November 11, 2012
There is a tendency among some people to focus almost exclusively on intentions. They may not explicitly believe that motives are all that matter, but they speak and argue as though that were the case. They spend a lot of time praising people they think have good intentions, who they imagine will act in ways that are beneficial to others, while condemning those they think have bad intentions, who they imagine will act in ways that are beneficial to themselves (either disregarding others or knowingly injuring them).There are several reasons why being overly concerned with people’s intentions in this way is misguided. First, it is simply not possible to be sure what another person’s motives are in any given instance. We are not mind readers, so when we infer someone’s intentions from his or her actions and declarations, we do so with a greater or lesser amount of uncertainty. To claim to have knowledge of another person’s mind is simply arrogant. It is sometimes not even possible in certain cases to be sure about our own motivations, much less someone else’s. This is because intentions are complex. We likely have several reasons motivating any given action, some of which even push us in opposite directions.
A second problem with obsessing about intentions is that actions which benefit oneself often benefit others as well. If I work in order to make money, those who voluntarily purchase the product of my labour also benefit, and this is equally true of any voluntary market transaction. This kind of self-interest should be praised as the motor that drives the world to become ever more prosperous, with condemnation reserved for that sub-category of self-interested actions which actually do harm the interests of others.
Finally, it has been said before, but it bears repeating: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions alone—even redefined to include benign self-interested intentions, and even setting aside the very real knowledge problems involved—are simply not enough. What’s the use in wanting to help the poor, for instance, if the manner in which I choose to do so succeeds only in perpetuating their plight? If one wants to do good, one must actually learn how to do good, or one may very well inadvertently end up making things worse. Instead of wasting time judging people based on what we imagine their intentions to be, we should focus on whether what they are saying makes sense, and on whether the results of their actions are actually good.
Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.