originally written in 2017
Is it immoral to think negative thoughts?
Thoughts — mere thoughts — thoughts that haven’t even been verbalised yet, have the power to alter our level of satisfaction with life, but should they be accounted for as part of our ethical conduct? Is it immoral to think negative thoughts?
Normally, when we consider immoral behaviour we think of acts like killing or stealing or generally physical actions that cause harm to another individual. And even many would agree that at times just speaking can be seen as immoral if it is untrue, incites violence or rallies hatred. However, at what stage of the process did ethics become relevant? Once the victim is dead? After the first affliction of physical harm is performed? At the first moment of psychological disturbance, as the well-being of the victim has been directly affected? How far back in the causal chain does moral relevancy exist?
If what we care about is the quality of conscious beings’ mental states, then the scope of that care should not only include the suffering of the victim but should also cover the self-harm inflicted by the perpetrator that comes from harbouring unwholesome desires, vicious intentions and malignant thoughts. Perhaps our ethical concern should trace as far back to the level of the mindset of the perpetrator, whose own wellbeing must suffer due to immoral thinking.
By ‘immoral thinking’, I do not mean thinking about immoral actions. No, what is meant is having thoughts that cause one to be less than ideally happy or are not conducive to the project of reducing suffering. These could be thoughts of a kind that fester anger and hatred inside of you, or memories that evoke sadness, or regret. If someone is constantly complaining to themselves, then it is obvious that their mental wellbeing is not what it could be if they were not continually reciting negativity. Complaining may be totally warranted and even productive at times; however, that aside, if we focus on the moment when a thought arises that takes our happiness metre down a notch, then that can be said to be where our ethical conduct really begins.
To be clear, I want to emphasise that it is probably beneficial to think less than perfect thoughts in many circumstances, for instance venting your grievances to a therapist can serve as means of catharsis. However, when the situation does not call for it, can it be looked at as unethical to think about ‘all the reasons you hate your job’ as opposed to taking the same time to think about ‘all the reasons you love your job’? Both trains of thought will very likely alter your mood, the first is bound to dampen it and therefore not maximize your wellbeing, the second will probably raise your mood and increase your wellbeing. By dwelling in unproductive, negative thoughts, we give rise to negative emotions and as a result, we suffer. In this way, thinking can be seen as a form of moral behaviour.
The topic of moral thinking needs to take into consideration the mechanisms behind the production of thought; whether we really are free to choose what we think about, or whether thoughts are thrust upon us, conditioned by habits, generated by the absorption of information around us, or a combination of all these factors and how so. Depending on how the content of our thoughts are shaped, will change how we go about trying to become happier individuals by making sure our thoughts tend towards being on the more positive and productive side of things.
A common consensus is that our thoughts are our own, that we choose the topic that we will spend the next five minutes ruminating on. However, if it were up to us we rather not think unhappy thoughts, but sometimes we have no choice or rather fail to realise our attention has been swept along by them. We can go long stretches of time engrossed in a thought that serves us no benefit at all, but the more we are able to identify those moments the better we become at recognising when our wellbeing is being corrupted, and then perhaps we can take heed to direct our thoughts on to more congenial matters. The moment we decide to think happy thoughts, in an effort to improve our wellbeing, could be counted as a moral act — that is if we buy that simply thinking has a meaningful role to play in influencing our mental wellbeing.
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. — William James.
In the same way that we believe it to be moral to make others happy by being nice to them, and treating them with respect and fostering love and compassion for them so that they can flourish as fully, actualised individuals, we should want the same for ourselves. If you believe it is the right thing to do to help sentient beings feel positive emotions, then it follows that the right thing to do is to help yourself (as a fellow sentient being) feel positive emotions, and that can be done to a degree by thinking positive thoughts. So next time you find yourself unnecessarily complaining about or criticizing someone or something, realise that what you are doing could be considered immoral, and then take the time to do the ethical thing, to conjure up some more amicable thoughts.