Wednesday Philosophical Query #4

My front page post on the vice of lust prompted some discussion on what makes something immoral.  A few commenters expressed the view that morality applies only to actions, which, if strictly true, would undercut my moral case against lust.   I disagree with this understanding of morality, but I’m curious to know what readers think here.  So, without further ado, today’s philosophical proposition:

Only actions can be moral or immoral.  Thoughts, feelings, and dispositions are neither.


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. It seems to me that on some level you do agree with that statement, at least from what you wrote on the thread about lust. You state, for example–and if I’m not mistaken, several times–that mere sexual attraction is not “lust” (and therefore not vicious) by itself.

    That aside, I’m reluctant to say that mere feelings or first-order thoughts can be immoral or vicious. I do think, however, that one is generally, or at least partly, responsible for one’s disposition. One chooses, or has a large say in choosing, which thoughts to indulge beyond the point where they enter one’s head.

    I do think the query you pose strikes me as a question of whether virtue ethics is a good ethical system. One’s disposition to right action, informed by and conducive to habits of thought and of action, is at stake in this question. The “actions only are immoral” strike me as something different from virtue ethics while the “(some) thoughts, (some) feelings, and dispositions can be immoral (in some cases)” can be an instance of virtue ethics. Of course, I have edited the original question with my own parentheticals, but that is how I’m reading the question.

    I’m also not much of a philosopher, and there are probably some key points I’m missing here. But that’s the gist. I hope I’m somewhat clear.

  2. Rodak says:

    In order to perform an immoral act, the moral agent first needs to have developed the “idea” of performing that immoral act. The idea is immoral in the same way that an accessory to a crime is culpable for that crime, even if the accessory is not directly involved in the commission of the crime (think Charles Manson, for instance.)
    If one has the immoral thought, but decides not to commit the act, the original thought was still immoral, but the decision not to act is an overriding moral thought.

    • Kimmi says:

      to have morality at all requires the thought of immorality.

      • Rodak says:

        I suppose that’s true. It’s probable that what has been defined as “immorality” in any given category preceded “morality,” which was a negative reaction to it.

  3. GordonHide says:

    Well of course it depends on how you define morality. I go by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This views morality as a code of conduct. That makes it pretty clear that thinking doesn’t count. If what you’re doing can’t affect someone else, I guess you can still call it moral or otherwise but I think your in danger of subverting what is really important about moral or immoral behaviour. That is its effects on other people.

  4. Murali says:

    I want to go even more weirder and say its not just an action that is immoral or moral, it is the action in conjunction with the guiding reason for that action that as a whole must be judged moral or immoral.

    Explanation? Well think about it. If Kant is right (and I think he is) we can only act on maxims that can be willed as universal laws. But maxims are not just about an action. Maxims relate an action to a reason. So if a maxim cannot be willed as a universal law, all it says is that performing that particular action for that particular reason is immoral. It doesn’t say whether it is permissible to do other things for that reason or whether it is permissible to do that thing for other reasons.

    So brushing your teeth out of self interest is okay. making false promises out of self interest not so much.

    Breaking a promise in order to go have fun is not okay, but breaking a promise in order to save a life is okay.

    • GordonHide says:

      I think you are confused here. Certainly some actions are moral or immoral depending on the circumstances and consequences. Once you start considering series of contiguous actions and the eventual result almost anything you might do as an intermediate action can be justified.

      And your original point that an action must be preceded by an immoral motive to be immoral I also don’t accept. The victims of your immoral act are no less injured because your motives were pure. Again this all depends on what you think being moral is all about.

      I guess for the religious it might be thinking and acting with a view to the future of your immortal soul. For an atheist its conforming to society’s moral code of conduct, (whatever you’re thinking).

      • Murali says:

        It is not that particular motives are immoral or or moral. The morality of a motive can rarely be evaluated in isolation. Similarly with the morality of an action. The morality of an action is relative to the motive.

        • GordonHide says:

          The morality of an action is not relative to a motive I think. It is relative to the good or harm it does within society irrespective of motive.

  5. Jaybird says:

    Okay, here’s a forwarded email for you:

    An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story.

    I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.

    But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

    But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger,for his anger will change nothing.

    Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

    The boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”

    The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”

    I submit:

    Feeding the wrong wolf is immoral.

    I mean, assuming morality.

  6. BlaiseP says:

    I was taught morality was what I shouldn’t do under any circumstances. Ethics, however, is what I say you shouldn’t do. Thus we can compose codes of ethics, the US military has one, universities have them, employers have them. Violating them has consequences.

    A great deal of sloppy thinking has blurred the distinction between morality and ethics. Consider a lawyer defending a criminal he understands to have committed the crime and finds morally reprehensible. Should the lawyer fail to adequately defend his client, he could be disbarred. That’s an ethical problem with consequences.

    In moments of anger, fear and lust I’ve done unethical things and thought immoral thoughts. The doctrine of Mens Rea goes to intent. Though many unwanted things happen all around us without our planning and intent, nothing good seems to happen without wanting it first.

  7. b-psycho says:

    Thoughts can lead to actions, but that’s where self-control comes in. To others, the relevance of your thoughts towards them is precisely zero until you act.

  8. Fnord says:

    The distinction between thoughts and deeds is, at the most basic level, not meaningful. All morally meaningful behavior begins in the mind. You don’t call a tornado, or even an animal, moral or immoral. Without thought, actions have no moral meaning. And, of course, every human action is preceded by a thought. The body takes no action unless prompted by the mind. There are a few exceptions, but I don’t think we treat actions taking while, eg, sleepwalking (much less spinal reflexes), with the same moral significance of regular actions.

    The conventional thought/deed distinction is useful as an approximation. Thoughts, according to the conventional distinction, are unable to directly influence the the world outside the brain. And so, to a first approximation, they are unable to cause harm.

    But that’s only to the first approximation. They can’t directly cause harm, but they can cause harm indirectly. Thinking a thought has an effect on the mind, even if it doesn’t affect the rest of the world. And the mind can, in turn, affect the rest of the world, positively or negatively. A single fleeting thought isn’t particularly likely to have a large effect, but as Jaybird implied, thoughts can become habits, and habits of thought can certainly reshape a mind into something that’s more likely to act in a way that can cause harm.

    • patricia says:

      I agree with the idea of indirect harm, and add a thought. When one spends frequent/lengthy time imagining sex with another, he/she damages him/herself, freely choosing an objectified cardboard relationship in an indulgence that belittles the integrity/quantity/quality of self, which will, as you and Jaybird say/imply, eventually cause harmful acts/attitudes in actual relationships.

      To love neighbor as self is a reciprocal process. And since love is a decision that originates in the mind/soul, it is in that immaterialized place that love begins to go right/wrong.

      Cheesy romance novels are forms of lust. Since women’s sexual attraction is generally maintained in relationship, stories are the automatic form of the indulgence. It is fascinating because the stories themselves are objectified in the same way that porn objectifies the female.

  9. GordonHide says:

    I think most actions you take, which have a moral dimension because they affect your fellow man, you take without conscious thought. They are instinctive or culturally ingrained. Yet these actions may still be considered moral or immoral and you will still be held responsible for them.

    Your post seems to want to brand thinking as either good or bad because of what it might lead to. This is a very slippery slope in my view.

  10. Stillwater says:

    A few commenters expressed the view that morality applies only to actions, which, if strictly true, would undercut my moral case against lust. I disagree with this understanding of morality

    There are two ways to understand the word “sin” it seems to me. One is to act in violation of moral law as defined by God. The other is to hold thoughts which prevent you from attaining perfect peace and entering the kingdom of heaven. Depending on how a Christian understands the word “sin” – as being either an internal or an external property – and whether a person thinks that a sin is identified with (or coextensive with) immorality, a bunch of answers to your initial question emerge.

    On the face of it tho, I see no reason to think that the word “sin” is synonymous with the word “moral”, especially as the latter term is conventionally used today. Which is to say: internal properties aren’t moral in and of themselves, but may be morally relevant in ascribing blame or praise to individual actions.