Learning to watch ourselves

Learning to watch ourselves
Everyday Philosophy


George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us many chilling ideas. One of the most influential is ‘thoughtcrime’. The idea of a regime so authoritarian that it would police the inside of your mind, always trying to catch out forbidden thoughts, is terrifying. Thoughtcrime elegantly describes both genuine North-Korea-style domination and more subtle forms of conformism.

The idea of a regime so authoritarian that it would police the inside of your mind, always trying to catch out forbidden thoughts, is terrifying.

Despite this, I think that we have learned a bad lesson from Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that book, a thoughtcrime is a distinct offence: the more general term is ‘wrongthink’. Whether Orwell intended it or not, the two concepts have pushed us towards the view that what is inside your head is not a proper object of moral consideration – that there’s something authoritarian about the idea that there are morally good and bad ways to think.

This is quite wrong, and it’s especially foreign to any of the many moral traditions that are concerned with the quality of people’s characters – Christian ethics naturally among them.

First, think about the effect that thinking has on behaviour. Say you have a co-worker named Billy. He’s a friendly presence around the office, he brings people coffee; he seems like a kind, decent guy. The trouble is that he can be a bit of a monologuer: every so often he corners you and drones on about old Simpsons episodes.

If, when you think of Billy, it’s always as Billy-the-annoying-monologuer rather than Billy-the-kind-coffee-bringer, you’re much more likely to resent him and to gossip about him rather than looking out for opportunities to appreciate or be kind to him. In general, if we’re always thinking about people in terms of what annoys or frustrates us about them, that’s unlikely to make us better at loving them.

Now, there are some obvious objections to this. First, I want to make it clear that I’m not arguing for a duty to always ‘think positive’ or to ignore genuinely bad behaviour from others. Sometimes, loving other people means confronting them about things that they’re doing wrong. But Billy’s Simpsons monologuing is a very minor sin at most, and dwelling on it unnecessarily will change your relationship with him for the worse. Thoughts matter.

The second objection is this: sure, thoughts can affect actions, and if they do maybe you should rethink them. But if thoughts don’t affect our actions, what’s the harm? It’s more difficult than you might think to not let your habits of thought affect your habits of action. But let’s concede the point, and imagine that this strict separation is possible.

Imagine two men, David and Darren, who live more or less identical lives. Both are family men, good neighbours, and fun to be around. The only difference is this: when David gets lost in a reverie, he likes to think about his family, or his favourite music. Darren, on the other hand, likes to think about imagined scenes of horrendous violence. Who has a better character?

This might be an extreme example, but it illustrates a general point. Holding onto the wrong thoughts – for example, harbouring a deep grudge against someone who has already apologised – is not good for you, even if it never affects your actions.

You might worry that to blame Darren for his thoughts is too quick. Thoughts, after all, tend to come to us unbidden: we don’t select our future thoughts and queue them up to come to us whenever we want. Is this enough to make concern about the morality of our thoughts pointless? I don’t think so.

We may not have direct control over what thoughts come to us, but most of us can choose to entertain a thought, lingering on it and keeping it to the front of our minds. Or we can let it go. If that’s difficult, we can try to think of something else, go for a walk, talk to someone, or pray – all actions very much within our control.

In the long run, how we think is largely under our control.

And over time we build up habits. The more we think of people as nuisances, the easier it will be to do so, but habits can also make it easier to see them as creations of infinite dignity. In the long run, how we think is largely under our control.

There are important exceptions. Some people suffer from intrusive thoughts because of reasons like past trauma or obsessive compulsive disorder. People in these situations aren’t blameworthy: they need healing, not moral improvement. More broadly, just as it isn’t good to actively entertain immoral thoughts, neither should we obsess about trying to chase out every single undesirable thought on the spot. There is a virtuous mean: doing what you can to improve the way you think without losing yourself in scrupulous micromanaging.

But to hit this mean is virtuous, not morally irrelevant. For the government to try to convict us of thoughtcrime is evil: but governing our own thoughts is an essential step on the path to goodness.