Should We Police Thoughts?

Should We Police Thoughts? April 12, 2014

The other day, the CEO for Mozilla had to step down. This was due to influence from social media – a sort of power to the people. Basically, Mr Elch has held private views on gay marriage which have subsequently become public.

I was involved in a conversation on facebook about this as several commenters claimed that people should be entitled to their own opinions in private. This sounds like one of those soundbites which is intuitively sensible, but I’m not so sure. I suppose the issue, as ever with philosophy, boils down to semantics and what “entitled” means. If they are irrationals, then logically speaking, they aren’t entitled, at least not rationally entitled, to such opinions.

This idea that a CEO of an influential multinational should be entitled to such private opinions is perhaps dubious. Let’s take it to the extreme:

Should a CEO be entitled to be racist, sexist, endorse paedophilia, rape, deny the Holocaust and whatnot? As a teacher, can I be entitled to hold that paedophilia is A-OK and still hold my job?

One might reply that these are fine, as long as I don’t harm anyone or let those opinions come out in public.

But surely, being a teacher who is also a paedophile who just happens to promise to keep it private is too risky? Am I entitled to keep my job?

Is Mr Elch entitled to his own private views on the matter as long as they are not confused with the ideals of the company and as long as they do not spill over into his actions for the company?

Here is an analogy. I drink 4 pints one night. I promise I will not harm anyone when I drive. And yet, irrespective as to whether I do or not, I am arrested by the police and charged for holding that alcohol in my system whilst driving. The risk is too high.

Now, such people in powerful positions holding views in their systems are risks. They may not act on them. But you tell me whether a CEO, hiring and firing, who is racist could possibly compartmentalise such feelings successfully. What would the risk factor be? If they were to interview prospective candidates, one black one white, and they had identical skills etc, what would happen?

If you have moral beliefs, beliefs about how society should be, and thee beliefs are dangerous, against human rights and equality, then the chance of these views remaining inactive and ineffective under the surface whilst you manage a multinational is very small.

Given I think his views, especially in donating to the Californian antigay Proposition 8, are morally bad, I think it is a good thing that he stepped down. The risk of having people in positions of power who have morally problematic views is an issue. Perhaps this is getting close to Minority Report whereby we punish people for crimes they are yet to commit, and perhaps it means we have to undergo Bayesian style prior probability risk assessments; but if you don’t think your child’s teacher should be entitled to be a teacher if they are secretly a paedophile, then Houston, we have a problem. Not all drunk drivers kill or injure, yet we prohibit them from carrying out those duties irrespective of the outcome. We are proactive, not reactive.

Why not the same approach to thought, which is, at the end of the day, what underwrites action.



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  • Luke Breuer

    You sound positively religious. That is, you sound similar to some Moral Majority stuff. Jonathan, is there some established philosophy—perhaps political philosophy—that would articulate your views, here? The whole “morality police” thing is fascinating to me.

    Interestingly enough, just put up The death of character – ideas do have consequences…, which references the books:

         1. Ideas Have Consequences
         2. Death Of Character: Moral Education In An Age Without Good Or Evil

    To which I might add:

         3. Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?

    For completeness, I’ll put in:

         4. Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible?

    I’ve only read a bit of 3., and I have 1. and 2. reserved at the library. I’ve read all of 4. and liked it a lot the first time around, but quite a bit less when I skimmed it the next time.

    This also reminds me of people who complain about Jesus’ thoughtcrime bits in Mt 5, despite research such as that explained in the TEDxGlasgow talk Gary Wilson – The Great Porn Experiment.

  • im-skeptical

    I think the bigger risk for a company is potential loss of business due to public opinion. Mozilla might have been happy to have Eich as CEO if the public had not became aware of his political leanings. Pressuring him to step down was probably not so much a matter of morality as a matter of survival.

    • Luke Breuer

      Do you think it would be wrong for Christians to boycott companies they don’t like, on their particular moral grounds?

      • im-skeptical

        I have no problem with withholding my business from a company that I think is doing the wrong thing, if I believe that they have some realistic choice in the matter.

        • Luke Breuer

          Why the “if”?

          • im-skeptical

            Consider a hypothetical situation where a company produces something that I need, and they employ a critical person who is vital for making it, but who is outspoken about his morally repugnant beliefs. They need that person and allow him to express his opinions, but I couldn’t blame them for that.

          • Luke Breuer

            This sounds like the market failure of monopoly or monopsony. I think you’re misidentifying what the problem really is. And you know what? Suppose that you decide to hold Nazi views while living in Germany. Is it wrong for people to refuse to deal with you because of those views?

          • kraut2

            If you hold Nazi views in Germany – that might get you prosecuted.

          • Luke Breuer

            I was vaguely aware of that. But surely a country’s laws are only ever an approximation of what is truly just? One must believe this in order to believe that e.g. the Civil Rights Movement in the US was the right thing to do. If this is the case, then whatever is legal or illegal in Germany ought to be irrelevant for purposes of my question, no?

          • kraut2

            I just wanted to clarify that publicly espousing Nazi ideas in Germany is not just a matter of personal opinion, it is actually a hate crime and not just a matter of disagreeing with someone.

          • Luke Breuer

            Yep. Publicly talking about Tiananmen Square in places will get you into trouble too. I’m really not sure what I think about hate speech laws; what do they do except bottle up stuff inside? But yeah, thanks for the info; I thought I had read stuff about that, but wasn’t sure. I think I read more Holocaust denial news than Nazi espousing news.

    • Absolutely, though it has little bearing on morality. The question is, then, can the free market arbitrate matters of morality? Taking lessons from the environment, the answer is no, since it cannot adequately deal with negative externalities.

      • kraut2

        every person has the right to boycott anything they don’t agree with. I refuse to ever buy an apple based computer because I hate the closed O-system policy of apple.
        I however buy a Ford despite old man Ford having been a Nazi supporter. At least his kids have learned to keep opinions private. If one as a CEO opines intolerant ideas – yes, every body has the right to call for a boycott – why not?

        The market place is fair game, they want me to buy their shit, they want my money – so I expect behaviour that at least does not annoy me.

        • Sure. I have no problem with doing this, and as an ethical consumer myself, do it very often (I have boycotted the 2 biggest supermarkets in the UK fir almost 10 years).
          But free markets do not guarantee fairness or moral goodness. You only have to see how negative externalities fail to be costed by those companies who cause them.

          • kraut2

            I agree with you that free markets cannot ensure fairness.
            This role would squarely fall to government to create and police regulations to guarantee a fair play (which is utterly skewed towards financial institutions in the US and GB for example) by not favouring interest of the few to the detriment of the well being of the many, by establishing environmental regulations to protect health, living conditions.
            One attempt is to actually cost the usage and pollution of air, water, to tax the profits from stockmarket gains to hedge against losses that as shown have to be carried by all and the gains by the few.

            Those boycotts are simply an attempt to create art least a feeling of not being totally powerless in the face of interests aligned to benefit the less than 1% to the detriment of those producing that wealth for them.

  • f_galton

    Opposition to gay marriage does not mean a person “hates” or will discriminate against gays, and equating it to pedophilia is absurd.

    • I did not equate it with paedophilia. I used an example of the same logic and took it to the extreme to see if the logic held. Please at least try to understand.
      On the first point, my point was about likelihood of risk, hence the reference to beayesian prior probabilities.

  • f_galton

    There are executives in Hollywood everyone knows engage in pedophilia, but no one will go on the record about it because they are afraid of the Velvet Mafia.

    • I’m not sure what your point is here.

      • f_galton

        Your “extreme example” was pedophile executives. I’m pointing out that pedophile executives getting away with it is the reality in Hollywood because of the power and influence of gays. Meanwhile people like you are outraged over a donation Eich made to a ballot initiative in 2008.

        • Whah whoah there! Fuck me, are you really equating paedophiles with gays? Are you living in this decade?

          That’s a really terrible comment above. I would ask you take it back.


          • f_galton

            It’s a fact a gay cabal in Hollywood protects gay pedophiles, which is not as important as a political donation someone made six years ago.

          • Andy_Schueler

            It’s a fact a gay cabal in Hollywood protects gay pedophiles

            Yeah, gay pedophiles like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. No wait…
            Where is your evidence for this alleged fact?

          • f_galton

            Polanski and Allen are protected by Hollywood’s other cabal.

          • Andy_Schueler


        • Void Walker

          What the hell are you even saying, here? The demarcation between homosexuality and pedophilia could not be more clear. Are you a gay hating, God fearing Christian or something?

          • f_galton

            That’s reality in Hollywood. Obviously the “demarcation” isn’t that clear, otherwise gays wouldn’t use their influence to protect pedophiles.

          • Stop making such stupid claims without any evidence. It just sounds very bigoted as a mere assertion.

          • f_galton

            You’re really naive.

          • Void Walker

            Yes, those evil gays. I hear they eat babies, rape puppies, and breathe fire.

          • Nontheist

            Oh no, not the puppies :'(

          • Void Walker

            Yes, thousands of them daily….curse those homosexuals and their appetite for adorable little puppies!

          • Void Walker

            Why don’t you supply some links or actual evidence to substantiate your apparently baseless claims? That way we can (possibly) take you seriously. Until you do that, you’re making an ass of yourself.

          • f_galton

            No one will go on record about it because you get blackballed.

          • Void Walker

            Ah. Yes, that makes perfect sense. You know, I’m secretly best buddies with Santa Clause. But darn the luck, I just can’t “go on the record” and proclaim this, because….reasons!

          • Void Walker

            C’mon, man. No links. No evidence. Just your outlandish claims. Do you really think this will suffice for inquiring minds?

          • That’s pathetic. You come to a skeptic site and imagine that shite will be bought? Wow.

          • f_galton

            You’re really gullible if you don’t think that’s what goes on.

          • You’re really gullible if you do?

            Man, you’re epistemology is bizarre.

            “If I did readz it online in a right-wing gossip site, den itz true, dat!”

          • f_galton

            I don’t read gossip sites.

          • You’ve come here and thrust a massive accusation throwing together gays with paedophiles in one moral morass and then refused to cite any evidence, Sort it out, or keep those silly accusations to yourself.

          • f_galton
          • Thanks you, though why it took you so long to scour the internet for one gossip article is beyond me. Now let’s see if it fits the accusation that you made (insinuating that ‘gays’ (in general) are covering up paedophilia, rather than paedophiles covering up paedophilia).

          • f_galton

            I didn’t scour at all, that showed up in the news today, which I found funny. You can pretend that’s an isolated example, but it’s not. Look up who Brock Pierce is, you can tell yourself his background is a coincidence, but it’s not.

          • But you are still fallaciously conflating gays with paedophiles like someone out of the right-wing 1950s.

          • f_galton
          • So heterosexuals can be conflated with hetero-paedohphiles?

          • f_galton

            Did you read the link above? “Queerty has a bunch of photos posted from Roland Emmerich’s estate this weekend, where he and Bryan Singer threw their annual “A-Gay” LA Pride Party. The party began with with gays gathering to pay their respects, continued into a speedo-fest in the pool, and ended (and Queerty didn’t have photos of this part) with the after-after party, which allegedly (though certainly) was clothing optional and where – according to Queerty – “Roland and Bryan took a few select young men into the house for private casting sessions.”

          • That quote is the entire link.

            You still don’t get your fallacious conflation.

          • f_galton

            You think Hollywood gays have been unaware of Singer’s proclivities?


  • Gus

    you cannot “police” thoughts. they are immaterial by nature.

    • Void Walker


      The brain is materiel. Thoughts arise from activity in the brain.

      Your brain, however….not so sure about that. Actually, it’s a miracle that you can even speak to begin with.

  • Gandolf

    Its a real tough question. In one regard,to have freedom of speech is pretty important. Maybe there is someone, or some people, that can see something important that other people cannot see. To police those thoughts could even become mighty dangerous in certain situations.

    But then what about forms of freedom of speech, that can be used to cause real harm.Like someone, or some people who used words, to tell someone else to commit suicide.

    “My” understanding is that sort of situation most often happen’s among the youth.

    Its quite a complicated situation.The answer isn’t an easy one

    • kraut2

      If freedom of speech is important – then should that freedom of speech applies to me as well to call for economic sanctions when I feel that his freedom of speech impedes the freedom of action of others.
      The proposition that Eich not only voiced an opinion on but financially supported give me the right to try to further stop his ability to financially do so – he is still free to opine about anything, he just might not have the funds to help any group with actions, becaus the actions of ..
      I find this completely a balanced approach when zillionairs have to face opposition from those they rely on for their income and wealth by buying their products, but do not agree with their actions.

      • Gandolf

        I think i agree with all what you say.

        But i suppose ? that same sort of freedom of speech, will then also need to allow for religious groups, to choose to call sanctions against certain members of the congregation, who don’t bow-down and adhere to all their rules. Like some church groups do. When sometimes they will even talk members of the group, into even shunning and totally disowning their own family.Treating them as if they were actually dead

        Its already considered to be a totally legal practice. Yet in some places, our health systems are quite full of people whom deal with ongoing health problems because of experiencing it.And sometimes the outcome of this is that some parents may no longer even have any access to their own children as well. Because its also quite legal for church groups to decide to pressure children into shunning and disowning their own parent/parent’s. If its been decided that the parent/parents wont agree to obey every single rule made by the church hierarchy

        What do you? think about a situation like this

        • kraut2

          Is this shunning not actually something I spoke against? The attempt to deny rights to others oneself wants to enjoy?
          Unfortunately those groups are almost impenetrable by outsiders, so one solution is action by the shunned against this group-think denial of rights as happened afaik by ex members of the mormon church.

          • Gandolf

            Yes. And i think that’s quite fair.

            Maybe even to the extent that religions now find themselves being boycotted.And partly because they have failed to care to speak out against this problem.

            Church groups have used the more harmful groups ,kind of like someone who plays a strategic game of skittles. In that while the more harmful groups remained untouchable (as the skittles out-front).Then they felt relaxed and complacent themselves, in the knowledge that they felt their own group was totally untouchable too

            It makes me quite sick sometimes, to here Christians claiming to be the persecuted people . For many within their groups have been busy persecuting people for generations

  • In a slightly tangential note, but an important one – I suspect you mean “child abuser” or somesuch rather than paedophile. The analogy – whatever its other merits or demerits – assumes that paedophiles always act on their ‘philia’, whereas many never do.

    • no, I definitely meant paedophile. The whole point is whether humans can successfully compartmentalise morally bad personal opinions. If we can arrest drink drivers on account of risk to future harm, then what meaningful difference is a personal opinion which is a risk to later harm to an individual, company or society. Everyone seems to miss this.
      I am not saying there is even an answer, I just thought it was interesting to show the prevalence of a potential double standard.

      • Okay, my mistake, then – what threw me is that Eich performed an action (donations), rather than just having private opinions (or desires, in your analogy).

      • kraut2

        The arrest of a drunk driver is a not because of a future risk – it is because of an actual violation of a particular law that states beyond 8/1000 you are legally considered drunk, and no drunk driver shall operate a vehicle.
        This law was established because of sufficient evidence that the risk of driving beyond a certain level leads in most cases to accidents involving not only the guilty but cost life and health of innocents.

        The same applies to the conviction of pedophiles. They are not convicted of having pedophile opinions, they are convicted to posses material that in its production actually harmed children.

        This is the same as the German law that states that all pro Nazi opinions without exception are considered hate crimes and punishable. this law was established based upon the historical experience of the power of an in essence criminal idea (the subjugation of others, the denial of living to undesirable ethnic groups etc.) You simply violate a clear and unambiguous law, which is not a matter of bad opinion.

        • But that is a risk law as you go on to say. The alcohol isn’t the problem intrinsically. It is what the driver might do as a result of the alcohol.

          So the thoughts that it is ok to rape children is arguably not the intrinsic problem, it is the acting on this belief; it is the harm the person might cause as a result.

          Now the law has scientifically defined the risk limit and has probably got a whole bunch of stats to support this. Just because we don’t have the stats for paedophilia, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated in the same vein. Or any belief which causes harmful acts. If we DID know the conversion rates and thus risk factor, should we treat them as drink driving?

          • kraut2

            To drive drunk actually implies an action necessary to get to a state where legal action takes place. There is also a limit as to when this action is deemed necessary. Below that limit some action like impounding the vehicle might occur, but without prosecution that is mandatory once that limit has been reached.

            The drinking is an action, whereas pedophilia just expressed as an opinion until action occurs, either by the possession of pedophile pornography or the assault on a child.

            This is to me the major difference.

            This whole argument is however beside the point of the topic where the legal but odious actions based on similarly odious opinions of some clash with the legal and contra odious actions by the many and the latter, usually at an individual level less powerful economically and thus politically seek to remedy the results of this actions by denying the more powerful the means to further his/her action.

            The power of opinion and actions becomes symmetrical again to an extent – as in unsymmetrical warfare were the overwhelming power of usually the aggressor can be severely challenged by a multitude of pinpricks, thus trying to establish symmetry again.

            PS: I really enjoy your challenging to think things through.

  • Andy_Schueler

    Two thoughts on that:

    1. This case illustrates the fact that the debate over gay marriage is, at least in the US of A, effectively over. Espousing views contrary to that thus comes with a cost, it can damage or ruin someone´s reputation. This, per se, is nothing unusual or anything particular to LGBT rights, it happens every single time when a society has “settled” on a change in common norms and values. Being vocally opposed to gay marriage now means that you will be viewed like these guys.
    2. I haven´t given this much thought, but currently, I´m not at all convinced that Eich should have resigned for this – particularly after reading this:

    Also, afaict, LGBT employees at Mozilla were always treated fairly under Eich. Donating for prop 8 was a shitty thing to do, sure, but shitty enough to cost him his reputation + his job? I don´t think so.

    • Interesting article, though the two are not totally identical (one was to an exact ideological position, the other to a candidate which could have been for any number of reasons. It would be interesting to know why he donated to him).

    • In fact, good to see a reasoned caveat – good journalism!

      “Of course, it’s been a decade since Yagan’s donation to Cannon, and a decade or more since many of Cannon’s votes on gay rights. It’s possible that Cannon’s opinions have shifted, or maybe his votes were more politics than ideology; a tactic by the Mormon Rep. to satisfy his Utah constituency. It’s also quite possible that Yagan’s politics have changed since 2004: He donated to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007 and 2008. Perhaps even Firefox’s Eich has rethought LGBT equality since his 2008 donation.”

  • Dave Murphy

    Everyone should be entitled to their opinion regardless of how morally repugnant anyone else finds those opinions. What they shouldn’t be entitled to is freedom from criticism of those opinions.

    The main difficulty I have with this is that it’s yet another example of mob rule and I’m really not sure how we achieve some kind of balance to ensure that social issues are properly examined and debated. Personally I think justice has been done – someone who believes that people should have fewer rights on the basis of their sexuality has been removed from a position of authority and their ability to shape society has been restricted.

    Where my own opinion troubles me is that it leads to the justification of oppression. What basis do we use to decide that particular viewpoints are damaging to society and seek to oppress individuals who hold those views? Policing thought is a really dangerous direction to take given that it seems to lead inevitably towards narrowing what society deems acceptable.

    • What I love about this comment is that you realise the ramifications of your own position. Too often people think that their view or opinions is right and they take little time to assess it from all angles. You seem to be wary of this. Nice.

      I think the issue here is broadly the same as the freedom of speech debate. It’s great and people often see it as an inalienable right. However, it is not so easy as that. It is great until it goes too far. But who decides ‘too far’? Who decides what is right and wrong? This is the same as politics – who decides which is the ‘right’ politik?

      This is the job of philosophers. They try to establish objective and pragmatic moral systems so that these questions can be answered. I just think things are very grey. That’s kind of the point of the OP – there might not be an answer. Life can suck like that.

      I guess I would ask what ‘entitled’ means. People can be entitled to them in the same way they are entitled to murder someone.

      But they shouldn’t, and perhaps they should suffer the consequences for doing so.

      After all, thought is the foundation of action. Someone with racist thoughts will most probably commit at least one racist action.

      • Andy_Schueler

        I think the issue here is broadly the same as the freedom of speech debate. It’s great and people often see it as an inalienable right. However, it is not so easy as that. It is great until it goes too far. But who decides ‘too far’?

        Here in Germany, holocaust denial is a crime, and IMO, criminalizing holocaust denial doesn´t accomplish anything – it doesn´t change anyones beliefs and it drives those people into the underground where they can still spread their hate without wider society even being aware of it (and thus possibly not being aware that there is such a problem until it is too late). I used to think that freedom of speech should be absolute because I had a hard time thinking of examples where criminalizing some form of expression could possibly accomplish something good.
        However, such examples do exist – there are forms of expression that demonstrably lead directly to grave harm and death for people. The world clearly would be a much better place if Helen Ukpabio (this vile creature is currently on a visit in London I´ve heard…) and Scott Lively would be in prison with no possibility of contact with the outside world for example. But if we would throw those people in prison for expressing their views, where do we stop? I have some sympathy for hate speech laws that would criminalize stuff like this, but overall, I wouldn´t support such laws because I´m too afraid of them becoming too broad.

        • I think that perfectly acknowledges the problem. There is fuzzy
          logic at play here. There seems to be a difference, we just can’t put our fingers on it.