Daniel Callcut (who happens to be my former graduate advisor) wrote a really excellent piece for Aeon. I encourage you to check it out because understanding it will help you understand this post. Besides, it’s just a wonderful piece to read.
The query is basically this: If virtue is (at least, in part) not even being able to think certain things, what happens now that anyone can access unthinkable things on the internet?
At first, I was taken by this. It seems true, at first, that virtue is not being able to even imagine–not being able to think–certain things.
But, alas. As always, I’ll have to disagree with my former advisor.
I have studied certain what I’ll call mental illnesses. I know Callcut has, too, so I’m surprised he overlooked this. However, in our current understanding of things like anxiety and OCD, thoughts “arrive like butterflies.” We do not have control over many of our thoughts. They are generated by what I’ll call externals.
For people with anxiety or OCD, these thoughts are, in fact, highly distressing. Callcut indicates that whatever one pays attention to is who one actually is. However, in the case of OCD, people pay quite a lot of attention to thoughts they find highly disturbing–and they try to push these thoughts away. A person with, say, a sexual obsession may have thoughts of groping other people and this may highly distress the person. However, it is known that someone like this is extremely unlikely to act out on these thoughts.
So it seems what we pay attention to is not at all who we are.
This is a critical matter. I hope Callcut and others will take a look at instances like these and revise accordingly the idea that virtue is not even having certain thoughts, for our person with the sexual obsession in the case above is, quite probably, a virtuous person.
UPDATE 5/21/2019: I made a related video on this: