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Harmful Thoughts


Can one person's mental states, such as intentions or emotions, affect others even in the absence of any action or expression on that person's part? Contrary to a widely shared assumption, I argue for a positive answer. The assumption, I claim, rests on the view that a person's thoughts are by themselves neither knowable by others nor do they have causal efficacy with regard to them. The assumption can be refuted, accordingly, by recognizing other cases in which a person will be said to be affected by an event about which he knows not and in the absence of a causal link. Our willingness to acknowledge that a disaster befell a father whose son was killed in an accident, unbeknownst to him, provides such an example. The account of this case I propose highlights the fact that being a father is a relational property: it is defined in terms of the father's relation to the son, whom I call "the relational term." The accident can be said to have affected the father despite the absence of a causal link because it did causally affect the relational term, i.e., the son. The crucial step in the argument is to recognize that one person's mental state can also be the relational term that defines another's relational property, thus providing a medium for non-causal effects on the latter. The argument has wide normative implications, illustrated by a discussion of the legal treatment of hate speech, and broader philosophical ramifications, concerning "externalist" views of the mind and their bearing on the limits of individualism.

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