Friday, January 20, 2012

Are people responsible for their thoughts?


Several weeks ago, a group of Orthodox Jews in Israel spat at and harassed an eight-year old girl on her way to school; they thought she wasn’t dressed modestly enough. The event recalls the more extreme 2002 case, in Saudi Arabia, when Muslim “religious police” prevented girls from escaping a school fire because the girls weren’t wearing headscarves. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times emphasizes that the demand for modest dress is not really about how young women are dressed, but about the thoughts of the men who see them. Provocative dress causes men to think sexual thoughts, the argument goes, and, as such, it should be banned.

Let’s ignore the fact that in most countries, none of the outfits in question would ever be considered provocative. Let’s also ignore the fact that the girl is Israel is eight years old and that there is something very alarming about grown men who respond sexually to someone her age. And, perhaps even more difficult, let’s pass on discussing the inherent sexism of the circumstance. Instead, I’m curious about the core claim that people can ever control their thoughts. I don’t think people can.

The question that heads this blog entry asks whether people should be responsible for their thoughts, but the heart of the puzzle has to be the question of self-regulation. People are not morally culpable for things they cannot control, or, to put it  as philosophers do, ought implies can. If someone says you ought (or should) do something, then it assumes that you are able to do it. So, for example, I am not a bad person because I don’t spout wings and fly; I cannot physically do so. And, I am not acting immorally because I am not, right now, jumping in front of a car to save a baby lying in a St. Louis street. I am nowhere near St. Louis and I physically can’t intervene no matter how much I might want to. In short, if I can’t control my own thoughts, I cannot be held accountable for them.

Try a simple experiment: don’t think about an elephant. No matter what you do, right now, stop imagining that elephant. Stop. Think about something else…. see you can’t. Everyone reading this is thinking of an elephant, and if I can direct your thoughts so easily, how can you be said to control them for yourself? 

This lack of control comes up in debates about homosexuality. Many who defend the morality of homosexuals argue that one does not choose who one is attracted to. Gay and straight people alike are bound by their emotions and therefore, neither homo- nor heterosexuality is a choice. If one’s orientation is not a choice, then it cannot be moral or immoral, although acting on such feelings may be, and this is the key. In the end, all human beings seem to be able to do is control their reactions to their own thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves. People are responsible for their actions alone.

Jews and Muslims are not the only ones who expect people to control their ideas. Many denominations of Christianity prohibit even the most fleeting of lustful thoughts. This is why Catholicism needs confessionals, for example. Practitioners must have some way of cleansing themselves of the sins of imaginations they will inevitably commit. But, in fact, I suspect that the more one confesses to sins of thought, the more one thinks them. After all, the more I mention elephants, the more you have to think about them.

Now, one might claim that all of this justifies the ban on women’s provocative dress: if we can’t control our own thoughts, then we must remove negative inspirations. But this doesn’t follow at all. First, as George Orwell shows better than anyone else, it is impossible to eradicate unwanted ideas, even if we eliminate the language that describes them. Second, and more relevant, if my argument did suggest that a ban on "immodest" clothing is justified, we would end up in an even more absurd position than where we started. We would have moved from claiming that I should control my own thoughts to asserting that because I can’t stop my ideas someone else should. If I can’t even get in my own head, how can anyone else?

In the end, I would suggest that thoughts-in-themselves are neither sinful nor righteous. They are neither vicious nor virtuous. They are just free material that we react to. If we could manipulate our thoughts directly, it seems likely that we would be very different creatures than we are. Religious prohibitions would probably be different as well.

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