Intentions or Outcomes?

Over the past week or so, I’ve had some excellent discussions with friends, family, colleagues, and small, wild animals as they stumbled into my orbit. One of the main topics that these people/animals have been kind enough to discuss with me is the issue of “how we judge the morality of an action”.

Or, perhaps we can phrase it as “how can we say if an action is/was good or bad?” I always get a little confused* by big words like morality and cockswain.

*Side note: I also invariably spell certain words wrong such as friend and taser. See, even right now, I’m not certain if taser is spelled with a z or an s. I consistently rely on spell check for this reason. Thank god for spell check, and thank god for the hatchery (bonus points if you get that reference).

Because this concept is a little bit abstract, I think it’s helpful to use some real life examples.

  1. A surgeon is attempting to save someone’s life after said person arrives in the emergency room with a gunshot wound injury. Even though the surgeon tries as hard as she can to save the person, one of her actions during the emergency surgery directly causes the patient’s condition to worsen, and the patient dies.
  2. A person gives money to a houseless woman, hoping that she will buy food with it for her and her young daughter who is staying with her on the street. Instead, the houseless woman buys alcohol with the money. (You could potentially make an argument that the alcohol isn’t necessarily bad or that food isn’t necessarily good. But, let’s just assume that, for this example, food=good and alcohol=bad).
  3. A man is in a blank room with two identical buttons in front of him. He’s told that pressing one button will end the world, one button will save the world. He presses one of the buttons.

In reading those scenarios, did you have an immediate, gut reaction? Or, did it take you some time to think about how you felt? With regard to intentions or outcomes being the most important factor, did your answer change with each scenario, or remain consistent across all three?

For each situation, one could say that intentions are more important in deciding whether the action was good or bad.

If one did, one would then be saying that it truly doesn’t matter what the outcome of any action is, as long as the person performing the action had a goal of creating a positive situation in the end. Specifically:

  1. The surgeon has nothing to worry about any time she kills a patient, as long as she’s acting in good faith.
  2. The person giving money to the houseless woman is right to do so, regardless of what the houseless woman spends the money on.
  3. As long as the man has the intention of pressing the button that will save the world, his action was good, no matter which button he ends up pressing.

Alternatively, if one said that outcomes are most important, one would be instead saying that intentions don’t really matter, as long as the end result is good.

To apply this principle in the same way:

  1. If the patient dies, the surgeon’s actions were bad, regardless of what her intentions were, and vice versa.
  2. If the houseless woman buys food, the person who gave her the money committed a good act. If she buys alcohol, the person who gave her the money committed a bad act.
  3. If the man presses the “save” button, his action was good. If he presses the “end the world” button, his action was bad.

There are many roads you can go down while discussing these situations and this big question.

These are great dinner table topics. You can ask your racist uncle these questions and see what he says. Or, you can ask your newborn baby as he stares at you blankly. Most importantly, you can ask yourself.

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