The Fallacy of Good Motives, Fencing, and Problematic Invincibility
What is intention as opposed to motivation? When I intend to visit my friend, it could indeed be the case that I am also motivated to see my friend, but if all “intention” means is “motivation,” there doesn’t seem to be a need for both terms. Perhaps when people talk about “being intentional,” they mean something like “though you are motivated to do x, y, and z, you should be more motivated to do x.” The word “intention” could suggest a “focused motivation” (“motivation but with emphasis”), though I don’t deny that “intention” is often used as a simile for “motivation.”
Adding to the confusion, the word “intentional” can also be used as a simile for “focus”: there seems to be both “intention as motivation” and “intention as focus,” and in a single conversation, people might switch between the multiple meanings of “intention” as if they are all the same. If I say, “Humans are intentional creatures,” I could mean “Humans are able to focus on a single leaf in a tree out of thousands.” Arguably, this capacity to be intentional is a defining characteristic of human beings and consciousness itself, and though I don’t deny the more philosophical meaning of the term “intentional” (say regarding phenomenological “intentionality”), I don’t think this is what is ordinarily meant when “intention” is used; rather, the term seems to often mean “a motivated focus,” “a valuing of x over y and z,” etc.
The hope of this work is to help isolate a clearer meaning of the word “intention,” because I fear a lack of clarity regarding the term might contribute to a failure to recognize how we can use “intention” to conceal us from ourselves and to control others. This work will be structured similar to papers like “On Love” by O.G. Rose, which will explore possible meanings of a term until we can better isolate a definition. Where such is achieved, clearer thought can follow.
There is no such thing as bad intention: all intention is directed toward what the intender rightly or wrongly thinks is good. Thus, to speak of some people as having “good intention,” and by this meaning that they are “trying to do good’” in some unique sense is a fallacy, for such speaking suggests it is possible for a person not to intend what he or she thinks is good. All people have good intention, for everyone intends.
To say, “He had good intentions” is to say, “He had intentions,” which tells us little. Often, “intentions” have been used as a valid, moral category, when really what counts can be what results (which sounds pragmatic, but I don’t mean to reduce “result” to a simple utilitarian calculus). If x causes a good outcome and y causes a bad one, the fact I had “good intentions” when I chose y will not change y into x: the outcome will still be bad. Furthermore, it would not be possible for me to choose y thinking, “It’s outcome will be bad”: I must have good intentions when choosing it, or else I wouldn’t.
As discussed in “Assuming the Best” by O.G. Rose, St. Augustine taught us that all intentions are good intentions, which for him related to his teaching that all evil is a disordered good. Today, the fact a person has “good intentions” (as often claimed) can result in the person being seen as morally good (“good intention” can be a means for social capital). Problematically, modern discussions often become confused conversations moving rapidly between “good outcomes” and “good intentions” as metrics, leaving participators unsure what is being discussed. Participants spend time trying to prove their intentions are good (as if such is possible and needs to be done), and then discounting outcomes in light of the intentions that gave rise to them. Pragmatics thus mix with motives, and ultimately little is understood, let alone accomplished.
If people understood that “all intentions are good intentions,” a layer of complexity could be removed from modern discussions that could help participants focus on questions of “outcomes,” which are already incredibly difficult to determine. Additionally, people would not think that because their intentions were good, they don’t need to apologize for a bad outcome; people wouldn’t think that there are people out there with bad intentions who need to be stopped, educated, or ignored; people wouldn’t think they are good because their intentions are good; and so on. Failing to grasp that “all intentions are good intentions” can result in both political, social, and personal problems.
Intentionality fences thinking. If I am intentional about x, then I am not focused on y or z, which is precisely why I’m able to address x well, but also precisely why I can fail to address y and z. Now if y and z and don’t matter (which suggests the importance of risk management), then nothing is lost by focusing on x, but it can also be my very focus on x which causes me to fail to understand the importance of y and z. Intentionality is both a power and a risk.
Is all thought intentional? If I think about a cat, must I necessarily intend to think about a cat? No, for daydreaming is real. Yet, there seems to be both intentional and unintentional thought, as there is both kinds of actions. If I start daydreaming about a cat, I can suddenly choose to be intentional about the thought, but I don’t have to be, and it should be noted that the very moment of transition between unintentional and intentional thought might suggest the existence of free will: the ability to focus suggests a movement of the will which suggests both its existence and freedom (though not “total freedom,” as discussed in “On Responsibility”).
Thus, not all thinking is necessarily intentional, and thus not all thinking is “fenced in.” By “fenced in,” I don’t mean to suggest that intentional thoughts are stuck in a prison; rather, I have in mind the image of cows in a field. They are free to roam, but ultimately there are borders to how far they can venture. Likewise, intentionally doesn’t stop thinking from moving, but it does create a limit to how far thinking can go (unless it breaks through the fences, which is precisely to break through intentionality — a kind of paradox). And this is precisely the point of intentionality (and focus for that matter): it limits for the sake of enhancing. By being intentional about idea x, I do idea x well; if I tried to be intentional about x, y, and z, I would dilute my intentionality and likely do x, y, and z poorly (though not necessarily). Intentionality fences for the sake of improving, in the same way a farmer fences in cows precisely to help raise them well.
That all said, the fact intentionality “fences” is also why intentionality can cause us to miss opportunities, truths, and cause problems. If I am intentional about x, it means I can’t be equally focused on y and z, and if new information arises which shows y and z are better than x, it’s likely I’ll miss the opportunity. Considering this, intentionality is also a risk, and yet risk is necessarily for value-creation. Intention directs thinking like fences direct free roaming cows — it empowers thinking with focus by transforming its freedom into free range — but though “directed thinking” is thinking that can combat sallowness with depth, it is also thinking that risks digging deep and finding nothing.
Though the risks of intentionality are unavoidable, if we at least understand that “all intention is good intention,” we are less likely to strengthen the “fences of intentionality” with ethics, making them more difficult to “break through” if we determine we need to do so. Moralizing intention makes it more difficult to shift our intentionality if we should: if we moralize intending x, it becomes difficult to stop intending x (even when evidence suggests we should). We will all make mistakes, and the key is to be able to pivot and learn when we should, but this can become more difficult when the category of “good intention” is stressed (as opposed to just “intention”).
All intention is toward what the intender believes is good: if choosing between x, y, and z and I choose x, it is because I must conclude rightly or wrongly for some reason that x is “more good” than y and z. Therefore, the “fences of intentionality” are necessarily constructed relative to what I believe is good, but if I add another layer to their composition of “moral good,” I will easily make them too strong (and probably for no reason, seeing as “good intention” is a redundant category as opposed to just “intention”). Furthermore, if I think of intending x as “intending good,” if evidence appears suggesting x is not good, I have to admit to myself that I was wrong and caused harm. This is a difficult reality to accept: it’s much easier to say “but my intentions were good” as if this justifies and excuses our choice. But if we accept the truth that all intention is “good intention,” then this justification loses substance (suggesting that ideology has lost a technique of self-concealment and self-defense): to say “my intentions were good” is only to say “I had intentions,” which is obvious — that’s why x was done.
Intention directs thinking, especially what we consider “good intention,” precisely because what we call “good intention” is often that which we come to feel the most about, and considering “The Heart/Mind Dialectic and the Phenomenology of View(s)” by O.G. Rose, if we feel more for x than y, since emotions direct thought as thought direct emotions, we are likely to be “intentional” about x even if y would be a better choice. “Good intentions” can add an emotional layer to an intention that likely “fences off” our thinking about it more than necessary, increasingly the likelihood of error.¹ No, we can never avoid risk entirely when intending, but if we entertain the (repetitive) category of “good intention,” the likelihood increases of emotions, ethics, and identity being mixed up in risk-assessment, increasing the likelihood of error, political partisanship, democratic collapse, and social tension.
In a sense, “good intention” is intention we’re “too intentional about having,” which likely makes us overly-invested and our identities and emotions wrapped up in it. If we recognize that “all intentions are good intentions,” then the fact we wanted “x to be good” will not so readily contribute to disillusionment or denial if x turns out to be bad. If we chose x, we intended it to be good (or at least better than the alternatives) — there’s no way too choose otherwise — and realizing this can help us pivot and adapt if x doesn’t turn out like we hoped.
The category of “good intentions” might be more of a mental self-defense than a valid construct; a way we can defend our choices to ourselves and others. If we believe “good intentions” are valid, then when a choice of mine causes trouble, I can still rationalize it as “evidence of my goodness.” Additionally, “good intentions” is a way I can see myself as a “moral actor” even if my actions don’t give rise to moral goods (perhaps more importantly than giving myself a moral high ground over others, I can see myself on as a good person). “Good intention” can be a tool of self-deception, self-celebration, and self-acceptance, which is a great risk for a category that isn’t meaningfully distinct from “intention.” After all, if I hurt you but my intentions are good, I have nothing for which to apologize.
I don’t mean to suggest here that though “all intentions are good intentions,” it is not the case that all intentions equally generate good outcomes. In fact, the reason I would like to deconstruct “good intentions” is to shift our focus from questions of intentions to questions of outcomes and/or “fruits” (not that this is easy to determine, please note). We have often focused on if “intentions are pure,” and though I don’t dispute that some people could do x for self-gain at the expense of others, it still the case that the person is doing x because he or she thinks “it’s good (for me),” and thus instead of using the language of “good intentions,” we should instead ask more precise questions, such as “Is that person doing x to improve healthcare in America or to increases his profits?” or “Is that politician approving x bill to fund schools or to fund the unions?” or the like. Indeed, when someone asks, “Is his intentions good?” this can precisely be what the person means, but this shorthand sentence is dangerous to use and can contribute to confusions. We can start to think that there are good and bad people in the world versus understand that people are mixtures of good and evil, we can start to think of those we disagree with as having “bad intentions” and thus the kind of people we shouldn’t dialogue with, and so on. Precision of language can contribute to clarity of reality, and if the world seems to be losing its capacity to know truth, to fix it, we easily should start with fixing language, what Wittgenstein considered “the limits of our world.”
Some ethical philosophers have argued that whether an act is good or bad boils down to the intentions of the individual, and that even if a person is doing “good acts,” if his or her intentions are selfish, bitter, and so on, then the acts are actually unethical. Though I greatly sympathize with this view and don’t disagree that there is truth to it, this ethical view has unintentionally contributed to a disregarding of outcomes in favor of examining motivations to determine “who the best person is running for office,” “who’s the nicest person around,” and so on. This has contributed to people thinking that the category of “good intentions” is valid, when really people should use intentions not to moralize a position, but at most to help make a probability assessment about which actions are “more likely” to give way to good outcomes (while hopefully informed by history, case studies, and the like). Intentions should be used for forecasting, not moralizing, while held in a dialectic with outcomes. At the very least, when determining a person’s morality (if one must), intentions should be held alongside outcomes, not over.
If Candidate A was a xenophobic who supported a plan that unintentionally improved the lives of immigrants, while Candidate B wasn’t a xenophobic but supported a plan that unintentionally ruined the lives of immigrants, for whom would be the moral vote? Of course, in real life, we can’t necessarily know which plans will have which results, and this is why we consider intentions — they can be useful for making a probability assessment, but for that reason could also be used to deceive us — but let’s pretend like we could, or at least that based on history, we have strong reason to believe that Candidate B’s plan will be an unintentional disaster while Candidate A’s plan will be an unintentional blessing.² Who should I vote for? In my view, voting for B would be immoral, even though B is arguably a moral person, while voting A would be moral though a vote for an immoral person.³ Which voter is the better person? Are both equally good and bad?
If intentions are disregarded as having no more use than helping us make predictions about unknowns, than voters for A would be more moral than voters for B. Though things are never so simple, I would rather vote for a bigot who will unintentionally improve millions of lives than a saint who will unintentionally ruin millions. In situations where outcomes can be known ahead of time — or at least predicated with strong though perhaps ultimately misunderstood evidence — intentions should take a backseat. Sure, I agree with Kant that Candidate B is moral while Candidate A is immoral, and though this gives me reason to believe the programs of A are more likely to help immigrants than the programs of B, if I know the outcomes of the two programs, then the use of intentionality seems void.
Does that mean if killing one person will save millions, we should kill the one person (even torture extensively, if need be)? A fair question — I would turn readers to “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose — but different: I am referring to situations where we have to guess about which choice we think is best amid a myriad of choices. My goal here is to deconstruct “good intention” into “intention” and then suggest that intention shouldn’t have as much weight in considerations over outcomes, considering that it is not possible for anything to be done without an idea of “the good.”
Additionally, though philosophers have often spoken as if people always know their intentions, in my experience, humans often don’t: they are self-deceived; they act based on vague notions; they avoid understanding their motives lest they are forced to admit to themselves the kind of person they actually are; they fail to engage in introspection to know why they act like they do.⁴ Intentions can be spoken about as if they are self-evident, but knowing our own intentions can be difficult, especially if we’re not regularly engaged in introspection. Intentions are often hidden, so to make intentions the best standard for determining ethics versus outcomes is to make the standard one that’s not only hard to know, but one only the individual can (maybe) know — it can’t be checked and balanced by others. I cannot see your intention to help me, only actions that may suggest you want to help me, but I can easily see a bridge you accidentally collapsed.
Results are observable (though their causes are not always self-evident), while intentions are not: I must have faith that the person who claims “my intentions were x” is telling the truth. A collapsed bridge cannot lie to me that it is a collapse bridged; it can only conceal its causes. But causes are not the same as intentions: even though there can be interpretational struggles, and even though it’s not always easy to examine outcomes, I can know them far better than I can intentions, for causes to cause must manifest into the knowable world. If I intend to destroy a house but never act on it or say anything about it, my intention cannot be known. However, if we are to emphasize the observable, we must also have the skills to discern and interpret the observable, and this requires an incredible amount of ability (for “observations to do not tell us what they mean,” to allude to Cardinal Newman). Perhaps a reason we emphasize “good intention” is precisely to avoid this difficulty of discernment and yet still have a sense of what to do and think?
Let’s ask a different question; if we honestly believed Candidate B’s plan would help immigrants, would we act morally to vote for B? Yes, and yet immorally at the same time. However, if I remove intention from consideration entirely, we acted immorally and only immorally. We may argue that’s not fair, because we did the best we could, but that line of defense hints at why intentionality is so problematic as a moral category. “The best we can do” is often not good enough and can contribute to real suffering, and what constitutes “the best we can do now” is not necessarily “the best we could do” if we read and thought more. Yet “good intention” justifies our failure to read, study, and do better: if we are moral just for having good intention, there’s no reason to do all the work to make sure we contribute to good outcomes. There’s no need to reexamine our worldview, challenge our positions, take risks, follow our logic to its inevitable outcome, and/or increase our knowledge: to allude to Augustine, just intend and do what we want.
However, if good intentions aren’t “good enough,” and if we are morally responsible for outcomes we contribute to, then there is much more incentive to “get it right” and accept risks. If at the end of the day we can’t just say, “My intentions were good,” then we have much more incentive to pay attention to what our actions are doing, to note if what we’re attempting is actually working as opposed to idealistically working, and consider if evidence arises that suggests we need to rethink our basic premises. In my view, focus on outcomes makes us wiser, while focus on intention can close our minds and eyes.⁵
All intentions are good intentions, so to view people as heroic for having good intentions as opposed to producing good outcomes is not only illogical but possibly dangerous. Even if my “good intentions” cause suffering and fail to work, simply by intending, I can still be seen as moral: my moralism is not contingent upon my performance or results or anything (my moralism is invincible). Worse yet, those whose intentions I don’t define as good but who objectively improved the situation could be seen as villains, and until they manage to convince me their intentions are good (which paradoxically they must be) according to my standards of what defines a “good intention,” it won’t matter what the outcomes of their actions are: they will noncontingently be a villain.
When a people define character and morality by intentions versus outcomes, intentions can function like a “God Card”: as people can justify anything by saying, “God told me to do it,” so people can do something similar by saying, “My intentions were good.” As religion can threaten democracy by halting debate with appeals to God, so “good intentions” can similarly threaten democracy. Where “good intentions” are held too high, if I hurt someone’s feelings because I was careless, all I have to say is “I was just trying to help you,” and suddenly the person I hurt isn’t so readily justified to be upset (or at least not for an extended period of time before he or she is seen as “unforgiving” and “bitter”). Now this isn’t to say that people shouldn’t forgive genuine accidents and be understanding, but it is to say that there can be danger in a society where even if people falsely assert that “my intentions were good,” they will be let off the hook, as there can be danger in a society that frowns upon those who aren’t quick to forgive people who claim, “My intentions were good.” Discernment is needed, but where intentions are moralized, there might be little incentive to have discernment (as there can already be an incentive to avoid, given how hard discernment is anyway).
Worse yet, as religion can actually create incentives not to study and think (because ideas can be seen as threats to dogma), so “good intentions” can also create perverse incentives, because those who work to study outcomes, garner wisdom, and make good choices are often at best viewed as no better than those with “good intentions” (practices like skepticism and critical thinking can be undervalued in favor of “good intentions”). The one who is skeptical of if Policy A will actually help the poor is easily assumed to have “bad intentions” (especially if the person who proposed Policy A is generally perceived as having “good intentions”): the skeptic can instantly be a villain. Though education stresses critical thinking and sticking to the facts, those who actually practice these arts in a society focused on “good intentions” can quickly find themselves ostracized for doing what they were taught, while those who merely have “good intentions” can be raised on a pedestal. Why bother to think? Seems irrational…
When a news story comes out or a family member declares something over the cellphone, in an intention-society, there can be a pressure to respond immediately with congratulations, approval, condemnation — something — while the person who waits to respond until he or she knows more information (or simply because the person has nothing to say) can be viewed unfavorably. Focuses on intention can stress quick responses, because the rate of time it takes us to respond says something about our intentions, and yet critical thinking and studying takes time. In a society focused on intentions, it seems we learn critical thinking to feel good about having it more so than to put it into practice; like with “good intention,” it can all become about self-image.⁶
Intentions cannot be known with certainty, only supposed, and yet a reason we appeal to them, especially when dealing with complex national issues, is possibly because they give us a sense of understanding about that which we otherwise couldn’t fully understand. If we’re trying to decide if America’s immigration policy is good or bad, it’s easier to ask, “Is it xenophobic?” than research thousands of documents to be “objective” (an impossibility) about the issue, which even if we did do that, we’d likely still feel like we didn’t know enough. In a world with increasingly large bureaucracies wrestling with increasingly abstract issues, even if we’re an expert on a subject, it’s hard to know what to think (knowledge can sometimes seem to only contribute to uncertainty). If after work all we’re left with is uncertainty, why not just stick to judging intention, which is not only easier, but if we don’t feel more certain about a topic, we’ll at least feel as certain as we would have had we spent hours working. Paradoxically, forecasting and judging with intention can feel more concrete than doing the same based on information, even though intention is arguably far less reliable.
Likewise, referring to intentions can provide a sense of understanding on the personal level: if my husband doesn’t exercise at night, it’s easier to say, “He doesn’t care about his health,” than to talk to him and find out if there is an emotional barrier keeping him from running (say his father forced him to run long distances). Intentions make life simpler and flatter; they give us a sense that we understand. Paradoxically, the more we read, talk, think, and actually understand, often the more we feel like we don’t understand (knowledge brings with it the feeling that a lot of knowledge is left out). Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming” that ‘[the] best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,’ and something similar applies to understanding: the knowledgeable lack certainty, while the foolish are full of it. Though an illusion (as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose), certainty feels good, and thus there is incentive to be certain and appeal to the intentions which can provide more of a feeling of it.
As regarding large, abstract issues, it’s also tempting to use motives over family members: if our husband doesn’t make it home from work in time to sit with the family for dinner, emotions run high and it’s hard not to blurt out, “You don’t care about the family.” But once we blurt this out, we have put our husband on trial and likely hurt his feelings, and ironically we may have now contributed to his not wanting to come home for dinner. Perhaps the reason he was late is because he was having to work extra at a job he doesn’t like but does for the sake of his family; now that he’s been accused of not loving his life, his excitement for coming home may be tempered. Additionally, next time he makes it home for dinner on time, the possibility will be in the air that he’s only there to stay out of trouble (our questioning of his motives makes it harder to tell if he genuinely wants to be there). By speaking, we have blurred the line between performance and reality, creating an emotional tension and putting a pressure on our husband to prove himself which the very act of speaking has made harder to do (increasing the likelihood that the cycle will indefinitely repeat itself, evermore severe).
Indeed, maybe our husband doesn’t want to come home from dinner, but we cannot know if this is the case, and questioning motives might only make the situation worse: it is better to trust him or if the time comes, simply withdraw trust as opposed to create arbitrary obstacles for “earning trust” (a topic discussed extensively in “On Trust” by O.G. Rose). To question a person’s intentions is to deconstruct the person, to break him or her apart, and people don’t respond well to that: if we’re trying to accomplish a task, fix a relationship, encourage a person to do something, or the like, then discussing intentions is ineffective (as they are on the national level). Likewise, if our wife is upset at the end of the day, instead of accusing her of “not wanting to see us,” we should ask her if there is something we can do.
When emotions run high, appealing to intentions is much more tempting than taking a different approach, making it probable that most people will deconstruct one another. And once this starts, considering all the pain and hurt, it’s very difficult to change course and for people to allow one another to change course (if you cut open my leg, it’s hard for me to believe you’ll find me a band-aid). Once people begin deconstructing each other, it’s hard for them to allow each other to help construct them again. But it’s easier (I hope) once we understand that “good intention” is a problematic moral category, for then all we need to see is them treating our wounds, not also proving to us that they want to be so treating us.
The notion of “good intention” as a heuristic can lurk beyond where it is directly voiced and prove just as consequential. If I am a Democrat, then Republicans have “Republican Intention,” and that almost by definition must be a “bad intention,” which could lead me to conclude that Republicans are “bad people” (the walk from “intention” to “person” is short). And if Republicans are “bad people,” why should we both to try to speak with them? Democracy is only possible because “good actors” who are willing to work together, and those with “bad intention” would not seem to fit that description. As a result, where “intention” is considered as having moral and personal significance, versus just be something more like facticity (which just “must” be present if action were to prove possible), we can find ourselves in tribalism, dysfunction politics, and the like. Considering this, “intention” is risky to bring into moral, personal, political, etc. consideration and best left out, seeing as it is more likely to benefit ideology versus prove constructive.
That all said, Jonathon Ray made the excellent point that if a person has an intention to wipe out humanity starting with us, then knowing the person’s intention is important; furthermore, Ray noted that knowing the intentions of others can help us determine if we can start an organization or movement with them. For reasons like this, intention is not to be dismissed entirely; the problem for me is moralizing intention and giving it a weight over outcomes and results. Furthermore, there is a difference between starting an organization with an intention and using intention to rationalize failures of that organization: it is this second move that is so problematic and beneficial to ideology, which I believe deconstructing “good intention” in favor of “intention” can help us avoid. Still, Ray’s points should be acknowledged, points which suggest that we must “play with fire” (as seems to be our fate).
The very act of writing about intention can be viewed as an act of “bad intention,” so in an “intention-focus society,” a paper like this might be ignored, but if it isn’t, I hope readers aren’t disappointed that I haven’t focused on a phenomenological account of intentionality (my focus has rather been on “moral intension”). My hope has been to deconstruct the category of “good intention” into “intention” for the sake of erasing “moral high grounds,” making outcomes more significant to us, and simplifying political and social dialogues (which are already too complex). I want us to discern reality versus claim intentions about reality, because ultimately I think it is easier for ideology to control us where we focus on intentions — but that is a claim I will elaborate on elsewhere.
In conclusion, the road to hell is paved in good intention, and perhaps this is because “good intention” doesn’t exist distinct from “intention,” and thus leads toward “a privation of being.” Furthermore, leading to trouble, intentions we erroneously think of as distinctly “good” are those that’s “fruits” we are likely to overlook in favor of their motivations, intentions that we’re likely to be overly-invested in and that are likely to rob us of our intellectual agility and capacity to pivot. Intentions are useful for guessing what a person will do, but beyond helpful forecasts, they are dangerous grounds for morality (in fact, they are “practically irrelevant”). Even if there are some instances in which it is valid to use the category of “good intentions” (though I can’t think of anything), the risk is too great for a value add that is no better than what considering outcomes would offer. Certainly, perhaps “I to myself” am moral for doing x because I think x is good, but if x hurts other, I am immoral to them. In many ways, humans are a both-ness, a confusing paradox, but if we at least understand how much weight we should give intentionality, we might prove better equipped to understand ourselves and live with others.
¹To allude a point in “On Kafka, Character, and Law” by O.G. Rose, recall that ethics necessarily threatens thinking, because the good point of the premise “murder is wrong” is to prevent us from thinking about if murder is acceptable. Ethics and thinking exist in a tension (as do equality and morality, as discussed in “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose).
²This suggests that knowing history is imperative for being moral in terms of outcome, but since knowing history is hard (even if we care about it, considering hermetical problems), it’s easier to focus on intentions. Also, this problem suggests that what constitutes the ethical is relative to the true, and since truth is hard to know, it’s much easier to focus on intentions (which seem easier to know, but are just as difficult if not harder, all while contributing to social tension and political anxiety).
³Failure to understand that some people believe outcomes are more important than intentions and vice-versa can help us understand why Democrats and Republicans are often horrified by one another: the two sides can put different ethical emphasis on intentions as opposed to outcomes relative to different situations, and failing to understand this, the two sides can talk past one another.
⁴Perhaps we think our intentions are good, but really we are self-deceived and self-interested, but if because of these intentions we make our wife happier, are we really an immoral person? If one sense yes; in another, no — the very fact that these kinds of thought experiments can be conjured up hints at the endless “rabbit hole” that is intention.
⁵This can happen precisely because intention necessarily fences. We want to avoid “fencing” whenever we can and whenever the resulting “focus” won’t help us achieve something, and though focus on outcomes must entail a level of intentionality, it at least directs us toward something more knowable. To be intentional about intentionality is for us to “fence ourselves off” from other variables that we can actually know and observe: we’re fenced in with nothing, and so invested emotionally and personally in that nothing, we can find ourselves existentially disturbed.
⁶It should be noted that if we ask people directly, “Are intentions as important as outcomes?” I think most people would answer “No,” but when people aren’t asked directly, how they act and think betrays what they think. Our views on the subject are confused and muddled, and the hope of this paper has been to help clarify to ourselves what we should think and do regarding intentions.