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The phrase “it’s the thought that counts” is most likely to be of use when you’ve given someone the wrong present – the recipient already has Moby-Dick or hates the shirt you chose. No worries, your mistake can easily be remedied by a judicious exchange. Still, a mistake it was, and it’s appropriate to appeal to your good intentions. You just didn’t know.
Intentions matter. In all sorts of daily situations it’s important to check them to ensure you’re not acting out of selfishness or malice. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that the purity of your intentions doesn’t remotely guarantee a good outcome. There’s something to the saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” – which means not only that the relevant intentions may never be translated into action, but also that they may have unforeseen consequences.
So if you care about the outcome, just meaning well won’t do. You also need to consider the results. One common way in which good intentions can backfire is when we sincerely believe we’re acting in the interest of another but actually misread the person – or the situation – and end up acting in ways that undermine their autonomy.
This could happen if you are keen to help someone but fail to ask whether your help is welcome or appropriate. The other person may disagree with your assessment of what’s good for them. A mother could give her single daughter a frock that she thinks would make her more attractive, inadvertently disregarding her daughter’s style and views about singledom.
The other person may also disagree with your chosen means of trying to help. This could happen if you put in a good word for a colleague without checking whether they wished to advance purely on merit, or if your action might have created a sense of obligation they dislike.
Even if you want the best for someone, it’s arrogant to act without at least trying to think things through from their point of view. The fact that you were only trying to help won’t always help.
Sometimes intentions don’t count for much, but they almost always count for something. We’re likely to be angrier at a person who meant harm and succeeded than one who meant well but failed. However, it seems we’re not consistent in how we decide what people intended.
This has been demonstrated by Joshua Knobe, a pioneer in the fledgling field of experimental philosophy. In one experiment, he presents subjects with a scenario in which a chief executive proposes a new programme but is told it would harm the environment. Her blunt reply is: “I don’t care. I just want to make as much profit as I can.” And so the programme goes ahead.
When asked if she intentionally harmed the environment, about four-fifths say she did. However, if the word “harm” in the original scenario is replaced with “help”, roughly the same proportion say she didn’t act intentionally.
“The Knobe Effect” has generated a huge literature. Much of it assumes an illogical cognitive distortion. In both cases, the ecological consequences just weren’t part of the CEO’s thinking. So why blame her for bad consequences but not praise her for good ones?
Well, we often rightly hold people responsible for the foreseeable side effects of their actions. It’s no defence to claim you didn’t want to run over a pedestrian – you were simply in a hurry and they were in the way. But although we need to discourage people from causing foreseeable but unintended harm, we have no similar need to encourage them to do foreseeable but unintended good. This is an asymmetry, not an inconsistency.
That difference is reflected in how we attribute intention. When people are aware of the consequences of their actions but give little thought to them, there’s some ambiguity as to whether they acted intentionally or not. There is nothing to be gained by calling the action intentional when the result is good – but people who do not consider the bad consequences of their actions enough need to be held to account. Sometimes it’s the wilful lack of thought that counts.
The Shrink & the Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org