Thursday, May 10, 2007

Immoral Awareness?

There's some interesting discussion at The Splintered Mind about thought-dependent desires. Justin Tiwald explains:
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...)


  1. I usedto explain to peopel how easy it was to cheat the system at university and get somewhat funny looks.

    To me it was a matter of frustration with an inferior system but I exect most people thought "you are rather too aware of immoral behaviour".


  2. It's a high standard that you don't even consider such things. That's why it took Kongzi 55 years (Analects 2.4)! I'm not sure we should blame people harshly for immoral choices being too inviting to them, if they don't act immorally, but I remain attracted to the idea that it shows less than perfect moral attainment. (As in the case of Powers!)

  3. Hmm. Thanks for the multi-media response, Richard. These are great questions.

    Just as a point of clarification, I think there's an important distinction between (a) being aware of a possible immoral action and (b) entertaining the possibility of stealing it (thus the overly wordy "entertain the possibility of..." clause). I wouldn't normally call someone un-virtuous simply because she she's aware that she could steal the snazzy new MacBook Pro, so long as she doesn't consider whether she might steal it. It might also be useful to distinguish between (b) entertaining the possibility of stealing the laptop and (c) entertaining the possibility of my stealing the laptop. I can imagine someone else doing something immoral without being tempted to do something immoral myself.

    But I admit this still leaves a variant of the "don't think of the elephant" problem. If we try too hard not to entertain the possibility of poking the mole with a stick, it will be hard not to entertain it. There are some very intriguing issues regarding a certain class of desires here: desires not to consider/think about/entertain things. It seems like it would require some serious revamping of our circuitry to reach that point that we could desire not to consider X without also considering X.

    The funny thing is, I think this is exactly what the classical Confucians were after, including Xunzi.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.