Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Thought Police

All moral wrongs are, ultimately, thought crimes. What a person is being condemned or praised for, ultimately, are the thoughts that he had at the time he performed a particular action. Actions themselves are taken only as signs that we need to investigate a person’s thoughts.

I offer this statement in response to a comment by an anonymous member of the studio audience.

We all have less than noble thoughts. Most of us choose not to act on them either because we fear the consequences (social or legal) or because we don't really want to inflict something bad on someone else once we calm down. To call someone evil because they have 'bad thoughts' is to risk falling into the religion trap. They might need monitoring to make sure their environment doesn't change to make their inherent anti-social behaviour become expressed, but they cannot be tagged 'evil'.

Imagine a case in which a person walks up to a luggage carousel at an airport, picks up a bag, and walks off with it. That bag, however, belongs to another passenger. Has this person done anything wrong?

That depends. Specifically, it depends on what his mental states were at the time of the action. If he sincerely believed that the bag was his, and had good reason to believe that then he is not a thief. On the other hand, if he believed that the bag belonged to somebody else, and his aim was to take possession of the contents – or, at least, anything of value he could find, then he has done something wrong.

The difference between the two cases rests entirely on the person’s mental states. One set of mental states is permissible (or only mildly impermissible). The other set of mental states is worthy of much stronger condemnation. In both cases, we are evaluating mental states.

In law, as in morality, one of the elements that the prosecutor must prove in making a conviction is motive. The prosecutor must find evidence somewhere that indicates that the accused had desires that would be fulfilled by committing the crime. Without motive, it is impossible to make a conviction. However, the exact motive is also relevant. Some motives are better than others.

One person aims his gun at another, pulls the trigger, and kills the other. Is this murder?

The accused reports that the person he shot was holding a pipe he had picked up off of the ground, was waving it menacingly, and was chasing some woman into the alley. The act of killing the other person, now, is not wrong. Again, the difference between the two cases has nothing to do with the act of aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, or even the direct intention to kill the other person. It does, however, have to do with his belief that an innocent person was in danger, and his desire to protect that innocent person from the harms that would be inflicted by a brutal attacker.

Again, the difference between guilt and innocence has to do entirely with the agent’s thoughts. All moral judgments, ultimately, are judgments about thoughts.

In fact, the law tends to follow morality in that we tend to put crimes into four different categories. A person who kills another can be accused of ‘intentionally’ killing another (the end state the agent was aiming for was for the victim to be dead), ‘knowingly’ killing another (the agent knew that his actions would result in death; however, the fact that it would result in death did not concern him), ‘recklessly’ (the agent had reason to believe that his actions would result in death but did not care about the possibility of death), or ‘negligently’ (the agent should have known - a concerned and responsible person would have known - that his actions carried the possibility of killing others).

All four of these categories refer to the thoughts that the agent had at the time of the action. Furthermore, these categories are ranked – with intentional killing being the worst of these moral crimes.

Indeed, the legal system has this concept of mens rea (or ‘guilty mind’) that is essential for most crimes. In order to convict a person, the prosecutor must provide evidence of mens rea. They must provide some evidence that the thoughts that the accused had at the time of his action were bad thoughts.

If we hold that bad ‘thoughts’ (actually, desires) obtain their value by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires, and that the primary (exclusive?) way of doing so is through action, then it makes sense to use a particular act as a key to starting an investigation into a person’s thoughts. If a person’s thoughts never drive him to act in ways that thwart the desires of others (or to act in any way other than how a person would good desires would act), then we not only have no cause for an investigation, we have nothing that we can use as reliable evidence of ‘bad thoughts’.

So, we wait until a person performs an action that indicates bad desires – the taking of property belonging to another without consent, killing another, uttering a false statement – as our trigger. Now, an investigation into his thoughts begins. Evidence of bad thoughts justifies moral condemnation. Evidence of good thoughts justifies praise. Evidence of neutral thoughts justifies a shrug.

We are not only judged for the mental states we have at the time of an action, but for the mental states we should have but do not. The moral crime of ‘negligence’ is not an accusation that the agent had ‘bad thoughts’. The negligent person typically has no intention of, or thought to, do harm to another. The crime, in this case, is the absence of thoughts or concern over the effects that his actions might have on others. To judge a person for an absence of concern for the effects of his actions on others is to judge his mental states.

Here, consider the example of a person speeding down a road at 75 mph where the speed limit is 45. The police pull him over. They discover that the driver’s young child in the back seat had been bitten by a bee and is having an allergic reaction. The driver's intention – his ‘thought’ – was to get his child to the hospital as quickly as possible to save the child’s life. He may still get a ticket, but the moral wrongness of his action disappears with the discovery that any disregard the driver showed for the safety of others by speeding was overridden by a more valuable thought – the thought of saving the life of his child.

Or, a driver, speeding down a road, hits a group of pedestrians. An investigation reveals that the brakes on the vehicle had been deliberately set to fail at the top of the hill. Because of this rigged brake failure, the act of driving at a high rate of speed and hitting pedestrians does not give us any evidence of 'bad thoughts' on the part of the driver, or even that the driver lacked concern for the welfare of others. Even a person with good thoughts could have ended up in that situation. So, we let this person off the hook.

In fact, I can actually make the claim that all moral judgments are ultimately judgments about mental states even stronger. Our identity – the ‘who’ we are – is a collection of mental states. It makes no sense to judge somebody – to call that person good or evil – without calling a collection of mental states good or evil.

Assume that I planted a device in your brain that allowed me to control your actions from my computer. I sit in my office directing you to enter a bank and rob it. In this case, you are not morally responsible for this theft. I would be morally responsible. This is precisely because the thoughts behind the act of walking into the bank and robbing it were my thoughts, and what we are ultimately aiming for is an evaluation of the thoughts behind the action, not the action itself.

The idea that morality has nothing to do with thoughts – that we cannot and should not have a ‘thought police’ – is surprisingly popular, particularly given how easy it is to prove that it is also completely wrong.

Now, there are a couple of limited contexts in which the condemnation of a ‘thought police’ makes sense. I have defended the proposition that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions – that it is not legitimate to respond to ideas with violence. However, this does not imply that the ideas cannot be condemned; it only implies that the condemnation should not take the form of violence. People should not be arrested and imprisoned for thoughts that he expresses in words alone.

Also, as I have already argued above, it makes no sense to try to go after thoughts independent of action. In the absence of action, we have no reason to believe that a person has bad thoughts, or at least insufficient evidence for a conviction. A ‘thought in the absence of action’ police would be targeting people who are giving us absolutely no evidence that their thoughts are those that tend to do harm to others . . . particularly when the agent is not causing (or planning to cause) harm to others.

Both of these cases where it makes sense to criticize a 'thought police' are consistent with the idea that whenever we make moral evaluations we primarily targeting 'thoughts'. These cases simply state that our 'thought police' will limit the use of violence to those cases where thought leads to action. Where thought leads only to words, the 'thought police' will exercise restraint and only use words and private actions against those with 'bad thoughts'.

The thought police are out there. In fact, it's about the only type of police that we have, and that is as it should be.


Anonymous said...

What an excellent posting!

I'd be curious about your position on "hate crimes" legislation.

Divided By Zer0 said...

Amazingly well said.

Cameron said...

anonymous said...
I'd be curious about your position on "hate crimes" legislation.

Seconded. How should we respond the words of a white supremacist as he encourages the worst in others? Should we lock him up because of the likelihood that his words will lead to violence, do we get on a megaphone and attempt to overpower his message with reason, or do we wait until some violence has occurred and then sort out who to punish?

Kevin said...

I, too, first thought of the subject of hate crimes as I read this. I guess the link is pretty obvious. I'm wondering about it in the greater context of law. Namely, just how much of the thought should the law be concerned with? Should law be limited to thought to the point of merely putting the action into context of mens rea? Or should the law be concerned with the specific content of the desire (beyond the level of merely using it to establish mens rea).

For example: We have two example murders. In murder A, a man murders another man for having an affair with his (the first man) wife. In murder B, a white supremacist kills a black man for simply being black. Assume that all other details are equivalent (same amount of planning, same brutality in the murder, same passion of motivation, etc). Should murder B be punished to a greater degree than murder A simply because the motivation was racism? Both desires led to crimes of equal weight. Should the law consider either criminal's motivation beyond what is necessary to establish mens rea?

Cameron said...

Kevin said...
Should murder B be punished to a greater degree than murder A simply because the motivation was racism? Both desires led to crimes of equal weight. Should the law consider either criminal's motivation beyond what is necessary to establish mens rea?

I don't think there's even a question here, considering what I understand about DU.

Some desires are worse than others. To the extent that we can modify desires, we should spend more condemnation on the worse desires.

The desire to kill people out of pure racism is worse. I say this because the desire to kill someone out of the hurt caused by an affair is somewhat understandable. When I say "understandable," I mean that there are some good desires that are tied up with a marriage and being faithful that could be twisted into the wrong desire to kill someone.

The person who kills out of pure racism should be condemned (and punished) more than the person that kills out of the twisted desires associated with being cheated on.

This is not to say that we should condone either, simply that those that kill with the more evil intent should be punished more, because have have more reason to condemn those more evil desires.

The courts even uphold this principle. Those that kill out of malice or for profit are treated more harshly than those that kill in self defense or in a misguided attempt to do good.

Anonymous said...

The desire to kill people out of pure racism is worse. I say this because the desire to kill someone out of the hurt caused by an affair is somewhat understandable.

I think everyone agrees on your example. A better comparison would be someone murdering someone because of their race vs. someone murdering someone to steal their wallet, for a cheap thrill, because they looked at them wrong, etc.

Cameron said...

I think everyone agrees on your example. A better comparison would be someone murdering someone because of their race vs. someone murdering someone to steal their wallet, for a cheap thrill, because they looked at them wrong, etc.

So if everyone agrees on this example, it should be obvious that the intent of the crime should matter beyond establishing a guilty mind. Obviously the motivation matters when it comes to deciding punishment.

Anonymous said...

Obviously the motivation matters when it comes to deciding punishment.

I think we've agreed on that. Intent matters. Motive matters. The question of hate crimes is about which motives are worthy of greater punishment. The examples I gave highlight the issue better, because 'crimes of passion' are already considered lesser than other kinds of murder before we even get to hate crimes.

My point was to try and get closer to comparing apples to apples (depending on where you come down on the issue).

Your example contained something everyone already considers to be something other than apples -- crimes of passion.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, if someone says hate crimes represent the worst category of murder (thus worthy of more severe punishment), we should test this by thinking of other kinds of murder that are thought of as the worst kind.

You don't test it by comparing it to an already established milder form of murder. That's a settled matter. If A is greater than B, and B is greater than than C, then A is greater than than C.

Of course this applies to other crimes that fall under hate crimes legislation -- assualt, battery, etc..

That's all I'm trying to say.

Cameron said...


I understand the point you're making. I was really responding to Kevin's question that asked, effectively, "should hate crimes be punished more severely than crimes of passion?"

I thought the answer was a pretty obvious yes. That's what I was really responding to. The example in question was his, not mine.

Anonymous said...

You're correct. I read your post without reading his.

Kevin said...

It wasn't my intent to ask whether hate crimes are worse than other crimes (and I'd hesitate to call the other a crime of passion to set it apart, as in my example both were to be done in equal passion, therefore, the passion is equal in both cases) so much as should the law even consider the motive beyond necessity to establish mens rea, although the answers given do inspire some thoughts on that, and have indirectly answered the question.

I perhaps should have chosen a better crime A in the example, something that doesn't elicit such a level of empathy relative to the second. In hindsight, my whole effort seems rather poorly constructed. Still, it provided some useful responses.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that actions or negligence harmful to others are the result of the mental state(s) involved. Inciting others to harmful acts or negligence is also morally wrong.

It doesn't follow, however, that people should be criticized or judged for their personal thoughts. You speak of less severe punishments. My position is that morality begins with a mental state, and the discovery of mental states help determine the moral judgement of an action or negligence. Devoid of the act or negligence causing harm however, morality has not yet entered the picture.