How relevant to the consequences of our actions are our intentions behind them? Does meaning well make up for erring or is the result of our actions the only significant factor? The old idiom goes: “It’s the thought that counts.” Which seems to imply that regardless of the outcome, if we intended well, all should be forgiven. Conversely, we say that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Implying that our intentions are irrelevant if the consequences of our actions are unsatisfactory. We make both moral and legal judgments with a large amount of weight placed on our intentions, so it certainly seems like a concept that it important to us. But how important and in what way?
In everyday life we say things like “yeah, but he meant well” when we talk about someone who makes frequent mistakes. Or we say “it’s the thought that counts,” when someone gives us a gift or makes a gesture that falls a bit short. We cannot forget the famous question that has striken fear into many a teenage male’s heart when meeting a date’s father for the first time: “What are your intentions with my daughter?” You can be quite sure that there is a correct answer to this inquiry. So it would seem that even if they are what the road to hell is paved with, good intentions appear to negate most undesirable consequences.
The Law is extremely concerned with our intentions. It even uses the phrase “...with intent to sell/distribute” in regards to a person being found in possession of a large enough amount of drugs. “Attempted Murder,” although certainly less severe than successful murder, is still considered a very serious crime. Attempted suicide will land you a psychological evaluation or more. The law even recognizes accidental homicide. Meaning, that if your intent was not to kill that person, your punishment will be lessened.
On a grand ethical scale, intentions seem to weigh rather heftily as well. After all, we will likely place more blame on a serial killer who murders 8 people intentionally than the man who accidentally killed 8 people in a car crash. Likewise, we will praise the women who discovered an plane’s engine malfunction and consequently saved everyone on board, versus the one at the ticket booth who simply made a booking error which resulted in the plane not taking off but, also saving everyone on board. Our judgments, good or bad, are extremely intent-centered.
The problem with putting this much emphasis on intent is that it can be difficult to accurately determine what others’ intents are. Someone may say “well I didn’t intend for him to get hurt,” but how can we know whether he actually didn’t? The best we can do is look at other factors. Occasionally, we lose patience for others’ “good intentions” if we find that they fall short too routinely. In Baseball, “Three strikes and you’re out!” Enough mistakes at work and we will surely be finding ourselves unemployed regardless of what we were trying to do. So it does appear that there is a limit on how far simply having good intentions will take us and with enough failures, we’ll find ourselves in a place we don’t much want to be.
Generally speaking, if we intend well, we will be forgiven. According to Gandhi: “Before the throne of the Almighty, man will be judged not by his acts but by his intentions....” However, if we intend to harm, we will be prosecuted. British Poet, Lord Byron’s ambiguous phrase: “This is the patent age of new inventions for killing bodies, and for saving souls. All propagated with the best intentions.” Our intentions’ efficacy has a limit, much like using a debit card. If you use the card too much, you’ll run out of money in your account. If this happens, but you continue using the card, you’ll run into a world of trouble. Used properly, and not too liberally, our good intentions will keep us happily in the black.
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