Nate Smith

Evil Thoughts

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Nathaniel Branden says in his book The Disowned Self (page 8):

Parents who accept the teachings of religion are very likely to infect their children with the disastrous notion that there are such things as "evil thoughts" or "evil emotions"--and thus fill the child with moral terror of his inner life.

Thus a child can be led to the conclusion that his feelings are potentially dangerous, that sometimes it is advisable to deny them, that they must be "controlled."

I'm not sure which of two things we should conclude from this passage:

1) There are no evil thoughts.

2) There are some evil thoughts, but we need to be very careful about which ones we do consider evil.

I lean towards 1, but hesitantly, probably because I was raised religious--so I want to clarify. If we accept the first conclusion, then just actions are labeled as good or bad. And insofar as we default on thinking (which falls under the category of action/inaction), we can develop bad (or false) thoughts. But we can also accept bad thoughts accidentally; honest errors can occur.

That being the case, I am still tempted to label some thoughts as evil. If I plan to murder someone, that seems like an evil thought. I consider communism an evil theory, though I realize one can hold that belief honestly (at least for a while). There is probably some context switching from talking about evil thoughts to evil theories. The former is relative, while the latter is judged objectively.

I'd appreciate any feedback.

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If one is going to discuss religion and evil thoughts one must first remember that religions start with a different aspect of philosophy than Objectivist, they start with the Primacy of Consciousness.

You might find the link below helpful in attempting to understand what is under discussion.

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/primacy_...sciousness.html

Let me see if I understand your point. Since religion upholds that (to varying degrees) consciousness creates reality, a belief can be evil insofar as it can affect what is real. On these grounds, thoughts can be evil. But since this isn't true, since reality is independent from thoughts, thoughts can't be evil.

It never occurred to me that the PoC premise was the genesis of the idea of thoughts being evil.

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Yes, you've grasped an important point, Nate. The PoC, in my opinion, is the origin of the idea. Also, the issue is somewhat broader than whether thoughts are evil. What purpose does it serve to hold such a position? It is to inculcate guilt in the person who holds such "evil" thoughts. Just look at The 10 Commandments. Several are concerned with what individuals think about God, or his rules, or your neighbor's wife. Some religions hold that merely thinking something is the same as committing the act.

Why would thinking about murdering someone be evil? Who is that someone? Does he deserve it? Is it proper that you should act on such a thought? A thought does not occur in a vacuum and requires some context. The mere presence of a thought say nothing, morally, about the person holding the thought. Depending upon the thought and that context, it may indicate some psychological issues. It may indicate some moral issues if evasion is involved. But then, it is not the thought that is evil.

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One very evil thought is the metaphysical equivalent of the idea that - "you can get something for nothing". Many men, when they want some value, imagine that they can just get it "somehow". So many men neglect to enact the causes of the effects which they desire.

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Ayn Rand puts the denial of another very evil thought in the mouth of Jeff Allen in Atlas Shrugged. Jeff Allen, i.e. the tramp whom Dagny stumbles upon on her train, The Comet, says (on page 614 of the old Signet paperback) - "Only I think that it is a sin to sit down and let your life go, without making a try for it." Dagny proceeds to think to herself - "The tramp´s last sentence was one of the most profoundly moral statements she had ever heard . . ." Well, I could not agree more with the words which Ayn Rand puts into Dagny´s thoughts. It *is* a really major sin to be blessed with life, and then to neglect to do anything important with that life!

Many of you here on the Forum could not fathom why I came down so hard on the "statistically typical" John Does and Joe Sixpacks of the world in a series of posts here about a year ago. Well, at least part of the explanation is that I have observed so many men from "ordinary walks of life" who are *devoid* of ambition. The work, eat and sleep - and that is it. The most intellectually demanding activity which many of them engage in is to watch televion! Many of my former workmates in the factory were like that.

I simply cannot abide by the kind of creature who *prefers* not to think. For when I myself was placed in a situation in which I had nothing to think about (this happened at the age of 18, shortly after my return to Sweden from America), I found my inner state to be so unbearable that I went literally insane, and was committed to an institution.

So when I came across that analogy to the deep-sea creature which is brought up to the surface of the sea and promptly explodes, in Ayn Rand´s essay "The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age", I had an "aha!-experience". I knew just exactly what Ayn Rand was talking about when she discussed the thinker (or valuer) who could not stand existing in a vacuum. Because I had "been there"!

But many, many men actually *prefer* to exist in such a vacuum. They *choose* to exist in such a state. And that is beyond the pale, in my book. My view is that any *decent* human being will do what I did, if he finds himself in a situation in which he cannot think about anything - he will go insane. Boredom is torture, to any decent human being. So that is the reason, fundamentally, that I do not think that the majority of the members of mankind are decent human beings.

Now, maybe, you understand why I have such a dim view of the majority of the members of mankind?

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Branden's phrase "disastrous notion that there are such things as 'evil thoughts' or 'evil emotions'" clearly means that he doesn't think there is any such thing and that it is disastrous to think otherwise. Disowned Self was one of his first books after his break denouncing Ayn Rand. It was sloppily written and reads more like an expression of his own emotional release from his former views. If you want a careful discussion of the relation between ideas and evaluation, based on the implications of ideas, see Leonard Peikoff's essay "Fact and Value". You always have to be careful in evaluating how people come to the ideas they consider or espouse.

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Branden's phrase "disastrous notion that there are such things as 'evil thoughts' or 'evil emotions'" clearly means that he doesn't think there is any such thing and that it is disastrous to think otherwise. Disowned Self was one of his first books after his break denouncing Ayn Rand. It was sloppily written and reads more like an expression of his own emotional release from his former views. If you want a careful discussion of the relation between ideas and evaluation, based on the implications of ideas, see Leonard Peikoff's essay "Fact and Value". You always have to be careful in evaluating how people come to the ideas they consider or espouse.

I have to disagree. I have found The Disowned Self to be one of the most useful books I have ever read. And I think it is very clearly written.

If you are disagreeing with Branden in his denial of the existence of evil thoughts or emotions, I have since found this quote from Atlas Shrugged: "There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think." And it could probably be argued that the refusal to think is more of an action than a thought.

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Branden's phrase "disastrous notion that there are such things as 'evil thoughts' or 'evil emotions'" clearly means that he doesn't think there is any such thing and that it is disastrous to think otherwise. Disowned Self was one of his first books after his break denouncing Ayn Rand. It was sloppily written and reads more like an expression of his own emotional release from his former views. If you want a careful discussion of the relation between ideas and evaluation, based on the implications of ideas, see Leonard Peikoff's essay "Fact and Value". You always have to be careful in evaluating how people come to the ideas they consider or espouse.

I have to disagree. I have found The Disowned Self to be one of the most useful books I have ever read. And I think it is very clearly written.

If you are disagreeing with Branden in his denial of the existence of evil thoughts or emotions, I have since found this quote from Atlas Shrugged: "There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think." And it could probably be argued that the refusal to think is more of an action than a thought.

If Dave knows that he will inherit a great sum of money from his uncle, and plots a way to kill him without being discovered---with the intention of carrying out his plot---his thoughts ARE evil. And when he acts in accordance with his thoughts his evil actions will be an effect of those evil thoughts. The actions won't happen without mind-guided cause.

It is still true that _at root_ there are no evil thoughts but the refusal to think, for if Dave had been an independent thinker he would also have been an independent producer and earner and valuer and, even if he were in dire straits, would never have considered his uncle's money as his own (except in a passing thought, such as "It would be nice if Uncle would drop off early"---and then damn himself for having such an evil thought---which is the usual kind of thing meant by an "evil thought").

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Branden's phrase "disastrous notion that there are such things as 'evil thoughts' or 'evil emotions'" clearly means that he doesn't think there is any such thing and that it is disastrous to think otherwise. Disowned Self was one of his first books after his break denouncing Ayn Rand. It was sloppily written and reads more like an expression of his own emotional release from his former views. If you want a careful discussion of the relation between ideas and evaluation, based on the implications of ideas, see Leonard Peikoff's essay "Fact and Value". You always have to be careful in evaluating how people come to the ideas they consider or espouse.

I have to disagree. I have found The Disowned Self to be one of the most useful books I have ever read. And I think it is very clearly written.

He didn't lose his ability to write English prose. It's his ideas expressed by it that became sloppy and increasingly bizarre. Disowned Self was a big disappointment to those who had expected him to continue serious Objectivist analysis on his own after his break with Ayn Rand, without realizing that he had fundamentally broken with Ayn Rand's ideas across the board, not just splitting in a personal dispute that turned out to be his personal betrayal and dishonesty.

If you are disagreeing with Branden in his denial of the existence of evil thoughts or emotions, I have since found this quote from Atlas Shrugged: "There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think."

You asked the question if he denied there are any 'evil thoughts': "I'm not sure which of two things we should conclude from this passage: 1) There are no evil thoughts. 2) There are some evil thoughts, ...". Whatever Branden meant by "evil thoughts" he clearly says there aren't any, referring to what he called "the disastrous notion that there are such things as 'evil thoughts'".

You have dropped the context in quoting Francisco in Atlas Shrugged. He was talking about thoughts as necessary for understanding or pursuing understanding as opposed to evasion, not someone who harbors malicious or otherwise destructive thoughts in terms of their implications when carried out:

They keep evading responsibility. You keep assuming it. But don't you see that the essential error is the same? Any refusal to recognize reality, for any reason whatever, has disastrous consequences. There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. Don't ignore your own desires, Mr. Rearden. Don't sacrifice them. Examine their cause."

The fact that an idea pops into your head is not immoral, the refusal to examine and evaluate it is. An emotion is an expression of an automatic evaluation based on underlying values and is neither moral nor immoral; the concept 'morality' does not apply to emotions but does pertain to values. The source of emotions should be identified and evaluated, not evaded through suppression. You don't need Branden's Disowned Self for that.

And it could probably be argued that the refusal to think is more of an action than a thought.

Thinking, the process of thought, is a kind of action; thoughts are the content of your mind when you think. The act of refusing to think is a mental act, not an act divorced from thinking. Evasion is bad thinking.

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I don't think NB broke with Objectivism after his split from Ayn Rand, because he was never with them in the first place.

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Nate, as you alluded to in your initial post, there is a crucial distinction to be made between "evil thoughts" and evil ideas.

There is no subject or topic about which it is immoral to think. If one is to function mentally at all, no aspect of existence can be forbidden from entering awareness; no area or fact of life may be closed to mental consideration. This necessarily includes actions which, if taken by one in reality, would be immoral (such as murdering the neighbors because their stereo is too loud).

Morality applies to the way one uses one's mind — to one's method of mental functioning — never to the contents of consciousness per se.

Emotions as such are involuntary responses, and are not subject to ethical evaluation. We must think about our emotions; we do not condemn ourselves morally for what we happen to feel.

If you use your mind properly, you likely will not spend too much time contemplating depravity. A commitment to rationality generally ensures a well-integrated emotional life: few of your feelings and desires clash with your conscious convictions.

Theories can be evil. Communism is a destructive political philosophy, completely at odds with man's nature and the requirements of human life. Its implementation has caused suffering and death on a massive scale. But one can feel free to read the works of Marx, and one must independently consider the validity of the ideas they contain.

One might even agree with some aspects of Marx, or at least withhold a total condemnation of his perspective, without fear that to do so will constitute a demerit on one's soul.

The Bible teaches that you can go to hell for doubting/questioning your faith, for desiring your neighbor's wife, for experiencing pride or feeling anger. It wants you to obliterate the distinction between what happens inside of your mind, and the actions you perform in reality.

The purpose is to inculcate guilt in you from the inside out. When you distrust, deny and disown your internal self, you naturally become self-doubting, self-loathing, and miserable. Happy, self-confident people are unlikely to submit to external (moral) authority.

I have a great many problems with Nathaniel Branden. However the thesis put forth in The Disowned Self is a psychologically and philosophically important one.

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One must entertain evil thoughts in order to choose good behavior, else freewill has no meaning.

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One must entertain evil thoughts in order to choose good behavior, else freewill has no meaning.

Personally, I don't recall having any evil thoughts, but I am constantly exercising my free will in order to make choices between what is good and what is better.

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One must entertain evil thoughts in order to choose good behavior, else freewill has no meaning.

Personally, I don't recall having any evil thoughts, but I am constantly exercising my free will in order to make choices between what is good and what is better.

Then I will rephrase my statement (for your benefit) as, "One must entertain not-so-good thoughts in order to choose good behavior, else freewill has no meaning ;o)

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One must entertain evil thoughts in order to choose good behavior, else freewill has no meaning.

Personally, I don't recall having any evil thoughts, but I am constantly exercising my free will in order to make choices between what is good and what is better.

Then I will rephrase my statement (for your benefit) as, "One must entertain not-so-good thoughts in order to choose good behavior, else freewill has no meaning ;o)

I don't know what, specifically, you are referring to or mean to say. Could you give some examples of concrete situations and choices you have in mind?

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What is an evil thought. A thought about evil in itself is not evil. To recognize evil in the world we must think about. A thought to perform an evil deed is a step toward doing evil, but just thinking about taking the step is not in and of itself evil. It is taking the step that is evil.

I am inclined to think (to use the German phrase) Die Gedanken sind Frei.

ruveyn

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@ Betsy Speicher (and ruveyn),

What I mean to say is that choice implies the consideration of alternatives, e.g., good vs evil, life vs death, pleasure vs pain. In order to have the ability to choose a good alternative, I require some knowledge of the consequences of pursuing an evil one. For example, isn't the thought of drinking, evil to an alcoholic? Or the thought of smoking, evil to someone with lung cancer??

Ayn Rand defined free will as the choice to think, or not to. Can one consider not-thinking, and wouldn't that be an evil thought?

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@ Betsy Speicher (and ruveyn),

What I mean to say is that choice implies the consideration of alternatives, e.g., good vs evil, life vs death, pleasure vs pain. In order to have the ability to choose a good alternative, I require some knowledge of the consequences of pursuing an evil one. For example, isn't the thought of drinking, evil to an alcoholic? Or the thought of smoking, evil to someone with lung cancer??

Ayn Rand defined free will as the choice to think, or not to. Can one consider not-thinking, and wouldn't that be an evil thought?

This is a very, very strange interpretation. So, if I'm to choose between places to eat out tonight, I have to think about eating poison as the alternative? Why is the thought of drinking evil to an alcoholic? How did you make that determination?

You state that choice implies a consideration of alternatives. Why must the alternatives be opposites? Where did that assumption come from? One cannot consider non-thinking. There is nothing to think about. How can a thought be evil? Nowhere can such an assumption be found in Objectivism, if you are basing your views on its ideas.

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"That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call 'free will' is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character." ~ from the Ayn Rand Lexicon, Free Will.

For clarity, I don't believe alternatives have to be polar opposites. The consideration of a choice can certainly be cast as good & better, and "good" in this case would be the undesirable choice. My reference to Ayn Rand's definition of 'free will', is the basis of my interpretation of the consideration not to think. And my reference to the considerations of smoking and alcoholism is based in part on personal experience and on close friendships those who've shared this experience. I can assure you that to one recovering from these addictions, thoughts about having "just one more" are truly evil.

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The consideration of a choice can certainly be cast as good & better, and "good" in this case would be the undesirable choice.

Not necessarily. In the case of optional values, I may have two desirable choices and gain from either choice. I might be happy choosing either the fish or the steak at my favorite restaurant and weighing the pros and cons as to which doesn't make enough difference to warrant the effort of analyzing and evaluating which one. Just picking the one that appeals to me emotionally when they waitress asks is fine.

My reference to Ayn Rand's definition of 'free will', is the basis of my interpretation of the consideration not to think. And my reference to the considerations of smoking and alcoholism is based in part on personal experience and on close friendships those who've shared this experience. I can assure you that to one recovering from these addictions, thoughts about having "just one more" are truly evil.

That is the case with temptations like that, and keeping the full context of ones values is critical. Once that is done, temptations eventually lose their motivating power and a person can turn his attention to choosing between good options.

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"Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think..." ~ Ayn Rand Lexicon, Evil

Here "thinking" is defined as a virtue (good) and a vice (evil), the "refusal to think" being evil, and given to be a choice. Therefore, I interpret "evil thoughts" (according to Objectivism) as "the willful suspension of one’s consciousness", or the contemplation of actions one knows will be detrimental to one's life.

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"Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think..." ~ Ayn Rand Lexicon, Evil

Here "thinking" is defined as a virtue (good) and a vice (evil), the "refusal to think" being evil, and given to be a choice. Therefore, I interpret "evil thoughts" (according to Objectivism) as "the willful suspension of one’s consciousness", or the contemplation of actions one knows will be detrimental to one's life.

A thought is a manifestation of consciousness.

As to the second alternative:

Are you saying that contemplating suicide is necessarily evil? It depends on one's situation.

Contemplating suicide is one is suffering from intense irremedial pain might make good sense..

ruveyn

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"Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think..." ~ Ayn Rand Lexicon, Evil

Here "thinking" is defined as a virtue (good) and a vice (evil), the "refusal to think" being evil, and given to be a choice.

This is simply wrong.

Thinking is being IDed as The crucial virtue. Choosing not to think is being IDed as all-out destruction, ie, evil. There are no definitions, no dual-meanings, no synergy of opposites, no dialectic.

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Yes ruveyn, I also allow that suicide isn't evil if one is considering to escape the suffering of a lingering and unavoidable death. Such considerations still represent life as a value to be disposed of as one chooses. However the thought of a suicide bomber considering taking the lives of innocents is evil. I'm not sure what JohnRgt is objecting to, but Ayn Rand appears to say that not-thinking (perhaps thinking irrationally?) is evil, and I take this to equate to evil thought.

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