On Good Intentions and Flawed Moral Reasoning

I have noticed that it is very common today that moral assessments seem to center quite a lot around the intentions and feelings of the person involved. What is actually being done seems less significant and as long as a person “means well” or feels something is right then it is OK for them and we should make no further moral discernment. It is enough for too many that the person feels the act is right and means well.

But the fact is such criteria are NOT enough. Moral uprightness consists in doing well, not just meaning well or feeling good. Intentionality is not wholly insignificant, especially when it comes to assigning a level of “culpability” (guilt or blame). But intentionality and surely feelings cannot be the only determinative factors in assessing a moral act. We must look at the act itself, what actually happens, as the primary consideration of the moral quality of that act. We cannot simply say that something is good, it must actually be good.

Let me give a few examples as to how the actual, concrete act overrules whatever feelings or intentions we have:

1. Intentions alone do not turn locks, keys do – Every day I move between the buildings that make up our parish plant. Going in and out of buildings requires the use of keys. Now many of these keys look alike. As I approach the Church door, I take out my keys and put what I think is the Church key in the lock. Now I do this with best of intentions. I think I am doing what is right, I feel that what I am doing is right. Only problem is that I put the rectory key in the Church lock. Despite all my good intentions, despite that I thought and felt I was doing what was right, the lock does not turn.

All the good intentions in the world will not make that lock turn. I may swear that I think I am right, and that I feel right. But none of those things will win the day and turn that lock. I actually have to DO what is right to get the proper result. The right key has to go in the right lock to get the right result. What I actually do is the determinative factor. Feelings, thoughts and intentions cannot win the day.

2. Good intentions alone do not get me there, following the directions does. To get to your house you tell me to turn right on Park Ave. But I turn left. I may think you said left, I may sense or feel I am going in the proper direction, I may intend to be doing what is right, but none of that is going to change the fact that I am going 30 mph in the wrong direction and am not going to get to your house until I actually DO what is right.

3. Accidents happen, but there’s still a mess. There is a can of paint in a hallway as I walk down. I kick the can of paint over and paint spills all over the floor. Whether I did so intentionally or not will not change the fact that we’ve got a mess on our hands here that has to be cleaned.

But in this example, intentionality and what I think or know is important to determine how blameworthy I am. It is possible that my act of kicking the paint over was purely accidental. Perhaps I was unaware that painting was going on in the hall and I could not see the can as I rounded the corner. In this case my culpability (or blameworthiness) is probably very low if not non-existent. But suppose I knew there was painting going on and failed to exercise proper attentiveness. I kick the can of paint over through carelessness. In this case I have some blame. But suppose I saw the can of paint and (perhaps out of anger) purposefully kicked it over. Now my blame is full.

So intentions, knowledge and feelings are important in assessing the blameworthiness of a person. But these things cannot render a bad thing good. No matter what my intentions thoughts or feelings, we still have a big mess to clean up. The objective truth is that there is paint all over the floor. Simply saying, I had good intentions or didn’t know any better does not make the mess go away.

Rectitude is tied to reality – Too many people today use flawed or incomplete reasoning when it comes to morally assessing acts. Intentions, how a person feels, or what they think and know can affect blameworthiness, but they cannot make a bad thing good, they cannot make an evil act upright, they cannot remove the harm or negative results of an incorrect, bad or evil act.  There is still a mess to clean up. There is still a U-turn to make, there is still a right key to find. Reality sets in.

There is a lot of flawed moral reasoning today around the issue of intentionality, feelings and thoughts. Important though these factors are they cannot undo reality. They cannot form the basis for judging the uprightness or wrongness of an act. Time to get back to reality in moral judgments. Time to do well, not just mean well. Time to actually do what is right not just think or feel you’re right. Back to reality.

The following video is a good example of the world’s moral reasoning. A man is in jail. All we need to know is that he meant well and had the best of intentions. How he landed in jail, all the other wrong things he’s done in his life, they matter so little that we are not even told what they were. ALL that matters is that he had the best of intentions. “Enjoy” the video.

23 Replies to “On Good Intentions and Flawed Moral Reasoning”

  1. Thank you for your post. I was wondering if you might share your thoughts on what caused the focus of morality to be solely on the intention instead of also on the act. Hopefully by understanding the phenomena better, we can better overcome it. Thank you.

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  2. I think the most serious fault in moral reasoning today (and for all I know, at any time) is the focus on the result to judge the action. I think this is popularly known as consequentialism in blogdom. Applied to the example above, success in unlocking the door does not make it right to do so. As you note, it is our intentions which give an act their moral quality.

    “Intentions *** cannot make a bad thing good, they cannot make an evil act upright, they cannot remove the harm or negative results of an incorrect, bad or evil act.” Do you suppose the reverse is true? (Not rhetorical.) A good or positive result cannot justify bad acts or motivation.

    And two other observations. We often hear of acts being wrong per se, such as abortion. But I think we define the acts too narrowly. The act in its simplest form is “taking the life of another.” And this is not an evil per se. Abortion is “taking the life of another” in particular circumstances, as war, capital punishment, and self-defense constitute the taking of another’s life under different circumstances. Again, it is the circumstances which give the act its moral character.

    Second, the claim to have the best of intentions is not the same as objectively having the best of intentions. In most cases, the claim to have good intentions is nothing more than “I knew it was wrong, but …” But if somebody honestly believes they are doing the right thing, and to the best of their ability they have endeavored to understand what is right in accord with God’s will, what more can any of us really do?

    1. it is the circumstances which give the act its moral character

      Be careful not to stray into the error of situational ethics.

      1. If the intent is to kill then it is evil for it violates the Fifth Commandment. Thus abortion and the death penalty are evil. On the other hand, in self defense the intent is to prevent one’s death. Therefore it is not evil. In war, St. Thomas outlined the 3 reasons that must exist to justify it. These however do not seem necessarily applicable today. Apart from self defense (to prevent more rather than less sure killings) I don’t see how it can be justified.

        You make the very excellent point however that claimed good intentions are not the same as objectively good intentions and that a “…good or positive result cannot justify bad acts or motivation.” I would add that if the intention is objectively good, the act is good, regardless of the results. The best intention can lead to the cross. Jesus was crucified and warned that anyone who wishes to follow Him must be ready and willing to carry their cross.

        Poverty is typically considered the worst of results. Yet the poor are often poor through no fault of their own and even though they may be leading the most virtuous life. Furthermore, a select few are poor intentionally in order to physically, morally and mystically share and make visible the suffering of Christ and of the poor. Again, seemingly bad results can be associated with the best intentions and people.

        Thus one has to clarify what are objectively good intentions as well as objectively good results.

  3. Dave,

    I can only assume it’s the subjective turn in philosophy that has permeated the cultural milieu. This move started at least a few hundred years ago and has slowly gained more and more of a hold. It’s not any specific movement, but representative of many movements; heck even movements that were meant to counter the “good intentions” and “emotion” based ethics were often subjective themselves (see C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man where he demonstrates this quite aptly). One could trace it to Kant or some bad form of Cartesianism, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t help that the great St. Oprah (Saint and leader of the current pop culture) espouses it all the time. It also doesn’t help when we as Christians (Catholic or not) forget that our audience, both Christian and non-Christian alike, also lack the intellectual background and understanding to get the subtle distinction between a God-given conscience, the fall and natural law and doing what feels right. Unfortunately, all people hear when we talk about the former 3, is the latter. Partially because that’s all they want to hear (it always justifies their behaviour and preserves the notion that they’re decent people), and partially because we’re not a society of subtlety anymore (the networks/pop culture educators won’t allow for subtlety).

    Fr. Pope, great post, thank you for this.

  4. Speaking of intention… it was Karl Marx who said “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” He also claimed “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

  5. It is a vague posting–it seems like a straw man argument with “it’s common today” and “too many people”. I’m not sure a country western song is a strong example, since its primary job is to affect the emotions rather than convey moral teaching. A more specific example would strengthen the premise. Certainly moral judgments shouldn’t be made based solely on intentions, but the idea of taking into account a person’s intentions and circumstances has been a necessary movement in Catholic moral theology as a corrective to the “moral manual” method which considered ONLY the act. While there is certainly objective moral truth, the “human person adequately considered” is a complex and profound creature…

    1. One thing is certain, that if I post it Daniel will parse it. You will not that I DO make mention several times that intentions are not insignificant when it comes to culpability. I nowhere argue for a “moral manual” apporach wherein “ONLY” the act is considered. What I do argue is that culturally we have over-corrected. There is nothing vague or straw man about my posting and, as most others commenters have noted it is a very observable phenomenon in today’s culture. Where have you been living, Daniel? The use of the words “common” and “most” should please you, at least based on your usual concerns. I do not argue that everyone has this view, but rather that it is a common perception. Common does not equal all. Is it possible that your”complexity” argument is really the “vague” aspect? If something is complex, that often is a way of saying that no analysis is possible or complete enough so lets not deal with it at all. This is a common cultural phenomenon as well wherein we cultivate confusion and complexity. Then, having decalred things complex we don’t have to face a truth and base our lives on it, we don’t have to face the possible that change is required. The “who’s to say, there’s a lot of opinions….the issue is complex” attitude usually means, do and say nothing.

      Also, lighten up about the country music thing, its an example, not a proof.

      1. A clarification: It seems that most of your commenters tend to agree with just about everything in the postings and a great number even applaud the postings on a regular basis, which is of course fine, but not balanced. You have previously admitted that you tend to lean in your postings, presuming the comments will provide balance. Everyone applauding a leaning opinion does not balance it, and so I occasionally pipe in to suggest that there are other legitimate (and faithful) ways of looking at things. This is the only blog linked to the ADW website and so may be interpreted by many to be the official opinion of the Archdiocese, or even of the Church, so balance is key. I also think there is an important distinction between “cultivating” confusion and complexity and “acknowledging” them as fact. Sorry to be a pain.

  6. Reminds me of 1 Peter 1:22.

    Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love…

    One is purified by obedience to the truth; Peter is one who should know. But no one wants to hear about obedience anymore. Talk radio hosts tell us that America was built on “Rugged individualism” and the philosophy of Ayn Rand – that personal happiness is the best moral compass – is taught in our high schools and colleges.

    The infallible Church established by Jesus Christ says “Turn right on Park Ave” but we, with so many college degrees and iPhones, think we know better and so we turn right. Instead of listeneing to what the “Lamp for our feet” has said for two thousand years, we think we know better and drive off a cliff.

    There is great freedom and abundant grace in simple obediece, in knowing that you are heading the right way no matter how awkward it feels, how irrational it seems, or how scared you are.


  7. Thank you continuing to provide these wonderful insights into our Faith and the applications for our life situations.

    This way of thinking was displayed by Tony Blair in the UK (and G Bush) in justifying the reasons for going to war.
    In the aftermath of the war, they exhibited no depth of conviction but they “only did what they felt was the best thing to do”: they have never alluded at any possible alternatives and certainly showed no regrets as they confirmed they would do the same again as they felt it was right to do so.
    They felt they were right and they continue to maintain this stance. The public generally accept this as “well, they meant well” and their actions receive a level of well meaning acceptance, but not by everyone.
    This attitude is also displayed by other people, politicians, celebrities and others who break ‘laws’ and who claim that they didn’t intend any harm.
    In reality, people fail to think things through, which is, of course, an issue in the modern world where we are surrounded by ‘sound bite’ explanations of issues and are expected to respond with the same alacrity.

    Keep up the good work.

    God Bless.

  8. Dave & Sean: I wonder if the emphasis on motivation is not the result of the fracturing of our common or shared values. As Christians, we measure our acts and motivations against God’s will. That common ground is not shared by society at large so some substitute must be found, such as “I meant well,” or, one of my personal favorites, “it doesn’t hurt anybody.” The more generic or vague the substitute, the less grounds there are for objections.

  9. Thank you for this post. What I am often baffled at is how defensive my children can get when I point out to them that the outcome is wrong. They are quick to blame others; it is so difficult for them to say, “I’m sorry” and make reparation. My husband and I make so many mistakes, but as soon as recognize them, we begin to amend them. We don’t hide these from our children because we want them to see how to make things right after a wrong.

    We had a deadly accident in our home with one of our pets and we had a thorough discussion about obedience, intentions and confession and forigiveness. But the child involved still carries the guilt and I suspect he has not confessed his part to a priest (even though we have gone to confession). Some things you cannot undo. Any suggestions on how to ease this pain he carries in his heart? He’s 11.

  10. Even in the purely human dimension, good intentions are insufficient as illustrated by 3 government programs in this video. http://divine-ripples.blogspot.com/2010/12/great-idea-best-intentions-and.html
    All actions have unanticipated side effects, but government acting through regulation or legislation is particularly adept at creating disastrous unintended consequences. Great Moments in Unintended Consequences takes a look at three instances of epic government facepalm: Osborne Reef, Corn Ethanol Subsidies, and a particular clause in ObamaCare that is already doing more harm than good.

    In the present world of moral choices, the emphasis on intentions seem to be promoted by the liberal media, politicians and holywood because it makes people as gods. They make themselves the sole arbiter of what is good and bad without an accountability to anyone other than themselves. It is that age old temptation, “You will be as God – knowing good and evil.” It is also convenient because people won’t have to look up what is really right. It appeals to arrogance and vanity in that primal revolt of, “Non serviam.” And just like the government programs that failed despite the good intentions, so will people if all they have are misguided warm fuzzies to guide their judgments and decisions.

    1. Thanks for that link. Nicely produced. This is why I am leery of giving control to the govt. and making policies — many have had devastating results on the family.

      1. They have good intentions (or so they claim) but not good actions as they break the law, Constitutions. Laws were not made to be broken. And those who break them must face the consequences as no one is above the law.

  11. I must disagree with the conventional wisdom/Marx/whoever that the road to hell is lined with good intentions – if our intentions are good and true. To believe this strikes me as cynical.

    On a domestic note, I always try to emphasize the dimension of moral responsibility as well as moral culpability. If one of the children break something and they did not intend to do it and they were behaving with due care for their surroundings, they are not culpable, but they are still responsible. That means he or she would not be punished, but they would still be morally obligated to clean it up, fix it, pay for it, apologize, etc.

    Vijaya, you are right about demonstrating responsibility in front of the children. I wish I had a word for your eleven-year-old. In many ways, the moral life of children is inscrutable to me.

  12. Monsignor, you correctly note that intentions often bear on the moral culpability of a person committing an objectively evil act. I’m interested, however, in discussing the ways in which intention bears on the objective good or evil of the act itself.

    Recall that every act has three components: (1) object, (2) intention, and (3) circumstances (see Catechism #1750 and following). What many people fail to appreciate is the way in which intention factors into defining the object of an act.

    Let’s say the act in question is “pushing a sharpened steel blade into someone’s abdomen”. The object of this act could be “stabbing” or “surgery” depending on the intention with which it is performed. If the intent is to injure, then this is a stabbing. If the intent is to gain access to the internal organs of the body so as to be able to perform a medical procedure, then this is surgery. The key thing though is that a mere physical description of an act is not enough to define the object of the act (moral component #1 mentioned above).

    Once the object of the act has been established, we may then examine moral component #2: intention. It makes a moral difference whether I am stabbing someone hoping to kill them because they have insulted me or whether I am stabbing someone hoping to incapacitate an unjust assailant. Likewise it makes a moral difference whether I am performing surgery on someone hoping to remedy a life-threatening medical condition or whether I am performing unnecessary surgery on merely to make money . Note how the intentions with which we are concerned here are different than those that help determine the object of the act.

    Now, why I am belaboring these finer points of moral analysis? Because while in most areas of moral theology these points are recognized by the Church, when it comes to sexual ethics they seem to be forgotten. Frequently in sexual ethics, and seemingly only in sexual ethics, the object of an act is defined solely by the physical structure of the act without regard to intention. This is known as physicalism.

    Take for example the question of whether it is morally permissible for a married couple to use condoms to prevent one spouse from being infected with HIV by the other. The Church so far has objected to this saying that one may not engage in intrinsically evil acts even if for a good intention. However, that response fails to recognize how in intention bears on the object of the act. If the intent is to prevent disease and is not at all motivated by a desire to avoid having children, then the object of the act is viral prophylaxis, not contraception. There is then a separate level of intention that comprises the 2nd component of an act discussed above. It makes a difference whether I want to prevent infection out of genuine love and concern for my spouse or whether I do it out of a selfish desire to keep her healthy so that I don’t have to work and can live off of her income.

    The physicalism embedded in many parts of the Church’s sexual teaching has made the Church blind to morally significant nuances and distinctions. The Church has painted with an overly broad brush in classifying certain acts as objectively (i.e. intrinsically) evil. As you rightly point out, it would be deeply misguided to try to judge the morality of an act solely based on the intentions involved, and our culture has swung too far in that direction. I fear though that our Church, wishing to resist intentionalism, has in some cases fallen into physicalism and not given sufficient weight to intention.

    1. I can assure you that the problem you describe in the Church is almost non-existent. We have, the opposite problem in most moral reasoning today wherein intention trumps all else. This has infected the Church today like most other western settings.

      Insofar as the catechism goes, which is not infected, one can only reason morally on the objective nature of the act since circumstances and intention are, ipso facto, unique to each situation. Mortal culpability is dtermined based on: gave matter, full consent of the will and suficient reflection. Only grave matter can be officially taught since full consent of the will and sufficient reflection are unique to each case.

      So called physicalism is not an aspect of moral reasoning, rather gave matter is the key indicator insofar as mortal sin goes. Insofar as lesser offenses go, here too the Church can only formally rule on the act decribed whereas consent of the will and sufficient reflection will vary in each case. Hence objective moral reasoning is in place whereas culpability and the degree thereof is a case by case thing.

      You seem concerned about sex according to your last paragraph. But the same rules apply. Nothing can render an objectively sinful act good but culpability will vary based on consent of the will and sufficient reflection. What you call physicalism is your own term and does not enter into the Church’s vocabulary.

      Your desciption of the Church as blind is unecessary and likely more an issue for those who would deny that an act is what it plainly is. Nuance and distinction are lovely things but they cannot ultimately be dismissive of the obvious. Not sure what acts you refer to when you argue that the Church in an “overly broad” manner paints as intrinsically evil but I have my suspicions as to what you mean. In the end something can be intrinsically evil while culpability and the degree thereof remains a case by case determination.

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