Action and Intent

Why should one be generous?

That was the question we started with today. One of us had run across an argument that ran something like this: one should be generous because it gives you a self-satisfaction that nothing else can give you. But then, the question is, isn’t that then not really generosity but selfishness? And what happens after an act of generosity that is ineffective or poorly received? (“They totally didn’t appreciate what I did for them–my generous effort was wasted!”)

So, if the reason behind being generous can’t be only because it makes you feel good (although, happily, that is often a side-effect), why be generous? Why is generosity good?

As is the case with all of the ethical questions we discuss, we reached an impasse, but having discussed ethics so much, we reached it rather quickly. Either generosity is, of itself, inherently good (and there is no way to prove that), or it is good because it is dependent upon something else–a chain of reasoning, or a dictum from God.

We discussed the problems with morality from “God says so.” While this is actually a way to solve the ethics problem, people bristle at it. It’s a conversation-stopper, and it seems overly simple. Shouldn’t there be a chain of apparent reasoning in addition, if in fact morality comes from God?

There’s much to say on this issue, but our conversation instead turned to the analysis of moral actions themselves: specifically centering around the question of action vs. intent. Can someone commit an evil action with a good intent?

For the sake of argument, we all agreed that Hitler’s actions of genocide were evil. But his intent was to promote human flourishing. At first, it appears that it is possible to have a good intention but to go about it in an evil way that actually prevents it from being achieved.

But, I argued, Hitler’s vision of human flourishing is quite different from ours–one that involves racial purity. So, it’s not enough to say that Hitler’s goal was “human flourishing” and dismiss it at that. We have a different conception of human flourishing that does not involve racial purity, therefore we would never have need of genocide in going about achieving it. The goal, at least in part, dictates the action.

Thus, it may be that since the action is dependent in no small way on the intent, the separation of the two is artificial. The intent is embedded in the action. Again: is it possible to commit an evil act with a good intention, or does the evil present in the act indicate evil intent?

We explored this a little bit with the example of Robin Hood. Robin Hood’s crime of robbery might be evil, committed for the greater good of redistributing wealth and caring for the poor. But, would it not be possible to say that Robin Hood’s act of robbery, while a crime under law, was actually the breaking of an unjust law (which stipulated that the wealthy should maintain their wealth while the poor should suffer), and therefore actually a just/good action?

What if Robin Hood killed someone during his act of robbery? Would that still be achieving a good end through evil means? Well, partly this depends on the circumstances of the killing, but we concluded that the act of killing is separate from the act of robbery, and therefore its intent could (should?) be considered separately. If Robin Hood kills someone out of fear of being killed himself–a preemptive, defensive killing–then he is doing so with the intent of preserving his mission, supported by an unjustifiable prediction of the future: how does he know that no one will continue his mission if he is killed? However, if his intention is different–to commit a virtuous robbery without harming anyone unless necessary (whatever that might mean)–the killing will not happen. The intent dictates the action.

Even in the case of the US capture of Osama Bin Laden, the civilian casualties indicate something about the goal. The vision included the potential for civilian casualties. If the intent were for a more righteous capture of Osama Bin Laden, the actions would not have been the same–we might have waited for a more opportune time, or gone about it in a less destructive (although perhaps potentially less effective) manner.

We concluded that actions, being highly dependent upon intent, actually include intent as an embedded aspect. The two are inseparable.

Our conversation drifted to various topics: transgenderism, feminism, gender, the idea of rights in general. An interesting question was, if gender is only a societal construct, can there be any justification for gender reassignment surgery on the basis of someone “knowing” they are a certain way?

The arguments for certain of these positions seemed pretty poor, and it appears that many people choose their positions based on their feelings rather than any sort of rational or critical thought process. I recalled a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre about how the shrill “protest” that we see in marches and rallies comes from the subconscious knowledge of the protesters that they can’t actually win their case in rational argument, so they must put on a display of emotion as a means of persuasion instead.
After having discussed many hot-button issues calmly and in the space of about ten minutes, we lamented how easily people are swept up emotionally and hang on to certain positions even though they are clearly not tenable. An acquaintance of mine told me recently that he decides his beliefs based on interpreting the facts of his life objectively–but what manner of interpretation is objective? (Doesn’t objectivity rule out any sort of interpretation by definition?) And what constitutes “facts,” especially when it comes to one’s own life or experience? After a certain point, knowing about philosophy is, in a way, like knowing that the emperor has no clothes. We get in arguments with people forgetting that they still think the emperor has clothes on. It’s no wonder these arguments are frustrating and go nowhere–many people are not aware of the philosophical assumptions they hold, or if they are, they take them as “givens.”