it’s only harmless fantasy.
I think there is a good discussion to be had on the function and ethics of art but it's probably for a different thread. Suffice to say that I don't think making yourself think evil thoughts because you are producing a work of art or literature is immoral though, as someone else said, the jury is still out on whether the end products of such works are immoral or not

GreyHairedWorrier
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#18 Post by GreyHairedWorrier » April 25th, 2008, 4:15 pm

Diane wrote: ...I think that indulging in fantasies of child abuse or torture is immoral because, so far as I know, the reason for doing so is for sexual gratification...
What's immoral about sexual gratification?

Diane
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#19 Post by Diane » April 25th, 2008, 4:49 pm

GreyHairedWorrier wrote: What's immoral about sexual gratification?
Nothing! But thank you for you question because it made me see the problem with the way I expressed my argument. I'll try again:

Although I believe sexual gratification to be a human need, I don't believe that it is essential for anyone to satisfy this need by hurting anyone else and I would argue - and I expect everyone here to agree - that getting sexual gratification through hurting someone else is immoral unless it is totally consensual on the part of the person being hurt. I would go one step further than that and argue that getting sexual gratification through fantasising about hurting someone else (where the victim in the fantasy is unwilling) is also immoral for the reasons I gave in the rest of my post. I believe there is a dark side to human nature that we need to combat in ourselves for the greater good, rather than indulging in it and telling ourselves that we're not doing any harm.

GreyHairedWorrier
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Re: Evil Thoughts

#20 Post by GreyHairedWorrier » April 25th, 2008, 4:58 pm

Thank you for that. :smile:

While I agree that non-consensual violence in sex is unacceptable and immoral, I can't agree that fantasies are. Fantasies are often about highly inappropriate people or scenarios but as long as they stay fantasy I don't see the harm. Would you "ban" women having rape fantasies? (Very common, according to Nancy Friday)

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