Thoughts can lead to feelings or they can lead to actions. Sometimes both and sometimes neither, but those are their influence on the world – on your world.
A thought itself can harm no one. Your most evil thought cannot murder, and your most righteous thought cannot heal. You curate your thoughts to the extent that you want to feel and act certain ways because you know that those thoughts lead to those feelings and actions.
Outside of you, the rest of the world cannot experience your thoughts directly. It can only experience your actions. Good and evil that you do must naturally happen in the rest of the world, so it is your actions that determine this.
A person might think “the only thing in the world that matters to me is that other people look at and admire me; I crave their attention and adoration because it makes me feel better than them.” We wouldn’t view that as a “good” thought, but if that thought motivates the person to save a bunch of lives as a surgeon or to donate a ton of money to Malaria research, then hooray! I will admire that person and consider their life well-lived.
That same thought could lead someone to be a brutal tyrant, of course. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, thoughts like that might be more likely to lead someone down the road to villainy than heroics. But that’s the only reason we, as outsiders, should care – and if the person has already “beaten the odds” and done heroic things then we should applaud them. We shouldn’t retroactively decry their accomplishments because they thought bad thoughts.
If a person has nothing but love and care in their heart but never acts – then they aren’t “good” to the world. My genuinely altruistic desire to help others, uncoupled from appropriate action, does not outweigh someone’s very selfishly-motivated construction of a homeless shelter that makes a real impact on peoples’ lives.
In other words, the whole “good things for bad reasons” concept is bunk. There are no bad reasons to do good things, unless we’re talking about some sort of trap – i.e. if someone built a homeless shelter so that they could lure people in and then blow it up, yeah, that’s a bad reason. But in the way most people talk about it, pssshh. “Oh, he only wanted to build a homeless shelter so he could name it after himself.” That’s fine! Pride, status, tax breaks – these things don’t matter to the people who get a roof and a warm bed tonight, that otherwise would not have.
I think that when most people decry others for doing “good things for bad reasons” like that, it’s usually because they didn’t do anything at all. They don’t like comparing themselves unfavorably to someone they want to dislike, so they reflexively make up a reason why that person who actually improved the world isn’t better than me after all. “Sure, they built a homeless shelter while I sat on the couch and ate Cheetos, but my heart was in the right place and there’s wasn’t.”
Hogwash, of course. You should absolutely care about your own thoughts. You should cultivate ones that inspire you to good deeds and that don’t darken your own soul. Even if you don’t act on them, you should keep evil thoughts from polluting your heart to the best of your ability. But thoughts must be grappled with, they must be engaged. You cannot run from your own mind, and you must by nature struggle with your own chaos. But don’t confuse your own battle with demons for something you have any ability or right to judge in others. That battle is yours, and yours alone – and so it goes for every soul. For everyone but yourself, judge the wake of their actions and the wake of their actions alone, for that is what touches the world. And remember always that you must be judged thereby: what you carry to the grave in your heart of hearts is for no one else to ever know.