The Morality of the Mind

Flamingphonebook and I were discussing whether moral rules concern the outcomes and consequences of external actions only, or whether the internal state of the soul and conscience is also a proper matter for moral concern. Is there a morality of the mind? He is in the posture of a Pharisee, arguing that to abide by the outward forms of outward rules is sufficient. I am in the Christian posture, arguing that hatred is immoral as murder, lust as immoral as adultery. In this I am also following the tradition of pagan Roman and Greek philosophers, as Epictetus, who argues that a Stoic must attend to his state of mind to achieve serenity; or as Epicurus, who argues that an Epicurean must attend to his state of mind in order to desire and to achieve only moderate and rational pleasures.

Flamingphonebook writes:

There is no morality of the mind, nor is there morality for a man alone on an island or in a tower. Victimless crime is an oxymoron.
I have three supports for this position in three different spheres.
In the pragmatic: how shall we know what a man is thinking in order to judge him? And how much chance do we give him to amend his thinking? Is it evil simply to have a desire to murder, even if one recognizes its evil and tries to rid the self of the desire, through meditation or prayer or counseling? Some thoughts are not wholly voluntary, but are reactions that cannot be controlled.
In the logical: laws going back to the Code of Hammurabi call for punishment to be in measure with the offense–an eye for an eye, not a life for an eye. Curtailing speech by means of the rod and cage is not in measure, nor is curtailing thought by speech. Using force to correct thoughts is two orders out of measure and an egregious violation of justice.
So to be perfectly consistent, you may judge my thoughts as you like, save that you may not give voice to your judgments, and I may respond in kind by judging the thought of your judgment, and so ad infinitum. I say that thoughts are no moral evil, therefore disagreeing with that thought is also no moral evil.
In the emotional: if there is a morality of the mind, then there is no situation wherein man has full license without control. That is unless you describe heaven as a state where men have leave to indulge their slightest whims, and I have never heard it described as such. If no such place exists, even in the cool dark of the mind, then I would call the universe malevolant, as it has created desires with no means to fulfill them. And I would rail against it as unjust.

The argument made here is a strong one, very much in keeping with the Enlightenment ideas of minimal public morals, and a wary distaste for the use of force to compel the conscience. It is an argument I respect, but one where I do not see a reason to agree with the axioms on which it is based.


It is, indeed, an external argument only, concerned with the use of force, and the proper restriction of the use of Courts of Law. The counter-argument is about morals, that is, an internal argument, concerned with what a man ought to do, he himself with his own life and soul; the counter-argument is nowise concerned with what the state is allowed to compel its freeborn subjects to do. The conversations are on different topics.

If I may without trying your patience, let us contemplate some follow-up questions about the morality of thought.

Suppose I am shipwrecked alone on an island, and I entertain one set of thoughts, dwelling on my sorry lot, and I shall be unhappy in consequence thereof; but if I dwell on another set of thoughts, I shall be filled with grateful joy, happy to be alive.

I will not bother to argue that a happy and confident shipwreck victim has a greater chance of survival, all other things being equal, merely due to psychological vigor, than a gloomy and despairing shipwreck victim. Such arguments are crass humbug: as if mere length of days were the only yardstick by which we judge the value of a man’s life, or as if happiness were desirable only for its statistical effect on the outcome of a Darwinian survival struggle.

Living a happy life and living are moral life are things to be desired in and of themselves, needing no other justification. This being so, the hypothetical raises the following questions:

Does a practical interest in preferring happiness to unhappiness tell me it is in my best interest to attend to the content of my thoughts, and the nature of my character?

Is there is an opportunity cost, a loss and a gain, if I shape my personality toward one end as opposed to another?

Let us turn from a discussion of the happiness of a man alone on an island to a discussion of morals.

Suppose further, by the same token, as a shipwreck victim, I could dwell on and entertain one set of thoughts, and corrode my character, so that I lost the ability to tell right from wrong, and talked myself into deafness when my conscience spoke; or contrariwise dwelt on another set of thought, and become as holy as a hermit in a cave, even if no one else saw me, a man of virtue and good character, serene as Buddha.

To make the hypothetical more interesting, let us say that a supply of morphine, Playboy magazines, bottles of vodka and barrels of beer, and a lifetime supply of suicide pills also survived the shipwreck. Rather than build a hut, chop firewood, or hunt for food, I could beguile the long golden tropical afternoons staring at girly pictures and shooting junk, drinking boilermakers, and, if I fall into a Kevorkian despondency, swallowing an lethal pill. There are no victimless crimes on the island, but surely there is some basis in prudence or pleasure or duty, some sort of moral reasoning I can contemplate, to tell me whether these are good decisions or a bad ones. For contrast, let us also hypothesis that a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World also washed up on shore, including all those works of literature and philosophy, religion and deep thought, that I always wanted the leisure to read, in order to learn how best to live, or how to prepare myself to endure suffering and death with the dignity of a philosopher. Is there truly and honestly no moral rule to consult before I decide whether to read and study these books rather than use them for kindling? Is it merely like preferring pie to cake, a matter of mere taste only, whether I seek comfort from the Bible or the writings of Seneca rather than seek distraction from a convenient porn magazine?  

A more important question is this: do the content of my thoughts, even if I am alone on an island, have real consequence on the content of my character?

Do I have a pragmatic reason, if I wish to be happy, to attend to the content of my character? Does my character affect my happiness?

Do I have a moral imperative (as I ought to seek to be moral, it being axiomatic that all men desire the Good) to attend to the content of my character? Does my character affect my morality and manhood?

If so, since I cannot have good character without good thoughts, does it not follow that morality and pragmatism (each for its own reasons) require that I attend carefully to the content of my thought?

Given that I can influence whether I shall be a man such as I wish to be, or a man such as any good man would despise, is it a matter of moral duty  seek to be a good man?

In other words, even if my base appetites and selfish desires do not incline me, at the moment, to prefer the good, ought I nonetheless seek to be good?   

Should I listen to my conscience even when my base desires for false pleasures urges me not to?

By “false pleasures” here I mean those pleasures that betray you; the one that promise you happiness, but never deliver on their promises— the pleasures that deliver pleasure only at first, and later become a grief, or even torment. I note in passing that the Enlightenment idea of letting each man attend to his own pursuit of pleasure seems not to recognize this category. It is merely a blind spot in their philosophy, a blank spot in their minds. Even though everyone in real life knows, or has heard of, drunks and gamblers and adulterers and gluttons whose inordinate pleasures, escaping all moderate control, drive them like a Napoleonic cavalryman riding his foaming horse to death, somehow the modern thinkers seem not to acknowledge that such men, such ruined lives, exist.  

Now, let us regard your three points.

1. In the pragmatic point, while you have no ability to know what some perfect stranger is thinking in order to judge him, do you admit that I am in a position to know what I myself am thinking in order for me to judge me? Can I make no assessment of my own worth in my own eyes, or compare myself to the standards the conscience discovers in natural reason or beyond it? I am, after all, not a perfect stranger to myself.

Do you grant that it is impractical not to attend to the content of one’s own thought or one’s own character? Do you agree that the unexamined life is not worth living?

There are men who have no ambition other than to live in peace, and not run afoul of the law, and to obey the Powers That Be, whether the laws of the land be just or unjust. Fair enough. But a philosopher, or a saint, has a higher ambition: not merely to live, but to live well: to live as higher ideals demand.

If he is an Epicurean, he wants to live according to rational and moderate pleasures. If he is a Stoic, he wants to live according to nature and the natural duties, in order to achieve serenity. If he is a Christian, he wants to live according to the rational laws of morality and according to the revealed will of God.

Practicality, then, demands that the Epicurean, the Stoic, and the Christian take steps to carry out his program for his life. Practicality says he cannot achieve his ends unless he finds the means proportionate to those ends. Common sense observes that no one can end up with a good character, a well-tempered soul, merely by undisciplined chance and accident. If this is the goal, one must make an effort to achieve it. The Epicurean, the Stoic, and the Christian, all three, would characterize their effort to achieve self-command as a moral effort. Is their characterization correct?

You mention the impracticality of attempting to achieve self-control on the grounds that some thoughts are involuntary, some reactions not able to be controlled. I respectfully submit that the fact that some men have more or less control over their thoughts does not change the moral calculation involved.

Those things a man honestly cannot control are not a matter for moral judgment. A madman, for example, does not by choice or negligence go mad. For this reason, we do not consider madness to be shameful. We do not punish madmen. Alcoholism, on the other hand, has in some men or in others a greater or lesser voluntary component. Custom scorns drunkenness as shameful and public laws punish public intoxication, drunk driving, and other aspects of the behavior.

All temptation has at least some involuntary component; otherwise we do not call it temptation. We do not praise or blame the involuntary component. Only for what a man honestly, by choice or by his negligence, is or should be responsible, do we hold him accountable.

In other words, the argument that, because some involuntary thoughts exist, we should be excused us from any moral judgment about any thought, simply does not follow. The argument would follow if and only if no thoughts whatsoever were voluntary, for then and then only would there be no accountability for the content of thought and character. As it is, in real life, those thoughts that are voluntary would still fall under a moral rule.

Further, the extent to which some thoughts are voluntary or involuntary is influenced by the habits of virtue. Children have no real control over their thoughts and actions. They are below the age of reason, and so must be trained and instructed. They are not born knowing right from wrong. The act of training and instructing a child in the habits of virtue is in and of itself proof that the boundary between voluntary and involuntary thought can be moved.

2. In the logical point, you speak of punishments fitting the crime, but in every hypothetical we have discussed so far, we are discussing a situation where the act has no consequences after 31 minutes. In any case, this is a red herring on your part: I urge you to contemplate that a real man does what is right because it is right, not because someone may punish or not punish him for doing it. Unjust law punish men for doing what is right rather than what is wrong: the consequences in such cases are reversed from what they ought to be. While cowardly and practical men accede to unjust laws, in order to avoid the consequences, just men seek justice, and defy the laws that abridge justice, and they damn the consequences. 

In any case, the self-inflicted punishments of victimless crimes are clear enough to anyone who pays attention to what the real and ruinous consequences are that follow from base self-indulgences. It is the fantasy that one can escape those consequences, or that one can indulge only moderately in vice and emerge unstained, it is this cruel self-deception I say, which makes prudent lawgivers put vice laws on their lawbooks. The victims of victimless crimes are, of course, the wives and children of the men who lose health and sobriety and fortune and life in the pursuit of false pleasures, and the man himself, who abolishes the good man he might have otherwise been.  

You also argue thus: “So to be perfectly consistent, you may judge my thoughts as you like, save that you may not give voice to your judgments, and I may respond in kind by judging the thought of your judgment, and so ad infinitum. I say that thoughts are no moral evil, therefore disagreeing with that thought is also no moral evil.”

Here I apologize and confess myself baffled. I simply cannot follow what you are saying. I do not see why “to be perfectly consistent” I cannot voice my judgments about your thoughts, even if I use no force to coerce you to agree with my judgments. Criticism is not trespass nor assault; it is not even slander. I do not see why your ability to disagree leads to “ad infinitum” or what your point is. Are you arguing we must avoid an infinite regress? No such point is in evidence. When two men disagree, the argument might indeed continue without conclusion; or one man or both might modify their conclusions after due consideration. The mere fact of the disagreement says nothing to the relative merits of the case. People disagree both about issues where no conclusion is possible, and about issues where one is.

If my disagreement with your thought that thoughts are morally neutral is also morally neutral, then I am free to disagree, for I do no immorality by voicing disagreement. Is that your point, or where you trying to say something else? I am afraid I am lost here.

3. The emotional point, I can not answer. My emotions are the opposite of yours, and what appeals to your emotions leave me cool and unmoved.

I am not a fan of self-indulgence. I have contempt for those who yield sovereignty of their reason to their appetites.

My reason tells me is pointless and illogical to rail against the injustice of a universe because we lack perfect self-control; my emotions tell me it is unworthy.

The Stoic seeking self-command or even the hedonist seeking moderation must seek self-discipline; no morality is possible without self-discipline. Morality, indeed, might be defined as the self-enforcement of the rules that otherwise a theoretically a perfect justice should have a right to force us by coercion to obey, but that it is more meritorious, on our part, to obey out of love of justice or a sense of duty.  

Even an imperfect attempt to live without vice is nobler than railing against the imperfections of fallen man, and surrendering to those vices. Only a perfectionist would argue that, perfect self-command being impossible, license for all evils of the mind is therefore permissible.  The perfectionist merely ignores that there are degrees of perfection, and says that no bread is better than half a loaf.

I don’t understand the idea that “if there is a morality of the mind, then there is no situation where man has full license without control.” What do those words mean? Full license to do what? Why would such a license be desirable?

The situation where every man has full and absolute power to indulge any desire that happened to crop up in his imaginings, wholesome or perverse, moderate or gross, strikes me as the condition of Hell, and a particularly diabolic form of self-torture at that. I am sure Sartre could write an interesting play on the theme. 

To blame the universe for creating desires with no means to satisfy them is pure childishness. The universe has equipped the mind, in grown-ups, in sane men, with the power to judge desires and to set aside those that are futile, self-destructive, illicit or perverse. Those desires that cannot be set aside by an act of will, can be set aside by a trained habit of virtue, faithfully exercised. Those desires that even virtue cannot suppress, nevertheless do not have a warrant unless reason warrants them, and therefore must be resisted to the degree fallen human nature permits, or divine grace provides.

If a child cries because he thinks the moon is a lemon pie that he wants to eat, that child has no right to traduce the universe for creating in him such a foolish desire. He is responsible for what he desires, no one else. Even if he cannot control them, they are his, in much the same way a man’s own children are his: if he cannot take responsibility for them, no one else can.

The power to set aside the desire to eat the moon is given to men; whether they chose to exercise and strengthen it, or to undermine and weaken it, is the first and paramount decision of moral reasoning.

Are there temptations men cannot resist? Perhaps so. Men are weak. Are we excused from the duty to resist temptation merely because temptation often wins? Oh, Hercules! Are we allowed to throw down sword and shield and flee the battle merely because the Persian outnumber us, and their horns and flags and brave plumes daunt us? Is it not nobler, whether victory or defeat awaits, to close ranks, ready the spear, and rally to the standard to which we are pledged? Cowardice is unbecoming both in battles of the flesh, and of the spirit.