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It is not enough to mean well, we actually have to do well.

July 23, 2012

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.

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Comments (16)

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  1. Nate says:

    This is the argument I like to make against Catholics who get self-righteous in their defense of heavy state intervention in the economy as a means to promote social justice. Yes, they mean well and have good intentions but they are actually causing harm, even if their agenda makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside.

  2. Nick says:

    Intentions, prudence, and charity go hand in hand. To use the video: We gotta understand that, despite the prisoners’ intentions, he did wrong, yet, also understand that, because of his wrongness, he is in need of charity, which begins with imprisonment as a just punishment and continues with visitations as merciful acts. All the more so if he’s innocent of any crime.

  3. Annette Strachan says:

    So I googled who said “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and one result mentioned St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

  4. teomatteo says:

    Ok, here’s one question: If just thinking something sinful (adultery) is equal to committing the sin then why is not the converse true? i.e. why isnt thinking a good thing equal to committing a good thing?

    • Steve M says:

      You are joking right? Surely you understand the difference between a thought or idea and actively thinking about committing a sin and focsuing on it in your mind. Surely you understand the Bible when Jesus talks about those who think about a sin have already sinned it is not literally that black and white. First thinking about committing a sin is clearly on the slippery slope to actually committing the sin itself so there is great danger for your soul from the idea of committing a sin. If you do not stop yourself and go forward into focusing your thoughts on how it would feel and what you would do then you will begin to sin. Either you are confused by this teaching or you just completely must have been confused by Msgr. Pope in this posting because it seemed straight forward that intentions do not erase the actions. If you are not just joking around and being flippant maybe you could explain what you mean more completely so someone can help you understand before you commit a sin and harm your soul.

  5. Steve M says:

    A common phrase I hear lately is “I’m just saying” as if this is enough to free the speaker from what they have said. Doesn’t it seem like the whole practice of an Examination of Conscience is missing from our culture. Sin must originate with individual actions even if these build to universal sins but it has to start with people making decisions. How do we help people to examine their own actions first and truly admit to themselves where they have failed? If we could start as individuals to make that examination habit part of our lives, it seems like this would take away some of the universal sin of the world. It took me a long time to understand the value of contemplative religious orders. A few years ago, if I had watched “Into Great Silence” I would have been angry that these men didn’t help people but now I know they are helping at a much more fundamental level.

  6. RichardC says:

    I only listened to the song once. Please don’t ask me to listen to it again. I didn’t get a sense of why he was in the hoosegow, but I agree that the song had an overemphasis on intentions.

  7. Aloysius Duque says:

    It is all in the will.

  8. Cynthia BC says:

    This topic certainly is relevant given the recent movie-theater shootings.

    Does it matter whether Mr. Holmes is evil, or mentally ill? There still are a dozen people dead and scores wounded.

    And how can we tell whether someone is evil or mentally ill?

  9. Lou Donnelly says:

    People may not believe what you say, but will believe what you do!

  10. Peter Wolczuk says:

    In the Mosaic legal code intentions and malice aforethought are mentioned at least four times and, while it lessens the consequences, it does not get the perpetrator “off the hook” as the saying goes. Numbers 35:20 Deuteronomy 4:42 Deuteronomy 19:4 Deuteronomy 19:6.
    The bit about the spilled paint reminds me of an incident a little over a year ago when I spilled a bucket of mixed water and paint as a result of being careless while cleaning up at a construction site.
    I did resulting the clean up on company time but, that was a consequence to the employer which led to a consequence to me in that the supervisor’s trust in me was slightly diminished.
    The fact that the paint was diluted actually added to the negative impact because the mix spread more readily.
    Upon looking back I think of Ecclesiastes 9:18. Not to say that I am being a fool but, rather, that I was briefly being foolish by letting my intention to do good work lapse so that it was more a sin of omission – instead of bad intention. Nevertheless, the mess could not be undone but, needed to be corrected.

  11. Susan Fox says:

    I never intended for …… Those are the words of a person who is shocked, appalled, distressed, inconvenienced? by unintended results. In a world where we are determinedly developing an ethos where no one is culpable, and someone else must be held responsible for any and all results that are not totally praiseworthy, it is really just a passing phase – this calling on good intentions to escape recriminations. Soon enough unintended results won’t even be given a thought. What we want is all that will be considered and getting it will be all that is notable. We are already doing it when we ask only if a brutal killer is crazy or his mother neglected him, or what. We already need take no responsibility for a world where the children’s entertainment is beyond brutal, sex sells everything, and life is totally expendable until an arbitrary moment in time when it magically becomes sacred, unless of course it becomes collateral damage or more trouble than it’s worth. And we had such good intentions.

  12. jess says:

    “Actions speak louder than words,” comes to mind.

  13. Cynthia BC says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5ya8J-jyK4

    I’ve liked the Liberty Mutual “pay it forward” series of commercials. They actually are a variation on “pay it forward” in that it is not the recipient of a good deed that does another a good deed in turn, but rather someone who witnesses the good deed.

  14. joseph vellone says:

    0ne of the cardinal principles of spiritual life if called “purity of intention”.In God’s eyes why you do what you do is often more important than what you do.If you do everything for the greater glory of God and you fail despite your best plans efforts and intentions,your intention will be precious in the eyes of God and rewarded.
    If we plan shoddily,and your effort is haphazard then you cannot have the consolation of falling back on your good intentions.
    So,anyone who does everything for the glory of God and is prudent and careful in how he goes about his affairs will be rewarded according to his intention.