If I allowed myself to dwell on the thought of taking someone's fancy new laptop, I would probably feel an inclination to do so. But it's highly unusual for me to contemplate such a thing. I can sit in a classroom for hours without noticing open bags and backpacks that might have laptops inside. Often students will use their laptops in class and it won't even register. In contrast, a kleptomaniac would be well aware of those open bags, and would need to remind herself that it would be wrong to steal them.
What's the best way to describe such thought-dependent desires: are they created by the thought, or merely suppressed by its absence? (Is this even a sensible distinction?)
And what are the moral implications? Eric comments:
Part of being a morally good person is its not even being in the space of possibility to do certain things.
An example I use in my Chinese philosophy class is this: I may be running late for an appointment, but when a pedestrian is crossing in front of me it doesn't even occur to me to run him over in my hurry (even if I could get away with it!). One aim -- maybe the aim -- of Xunzian moral education is that it no more occurs to me to cheat on my taxes, needlessly insult someone, cut in line, break my promise, than it occurs to me to run over the pedestrian.
There seems something right about this. On the other hand, it would seem awfully harsh to blame someone merely for being aware of an immoral possible action, especially if they felt no inclination towards it at all (but merely suffered from a perverse imagination, or whatever). What's worse, the "don't think of an elephant" phenomenon might create a vicious spiral, whereby one's anxiety to avoid "bad thoughts" makes them all the more painfully salient. That can't be healthy.
Other problematic cases involve paying inappropriate attention to some irrelevant personal characteristic, e.g. disability, weight, height, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. These may take on an unwelcome salience, especially if we know that we really shouldn't be attending to such things. But repression didn't work out so well for Austin Powers:
"Mole! Bloody mole! We're not supposed to talk about the bloody mole, but there's a bloody mole winking me in the face!"
So, what should he do about it? (Aside from poking it with a twig...)