Monday, March 10, 2008

Rhetoric: Good and Bad Intentions

"Men are not only bad from good motives, but also often good from bad motives."

-- G. K. Chesterton
A very popular maneuver in politics is to accuse someone of bad intentions. If they're motivated by greed, selfishness, malice, etc., then what they are proposing -- whatever policy, legislation, action -- must be wrong, mustn't it?

Bad Intentions Doesn't Mean Bad Actions

No, and it only takes a few simple examples to prove that the argument above is flawed. For instance:

  • a doctor or nurse may give a patient a certain medication only because they want to avoid being sued for malpractice, and not out of any genuine concern for the patient's well-being;
  • a soldier might avoid committing crimes against innocent civilians, not because he cares about them, but because he doesn't want to be court-martialed and punished;
  • a citizen might report the whereabouts of a wanted criminal, not because they want to see a dangerous individual incapacitated and brought to justice, but because they want to collect the reward money.

From their selfish motivations, does it follow that their actions are wrong? No.

Perhaps they did it for the wrong reason, but they still did the right thing. And, while we might prefer that they have better intentions, the caring doctor, the compassionate soldier, and the civic-minded citizen will perform the same action.

Good Intentions Doesn't Mean Good Actions

As the above quote from Chesterton points out, in the same way that bad motives don't necessarily mean bad behavior, good intentions don't necessarily mean good behavior.

Again, it only takes a few examples to prove this point:

  • a caring doctor, if they do not have proper information or training, might give their patient the wrong treatment, and accidentally kill them;
  • and any number of atrocities -- the Catholic Inquisition in Spain, human sacrifices in order to bring rain or appease the gods -- have been committed out of good intentions.

What Intentions Do People Have?

Beyond these points, it is not always easy to accurately judge what motives other people have. We often unfairly attribute sinister motives to others, and we also don't recognize that someone can have more than one motive for what they do (some of those motives may be noble, and others not).

But the central issue is that you can't judge what people do -- their actions, or whatever policy or legislation they support -- merely on the basis of their motives (which is a mistake similar to ad hominem reasoning). You have to take into account the nature and consequences of their actions, not just the behavior motivating it. People will sometimes suffer the collateral damage of our good intentions, and they will sometimes enjoy the collateral benefit of our bad intentions.

So, whenever you hear one party accuse another of bad intentions -- "they're only out for themselves, for money or for power, so don't go along with them" -- don't let it lead you to believe that the accused is up to no good: it's the accuser who is using flawed reasoning.

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