Distinguishing Evil and Insanity : The Role of Intentions in Ethics

AFTER a little reflection, it is clear that the morality of a person who carries out an action doesn’t just depend on the action itself, but rather depends on the state of mind of the person who performs it. This holds for pretty much every commonly used definition of morality. Suppose, for example, that I was tricked into believing that giving money to a certain charity would help the poor, when in fact the donation was being funneled to gangsters. Generally, Christians, Buddhists, Utilitarians, Kantians, and most everyone else is in agreement that, although the consequences of my action were bad, I am not not bad for carrying out the action because I misunderstood the action’s nature. On the other hand, if I willingly chose to fund gangsters, almost everyone would be in agreement that the action would reflect poorly on my character, even if the net result of such funding was essentially the same as in the case where I thought I was donating to charity. To give another example, there are very few who would say that a person is good for giving money to the poor merely to impress a good looking date, whereas many would call the person good if they donated out of genuine concern for the welfare of others. Hence, pretty much however one defines ethics, there is widespread agreement that it is not our actions themselves that define how good we are, but rather the intentions underlying our actions. An action (e.g. giving money to charity) is compatible with us being a good person if our thoughts that motivate us to carry it out are considered good (e.g. a desire to help others), but may have no effect on our goodness or even make us a worse person if the motivating thoughts are considered bad (e.g. a desire to help only myself).

What is curious is that while there is little dispute that it is legitimate to evaluate the goodness of people based on the goodness of their intentions rather than on the goodness of the consequences of their actions, many people are not willing to carry this logic out to its ultimate, somewhat startling conclusion, namely that a number of people that are generally thought of as “evil” may not really be, and in some cases, may even be “good”.

To illustrate this point, consider the hypothetical case of a person who is schizophrenic, and whose delusional thinking has led him to believe that the only way to save the world from unprecedented disaster is to blow up a certain office building while it’s full of workers. If this man were to carry out this terrible act, our instincts would inevitably be to label him as evil, whereas his intentions could demonstrate that he is quite the opposite. If he not only did not want to blow up the building, but was in fact repulsed by the idea of hurting other people, and only carried out the bombing due to his mistaken belief about the action saving the world, then it seems as though he was in fact being genuinely good rather than evil since his intentions were very good, and he likely underwent enormous stress and effort (including overcoming his psychological revulsion to murder) only for the purpose of doing what he felt was right.

At this point, some people may object that such a person with schizophrenia should still be blamed for his bad action, since he has a responsibility to act in “accord with truth”, and to verify the reality of his beliefs prior to acting. But this argument fails to take into account the experience of people suffering from schizophrenia: in some cases they have no inkling whatsoever that they are delusional. If a person’s delusion does not seem delusional to them in the least, how can they be blamed for failing to see or question their delusional?

Another objection that may arise relates to the belief some people have that “good cannot come from evil” (or, similarly, that “evil cannot come from good”), which in this context may imply that even though the mentally ill person believes that they are doing a good thing by blowing up a building, the potential goodness of their intention is tainted by the evilness of the consequences. An example can help illustrate the problem with this way of thinking.

Consider a hypothetical situation where we are forced to make the choice of pulling either one of two levers. Suppose that the first lever will lead, with 90% probability, to the horrifying torture and death of one thousand people, and with 10% probability to us receiving one million dollars in cash. The second lever will lead, with 90% probability, to us receiving moderate injuries, and with 10% probability to one person being subjected to horrifying torture and death. Pretty much everyone who believes in morality, I think, would agree that pulling the second lever is the moral thing to do (since it makes the torture and death of others much less likely), whereas (psychological consequences aside) it is selfishly better for the individual to pull the first lever (since, that way injuries to our own body are avoided and there is a chance at nabbing the million dollars of cash). On the other hand, if a person were to really pull the second lever, despite that being the obvious ethical choice, there is still a 10% chance that a stranger would be subjected to horrifying torture and death because of that decision. To argue that “good cannot come from evil” (in the way discussed above) is to imply that the morality of my choice depends on whether (due to random chance alone) pulling the second lever led to bad consequences. When attempting to act ethically, however, all I can do is act in the way that (probabilistically) maximizes the amount of good that I believe my action tends to do. To hold me accountable for the actual realized consequences of my action, even though those consequences could never be known to me in advance, is to effectively determine how good I am based on the random roll of a die. The implication would be that ten people could carry out the same action for precisely the same reason, and yet nine of them would be labeled good, and the tenth labeled bad, simply because the tenth was unlucky. This is a conclusion that, I think, few people are willing to live with.

But what are the practical, real world consequences of goodness being based on intentions rather than actions? We have seen already that it may alter our assessment of the insane. More bizarrely though, it may influence our opinion of the deeply religious as well. People who commit acts that (they genuinely believe) are inspired by God’s will but (according to those who do not believe in the same religion) are of a heinous and destructive nature, are very often labeled as “evil”. But in many cases religious fanatics are absolutely convinced that their actions are “right” and even good for human kind. In such circumstances, it seems that “delusional” would be a fairer label to apply than “bad”. Going a step further, it seems likely that many extraordinarily good people, who devoted their lives to doing what they knew was right, were in fact doing great harm because of false religious or spiritual beliefs. Take, for example, the case of Christian witch burners, some of whom must have genuinely believed that by murdering (what we know to be) innocent people, were removing a great evil from the earth.

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One Response to Distinguishing Evil and Insanity : The Role of Intentions in Ethics

  1. Amazing post and I definitely like the directives as well.

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