To Mean Well is Not To Do Well.

011214I 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.

17 Replies to “To Mean Well is Not To Do Well.”

  1. The whole ethos of ‘I should be recognised for doing what I thought was right’ is indicative of the “All About Me” culture so prevalent today.

  2. Yes, we tend to judge others by their actions, while we judge ourselves by our intent, (I meant well).

    1. I’m not quiet sure what you’re getting at here Bm. I see that word “fumble” but given that the article pretty well falls under going into the world and preaching the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15) as instructed, remembering the traditions of the Apostles (1 Cor. 11:2), and exhorting us to sin no more (Jon 8:11), I”m not sure you can raise issue with the “as I have done to you, so you do also” thing.

      Especially because he touched on the reality of sin, the fact that we all do it (1 John 1:8-10), that our sin is our fault (Jeremiah 17:4), while mentioning that that our “hearts” can be in error (what wrongheaded good intentions amount to), and can mislead us (Jeremiah 17:9), and that God will examine both our actual conduct and the content of our hearts (17:10)? All in all a good summary of the fact that we may be aware of nothing against ourselves, but are not thereby acquitted (1 Cor 4:4).

      It’s a hard teaching, but I don’t think we should pull a John 6:60 here.

  3. So, can we say that even a grand intstitution like our Catholic Church ment well but didnt do well. When it decided to keep all those mostly priests that molested children and women. We really learned our lesson there. But as we always say we’re only human.

    1. Are you aware that the Catholic Church is one of the least likely places to find a child abuser? And that it is the only institution to have actually done anything more about this horrific crime other than ignore or pay lip-service to it? And that the press and media have merely used the actual crimes, sometimes without regard to the truth, to attack the Church? And that by bringing this up in an article which bears little connection shows that you are happy with this? Would it not be better use of your time to go after the many institutions that are still allowing child abuse to continue?

  4. Thank you, Msgr. for giving us this lesson. It is very timely and important. There are too many Catholics (and people) out there who think their intentions trump the morality of their actions. God bless you!

  5. Is it true that inside the beltway of D.C. the roads are paved with good intentions?

  6. To the subject of keeping priests who sexually abused others: when they were being transferred around and shipped in and out of “programs” in the 80s (mostly) there was a very definate belief (at least among counselors, therapists and the like) that sexual abusers could be “treated and cured.” In time, we found out they were wrong. This is not to excuse what was done by bishops and administrators, but many who were in authority in that era fell into the “treat and cure” trap. When we condemn behaviors in the past, we have to be aware of what the situation was at the time. My grandfathers used language to refer some racial and ethnic groups that would be inappropriate today, but were commonly used words in their day. We are often quick to find fault with what others did in the past, without considering we have the benefit of hindsight.

  7. Msgr – Your lesson brought to mind an episode from one of my favorite movies, A Man for All Seasons (1966):

    The Duke of Norfolk: Oh confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!

    Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

    I am not a regular reader. Perhaps you’ve covered this: Can you point me to some readings on how to properly form and follow one’s conscience for right action?

  8. I’m not trying to “school” anybody, as has been imputed to me in the past, but I think one clarification needs to be made. When we say that intentions “cannot remove the harm or negative results of an . . . evil act,” we should retreat a step and realize that according to Veritatis Splendor 78 and Aquinas, a first-person intention is required for such an “evil act” to even exist. I call this the proximate intention, which informs the moral species, as opposed to the ulterior intention, about which this article treats. I plan to publish an article using these terms, so if you want to steal them, may it be noted here that my name is Nicholas Danne, and I have evidence of using the terms prior to this date.

    I think we need to be careful with statements like, “What I actually do is the determinative factor. Feelings, thoughts and intentions cannot win the day.” For then it seems difficult to distinguish using one’s body to cover a live grenade in a crowded playground, from forseable and willfully intended suicide, which is intrinsically immoral. The rectory priest cannot say he succeeded in the intended act of ‘opening the door,’ because a circumstance (the wrong key) changed its natural species (to an act of ‘fumbling’), even if it did not (and could not) change its moral species, which was to adopt lock-manipulating behavior in tandem with a proximate intention to ‘enter the Church building.’

    1. You points here are hard to follow since your sentence structure is complicated and you use terms such as “ulterior” etc that are hard to pin down. Further, I think the sentence you life is not respectful of the context in which I write it, which given the context is not using the word “determines” in an absolute sense, but a relative sense wherein it contrasted merely to feelings and intentions. I do not argue the act stands alone. I hope your book will use language that is less opaque. Unless you are writing to a very limited audience of moral theologians, words like, proximate, ulterior, species, etc do not communicate your points well to the average reader, even if they win points for sounding impressive.

  9. Democrats and the American people epitomize this belief. Democrats are held to their intentions, even though Detroit is bankrupt, they get a pass from some. We have the lowest labor participation rate in 40 years, yet Obama still gets a pas from some. Sadly, too many Catholics voted for this man. I guess to them, only skin color and intentions matter. The thing is, I think his intentions are evil.

  10. What does this mean for the new economic theory of “forward guidance” in matters monetary at the Federal Reserve? Can one be moral when one places the outcome of an act in an abstraction, a non-entity: the future, rather than in a concrete reality in the present moment? Could this simple arguement be behind the wisdom of the Church’s teachings on usury (as incidentally are the Church’s teachings countering Marxist theory, a presumptive ‘faith’ in positivist progress of time advancing; the legacy of the German Historical School, a tyranny of relatism bequeathed by Bismarck’s tumultous era). Indeed even the pagan wisdom of Hypocrates adjures: first do no harm!

    Considering the dollar’s role in global affairs, do not such political acts correspond to serious structural sins that are certainly individual and personal, we acceed to guilt by association wherever we fail to denounce them? Consider this by recent Catholic convert Leah Libresco on how easy in this secular age the deception of the new “rational gullible” amongst us has become:

    1. ? I really don’t understand the nature of this remark. Economics remains baffling to most people. I am just a simple priest, I am no economist of political scientist. It seems like the comments queue has become a stump the blogger segment 🙂

Comments are closed.