General Question

Jayne's avatar

Can a person be blamed for their thoughts?

Asked by Jayne (6734 points ) April 10th, 2009

Freedom of speech, let alone of thought, is a foundation of our society, written into our constitution to prevent the tyranny of the majority and allow a healthy intellectual discourse. But the actual practice of this supposed ideal, in which any idea, no matter how abhorrent it is to you, must be allowed expression, seems to run absolutely contrary to our instincts, to the point that we will openly attempt to make exceptions. Take pedophilia, for instance. The sexual abuse of children is, of course, a crime, and rightly results in prosecution. But on a number of forums, with Fluther by no means an exception, people have claimed that they would willingly kill the sick f*cks who even think of children in a sexual way; that they would willingly see pedophiles locked up for the crime of thinking disgusting thoughts. Now, to some extent this is rhetoric- I doubt that many of these people would themselves be willing to sign the bill into law or perform the execution by their own hand. But nonetheless, people seem willing to make a person’s private thoughts criminal, to apply the normative force of government and society to the ideas and emotions of a private citizen, when those thoughts become sufficiently repulsive to the conscience.

Taken out of the context of an impassioned defense of children against abuse, where such rhetoric might be appropriate, do any of you still feel that it is morally, ethically, or even pragmatically defensible for such an intervention to be made? Can society legitimately exercise a moral standard on its members, outside of the practical defense of their physical security? More philosophically, can a person legitimately be blamed for their thoughts? Remember, this discussion is not about pedophilia- that is simply a convenient example- so try not to rely solely on the argument that the government should intervene to prevent the potential harm of a child.

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44 Answers

elijah's avatar

You can’t blame people for their thoughts, but you can hold them accountable for choosing to act upon them.
If someone openly admits to having thoughts of harming someone else, I am not against taking steps to prevent the thoughts from becoming actions. This doesn’t mean jail or death, but strict supervision and evaluation. I don’t believe one persons rights should supercede the well being of many.

MrKnowItAll's avatar

It was once a capital offence in England to “Imagine the death of the King”.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Absolutely not.
People have all sorts of thoughts, some of them are bizarre and unreasonable. Unethical thoughts are not crimes until you act upon them.

ShauneP82's avatar

People are allowed to voice there opinion. Nothing says they won’t be persecuted for it. Nothing says you will be liked for it. The constitution does not guarantee you happy sunshine smiles for saying something. Many people could care less about what the constitution says. People will contradict freedom of speech by suggesting, like you said, they would kill somebody for desiring sex with a child or anything else for that matter. Every action causes a reaction. If you anger somebody, they respond in some way. Sometimes they respond violently, others silent. For example, threatening the life of a dignitary would likely land you in jail or at least under a hot lamp for interrogation.

You can say whatever you want and not be punished for it. What would be punished is the presumption that you would carry out what you say. I am no expert on the constitution, but I can assume when those words were written it was assumed you would do exactly what you would say.

In conclusion, if you don’t mean it don’t say it. This is a practice greatly forgotten these days. We have pseudo threats everyday, politician making promises that are never kept, and pages and pages of crumby contracts made to pad a benefactors pockets no matter what happens to anybody else. Sniff sniff.

Now everybody, lets have a big group hug and realize the can be much better. : D

GAMBIT's avatar

On the contrary you should be rewarded for your thoughts and for sharing your perspective. Unfortunately you may want to know your audience before you go into great detail on a specific subject unless you have time to explain your position and they are open to the discussion.

ShauneP82's avatar

@GAMBIT I agree with you entirely. ~I don’t think shooting your mouth off about how great a president Obama is would be met with a favorable response if you were making a speech to the KKK. lol.~

wundayatta's avatar

Not too long ago, I asked a question about what people thought the relationship between fantasy and action is. It was another version of this question. Since I asked the question, I didn’t give myself permission to pontificate, but I have no such compunction here! ;-)

I think freedom of thought, in addition to freedom of speech are very important. Of course, things get awfully tricky, when we consider the relationship between thought and speech, as well as the relationship between speech and action. Making “terroristic threats” is a crime. We take very seriously anyone who says they want to assassinate the president. (Presumably our government has algorithms that filter through the internet traffic, looking for certain keywords and this comment will draw their attention).

There has to be more than words to indicate action is imminent. We have to have credible evidence to believe that a person is not just shooting off their mouth, but is about to take the next step. But it’s not that hard to use terroristic threats. We know that words can make a person feel very anxious. Threats can ruin someone’s life. Words do have power to harm. Anyway, freedom of speech is not absolute, I think.

Freedom of thought? Well, we don’t have any thought-reading people or machines, so it seems to me that people can think whatever they want. Nothing anyone else can do, so long as they keep their thoughts to themselves.

Now, the example of the pederast who speaks up. If we use a standard that people can say anything, so long as the words do not actively hurt anyone else in particular, then that speech is protected, then what happens when the pederast speaks openly about his desires? Are others hurt? Clearly, if his speech indicated an individual he was targeting, we’d say it hurts that person. Enough to arrest him? Perhaps. We can’t arrest everyone who threatens someone else with physical harm.

I guess, I think that a pederast who was speaking about his desires in general, is protected from arrest for his speech. The instant the speech targets an individual in a credible way (claims of making jokes are difficult to assess), then it seems to me that becomes unprotected speech. Thoughts, however, are fine, because no one can do anything about them, until they are spoken aloud or written down.

Harp's avatar

A presidential candidate who confesses to the thought that God doesn’t exist is political toast. Hell, even if he were to refuse to affirm or deny the existence of God, he’d be toast.

AstroChuck's avatar

According to the catholic church you can. Thank God I’m not catholic.

Dansedescygnes's avatar

How exactly would the government determine you had pedophilic thoughts? How exactly would anyone determine that?

Saying things like “I’d kill someone who even thought about children that way!” is just talking big. No one who says that realistically thinks they can determine who thinks things like that and then determine that it’s time to kill them nor do they think it would be a good idea to punish people for thoughts. Not to mention everyone has violent or disturbing thoughts from time to time.

ShauneP82's avatar

~Technically if any of us watched the Beijing Olympics, Gymnastics and thought what most men think when they see a woman in skin tight clothes…you have had a pedophilic thought.

Sick sick sick. You are all sick!~ : P

RedPowerLady's avatar

@elijahsuicide Well put. You put my thoughts into beautifully articulated words.

ninjacolin's avatar

this is going to be pretty general.. i somewhat disagree with @elijahsuicide‘s ideas. when someone acts on a bad thought, our reaction should not be to punish them for the action but for the thought itself. you can’t predict their thoughts in advance unless they willingly admit they have a problem… hmm,.. so, i’d say acting on a bad thought is essentially an admission of the thought and so steps should be taken to help them understand why those thoughts have to go.

Punishment must not be about making people suffer. It should be about rehabilitation. The goal of Punishment must be to stop them from having those thoughts that result in bad actions.. this essentially means convincing them against the thought processes that lead to those actions.

ShauneP82's avatar

@ninjacolin In all of the history of time has that ever actually been accomplished? You can’t stop somebody from thinking something. It is obvious that our own prison fail to do so otherwise we would not have so many people locked up now.

I am sorry to use this example but China has next to no crime. Why? Fear. If you do something bad enough to get their attention you either go to prison for life, or you are executed. Then your family is charged for the bullet. People do not like listening to authority my friend.

Dansedescygnes's avatar

@ninjacolin

Not to mention that if the thoughts are due to mental illness, there is little you can do to fix that. Mental illness is often a permanent problem.

Jayne's avatar

@Dansedescygnes & @ninjacolin; so you think that it is right to punish someone for their thoughts, and that it is only the practical hindrance of accurately determining those thoughts that should stop us from doing this? Even if the punishment is only about ‘correcting’ those thoughts, you believe that society, not even necessarily the government, has the right to forcefully dictate what kinds of thought one is theoretically permitted to have? That seems like the ultimate breach of privacy, and I fail to see why this is justified simply because those particular thoughts are generally accepted as abhorrent.

ninjacolin's avatar

yes, Jayne, you nailed it.

understand that i believe Morality is simply actions caused by Good logic.
Immorality, then, is really just actions caused by Bad logic.

If someone commits a “crime” then, we know they only did it because they aren’t convined that they ought not. and perhaps they have a good reason for it that the rest of society can learn from. But if not, then that person simply needs to be educated on why their conclusions are not sound.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@ninjacolin

Well I will agree with this bit: Punishment must not be about making people suffer. It should be about rehabilitation.

And our society definitely needs to focus more on rehabilitation vs. punishment IMO.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy make work towards your second point. But it’s just not always possible. For many reasons. Mental illness being one. The actor not wanting to change their thoughts for another. And perhaps the most difficult is in some cases it would mean changing a person’s entire worldview which would be quite a bit of work. In the least we should make sure that the thoughts are not acted upon. That is step one. Just like in most A&D treatment. There is first a recognition that the behavior is causing problems. Then the behavior must be stopped. Then the cognitions are worked on. In some cases it has to be enough that the stopped the behavior. In better circumstances we can change the thought patterns that lead to the behavior.

ninjacolin's avatar

Mental illness is one thing… maybe…. After all, most of the people working on mental illness are libertarians.. so, it’s hard for me to be confident that they are looking for the right answers. :P

@ShauneP82, i think you can stop someone from thinking something. i think there are ways to do it. you do have to get them on your side though. Changing someone’s worldview is a challenge but I think it would be a lot quicker and cheaper than detaining most of these people on our own dimes for 15 years in prison. Also much more positive for all concerned parties.

ninjacolin's avatar

@Jayne my point is.. there are good reasons why stealing, murdering, raping and the like are discouraged. Criminals don’t understand why they should not resort to these actions. They need to come to learn why it’s not a good idea and why other ideas of behaviour are superior.

Prison should really be culture school.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@ninjacolin “Changing someone’s worldview is a challenge but I think it would be a lot quicker and cheaper than detaining most of these people on our own dimes for 15 years in prison. Also much more positive for all concerned parties.”

I’ll have to agree with that!

mangeons's avatar

You can’t punish a person for their thoughts. But you can, however, punish a person for acting upon them. I’m sure every one of us thinks something that we’re not proud to think, but it all depends on how you act upon it.

Jayne's avatar

@ninjacolin; I agree that prison should be corrective. My reason for this, however, is somewhat different than yours. You believe that criminals should be convinced of the error of their logic. I believe that there is no error in their logic; morality to me is arbitrary, and the morals behind the laws are those that society agrees are the best for its collective safety. As such, it is ridiculous for justice to have a punitive role; punishing them for what, for having the wrong arbitrary opinion? However, it is also not the purpose of the justice system to alter their thoughts and morality; if they do change, all the better, but ultimately the system should only be in place to ensure that people do not act contrary to the laws. Again, it has no business trying to impose a system of thought. Because, frankly, while we as a society are good at recognizing that which is physically harmful to us- getting stabbed in the spleen seems to fit the bill- we are pretty bad at recognizing what is morally harmful- girls can’t wear pants, anyone? And we are even worse at recognizing that we are fallible in that regard. Given your conception of morality as an absolute, logically-derived ideal, I can where you are coming from. However, don’t you think the views of society have changed sufficiently over the generations as to cast doubt on its authority to regulate the private moralities of citizens any more than is clearly necessary to maintain security?

ninjacolin's avatar

@Jayne said: the system should only be in place to ensure that people do not act contrary to the laws

No way. Not if the law is stupid. Girls not wearing pants is a stupid law. Black people not having rights is a stupid. Women not being able to vote is stupid. Ideas like these are logically untenable upon close examination which is why they don’t last. Any law that is based on faulty reasoning ought to be exposed as quickly as possible and done away with. This is why racism and sexism and homophobia are going down. These ideas are not useful and they are based in ignorance.

We aren’t “bad” at recognizing it at all. We have been slow in the past but we’re a lot quicker now. Technologies like the internet and improved schooling has helped us to become faster at recognizing ill-logic and responding to it. We aren’t perfect yet, but we’re improved and we will continue to improve. We always do.

@Jayne said: don’t you think the views of society have changed sufficiently over the generations as to cast doubt on its authority to regulate the private moralities of citizens any more than is clearly necessary to maintain security

actually, society has never tried. Society right up to today has always been libertarian blaming and hence punishing the soul for wrong doings rather than punishing the logic and memory of the perpetrator.

Consider people who claim they can’t stop eating too much. Let’s call that the crime of gluttony. These people when they show up on shows like Dr. Phil or Oprah or The greatest loser and other reality tv shows like that.. why do they tend to SUDDENLY be able to improve on their behaviors and give up their vices? I submit to you that it’s not because of their “will power.” It’s because of their conviction. Their new beliefs about their situation. Their situation has changed dramatically and they can’t help but believe the evidence: They are in the public eye, they have access to more resources to attain their goals, they have a dedicated social group behind them, and they feel the sense of commitment. Necessarily, the outside influences in their lives is what forces their behaviour to change.

You see this too in criminals who come to accept what they believe is “the word of God”.. their new convictions in their new religion are so different than their previous convictions without the religion that their actions totally change and they become people who can better function in society. (as long as the religion is one that generally functions with society, that is) they act on whatever they find believable and sensible.

The best way to stop someone from taking an action is to convince them that they don’t want to. This is how negotiators are sometimes able to talk down a shooter or a jumper. If they can say the right things, they can coerce the right behaviour.

/tangent sorry, just got into the examples for clarity

nikipedia's avatar

I’d like to speak to the question of pragmatism. Can we read people’s thoughts?

Some companies would like you to believe that we can use fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to determine whether a person is telling the truth or not. This is not true at the moment, but this is not far from becoming a reality. You can literally see what a person is reading by imaging his/her visual cortex.

So I think it’s important to determine what kind of thoughts we’re blaming people for. Can we blame people for reading the letter “n”? I don’t think so. It would be tricky to see it and not have your brain think “n”. So what about more complicated, abstract thoughts? What do those look like under an fMRI? How are they different from thinking “n”. I’m not sure they’re as different as we’d all like to believe, but this is not an especially popular viewpoint.

ninjacolin's avatar

technically, i believe we cannot freely choose what we think about.

mangeons's avatar

@ninjacolin That’s my exact view on it.

Jayne's avatar

Laws are often stupid, but I fail to see how this is relevent; the legal system must assume that the laws are reasonable, otherwise there would be no reason to have laws. Of course, laws should be subject to review, but this is entirely out of the scope of this discussion.

However, in the same way that laws can be stupid and subject to change, morals, as percieved by society, can be stupid and transient, which is why neither the legal system nor society can have the power to dictate the morals of a person; it can only protect itself from physical harm by that person, by creating boundaries on his behavior- laws- and imprisoning the person if they are unwilling to respect them. The system should try to instill respect for those laws, but failure to accept them morally should not be grounds for imprisonment, only failure to respect them in action.

ninjacolin's avatar

absolutely: if your bad thoughts never turn into a bad action, then i submit that what you consider to be “a bad thought” is still not the SORT of bad thoughts that need punishing. Clearly, if you never act on a bad thought, it is because you are convinced that you ought not. And so, your thoughts, holistically, are in line with the law.

ninjacolin's avatar

it’s the reason why I can talk ABOUT rape.. without being guilty of it.

ninjacolin's avatar

“the legal system must assume that the laws are reasonable, otherwise there would be no reason to have laws. Of course, laws should be subject to review, but this is entirely out of the scope of this discussion.”

naw, i think it’s all one and the same. that review period should happen at every trial.

it should be determined first whether the person is guilty of the “offense”.. and then it should be determined whether that unique occurrence of “offense” requires punishment at all. this is somewhat what happens but there’s another level to it that i’m hoping for

Jayne's avatar

There is a difference between a thought and a feeling, of course. I think, on a purely intellectual level, that there is nothing morally wrong with killing people, but on an instinctive level the idea repels me; I would never do it unless I had to. Similarly, a person can feel impelled to commit a crime, but can also think that it is wrong or dangerous, or vice versa. Thought and action do not have a direct correlation, nor can thought or emotion be pure and free of contradiction. On these grounds alone, as well as the ones above, it would be impractical and pointless to prosecute or persecute based on thought.

As for your last comment; perhaps, but this would be terribly costly in time and resources, and therefore impractical. It would also rely on the judgment of a judge or jury, and would therefore be less reliable than the democratic process by which it was enacted.

ninjacolin's avatar

“Thought and action do not have a direct correlation”
uh.. yes they do, always. if you have no thoughts whatsoever on what a gun is, looks like, feels like, or how it functions.. how can you ever shoot someone 15 times in the chest with it?

there’s a bit of thought one has to do about our thoughts in order to understand these things clearly. there’s a lot of information about how we think that gets ignored by the courts and in thought sessions like this one. we seem to have a hierarchy of preferences of which we only ever act on the highest priority preferences. all other preferences, like perhaps the general preference of not aiming a gun at someone because it’s “dangerous” or “scary,” are not acted on in light of the highest priority preferences such as “there’s a burglar in my house and I need to protect myself.”

Jayne's avatar

I mean, you cannot look at somebody’s actions, and know what they were thinking, or what they were feeling. Read my comment again.

ninjacolin's avatar

the classic idea of “thought crime”.. i’m not in favor of. just to be clear.
all that i mean is that we don’t commit actions without certain thoughts.

you can only pull a trigger if you felt pulling a trigger was the right choice in a given moment. and it’s that conclusion that i think needs to be examined. as in, why did you come to that conclusion? was it for a justifiable reason? what’s going on in your life to make you think that shooting people for looking at your girlfriend is warranted? ought shooting people for looking at your girlfriend be an acceptable way for society? should you ever do that again? why or why not?

every inmate should come out as a trained logician.

Zen's avatar

Two words: Big Brother. Two more words: Thought Police. It’s just a matter of time…

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, if you believe in non-determinism and free will. And if someone is thinking I’m flying a Boeing 767 into a skyscraper, in my opinion this person should be blamed. Planning comes after a thought, and implementation comes after planning. I like the notion of mental hygiene.

ninjacolin's avatar

would we have to arrest you now for having that thought?

Zen's avatar

Am I the only one who laughs @ninjacolin‘s avatar – I lurve it – and then he says these brilliant things.. it’s like ice cream and chocolate!

bea2345's avatar

You cannot be punished for your thoughts, not in a democratic society. But your thoughts often lead to words, and then, if your thoughts are dangerous, wicked and harmful, or just plain antiestablishment – read 1984 by George Orwell – your words will reveal them.

belakyre's avatar

I would say that you can think what you want, but you must be careful of what you say or do. This world is a very touchy one, and you must try to moderate your thoughts in order to avoid being prosecuted.

Cheesy quote: “Think before you act.”

MaryW's avatar

Thoughts, voicing them, inciting action, and acting on thoughts are all your property.
Inside your head take care.
Outside your head take credit or blame.

Simcoe's avatar

You can be in practice, if you disclose your thoughts. Here are some examples:

-Freedom of speech is not always respected

-If you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, they may not treat you favorably. For example, if I say in a job interview: “honestly, I don’t like this line of work. I’m just in it for the money”. You will probably not get the job

-People may not like you if you express opinions that they disagree with.

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