Saturday, June 21, 2008


Which is the best course: "Don't just sit there, do something," or "Don't just do something, sit there (at least for a while)"?

The first is termed "priority of praxis" -- praxis being "right action." WIth a philosophy of priority of praxis, what matters is what we do, and what we do affects what we think. If this is true, then it leads naturally to relativism. This is to be compared to the idea that what we think affects what we do. When we put thought before action, we first ask "why are we doing what we are doing?" This is a question not important under priority of praxis.

If action is what matters, then what we see is history just working itself out, and what we think doesn't matter. More, we should think at all about what we're doing. If action is all, and history is action, history is all, and we're not responsible for our actions. THe priority of praxis attitude leads to such catch-phrases as "Don't just sit there, do something," and "What's important is that you do something." As a consequence, what is important is one's good intentions, not the outcome of one's actions. It doesn't matter if you're on the right path or not, so long as you are moving forward. The problem is, with such an attitude, all one is going to do is get lost.

Good intentions don't matter. But neither do the ends justify the means. Virtuous action means first doing things for the right reason, then second knowing how to actually achieve the ends desired. If you intend to help someone, but you harm them instead, you should not be praised for good intentions. A good example would be if someone is having a heart attack, and you don't know CPR, but you administer it anyway and end up breaking the person's ribs, making it impossible for someone who does know CPR to save the person's life. You may have had good intentions, but the dead man's family would be right in being angry with you. They are right, because you acted unethically in attempting to do something you were not trained to do. Piety is no replacement for proper methods.


LemmusLemmus said...

I'm no expert in philosophy, and I am sure that persons more qualified than I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this (I vaguely recall that this thing even comes up in Alice in Wonderland), but isn't the bottom line of it simply the distinction between the moral qualities of an action and the moral qualities of a person? Put differently, I wouldn't blame a person that had good intentions and messed up. (Admittedly, this gets complicated if there are reasons to believe that the person should have known s/he would mess up.)

Troy Camplin said...

After the last century of well-intentioned people using their good intentions as excuses when the outcomes are terrible -- and even murderous -- I think we need to acknowledge that intention is and should be no measure of moral action. We have been saying since Kant (who came up with this version of morality) that all you have to be is well-intentioned, and you're a moral person, no matter what the outcome. As a result, we have all sorts of people doing all sorts of things which have terrible outcomes, but still calling those people moral.

You are right that there is a question of knowledge here. If there is literally no way to know what the outcome could possibly have been, then you don't call the person's actions immoral. But I would be surprised if something like that were to occur even once in a person's lifetime. People are pretty predictable as a group. HUman behavior really isn't all that surprising. Further, good intentions are no replacement for good methods. When people act without trying to find out how they should act, they are acting ethically, no matter the outcome or their intentions. I am calling for a reuniting of intention, knowledge of proper methods, and outcome. ONly this combination should be called moral action.

LemmusLemmus said...

I think a (partial) way out of this is to stress the importance of empirical evidence more. I earlier had a short post at my own blog which I know you've read (because you posted a comment) on how politicians tend not to put enough weight on evidence. I think that's especially the case once we leave the realm of the hard sciences.

But people get the politicians they deserve. Everyone always has an opinion about everything, even if they're ignorant about the matter at hand (as I certainly am about many), which gets on my nerves big time.

Troy Camplin said...

That's part and parcel of step two in my list of steps. The thing is that when you make a decision to do something, you have a moral obligation to try to find the best way to accomplish what it is you are trying to accomplish. The ancient Greeks understood this, as we see with Socrates' emphasis on the relationship between ethical action and knowledge. He believed people only act unethically because they don't know what the good is. Thus he drew the connection between right action and right outcome. Kant de-emphasizes right action and only equates morality with right intention. We only let politicians get away with having good intentions because this is how we work as well, equating our having good intentions with being a good person. But let me ask you this: which would you rather have, a well-intentioned architect to design your skyscraper, or one with good methods? We wouldn't pick the former in choosing an architect, but we will defend idiotic decisions on our parts because they were well-intentioned. A well-intentioned architect without good methods gets sued a lot and accidentally kills people. Here is what I propose:

A good person (like a good architect) has good intentions and good methods leading to a good outcome

A bad person (like a bad architect) is one who has good intentions, but bad methods and thus bad outcomes.

An evil person is one who has bad intentions (he may be an evil genius or an evil fool, in which case the outcome may or may not work out as he wishes).

There seem to be very few evil people, but a whole lot of bad ones.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out a small fallacy in your discussion here:

good intentions does not necessarily equal morality (or more to the point--ethics).

A thought out ethics should produce a good action with positive effects (And I would argue that an ethics not properly thought out is not an ethics at all.)...

Using your example in your post of the one who practices CPR when they don't know it--if I hold the ethos to do no harm, or to aid another, well obviously when applied to a particular situation--such as doing CPR when I don't know how would be the wrong answer because it would cause harm and not prevent it.

I would argue that what you think (when you are actually thinking about it) does influence your actions and there should be a fluidity between the two.

Perhaps what you are trying to point out it the haphazard fashion in which people tend to adopt an ethics or morality without actually applying it to each situation and thinking through the consequences. They may have been well intentioned, but the follow through of thought wasn't there.

And who's fault is that? Is it a persons for being "lazy" in thought? Is it education for not providing a well rounded liberal arts education where judgment and reason (applied specifically to ethics--therein is rooted Kant's philosophy--and here reading his essay on aesthetics is helpful as in it follows through with a discussion, vis a vis the arts, on how reason is developed through judgment (and judgment through determining things like beauty and taste) and how this ultimately in turn develops our social being. I would note that at the end of that essay he comments on the necessity to such an education to a democracy....

Lastly, I would also argue that in this past century a whole lot of "well intentioned" so called leaders and such who have driven their societys to murderous results are not actually well intentioned at all but personally intentioned and driven. I would argue its our current ultra relativistic trends that drive some to say, "well I'm sure Gen. Mao had good intentions" or something to that effect.

In the christian (catholic) sense--good intentions traditionally has merely meant messing up when attempting good. A well established ethics and developed conscience has always been thought as a necessary compliment to such an idea--so that when one acts, presumably one has the facilities and methods for follow through on the action (ie they should have been capable) and if there is a mistake--then there cannot be blame for it was well intended.

I bring up this christian point because I have heard many bandy about quotes from the gospel and the like referring to the intentions of a person and not the actions. This is a poor (lazy) reading and interpretation of the gospels...

So, Troy, I would suggest you modify what you are trying to say a bit, because I don't think you're getting at the "good intention" itself as a problem, but rather the current hijacking and interpetation of such a phrase (and accompanying philosophies) to excuse poor lazy and unthoughtful behaviour...

Troy Camplin said...

We're not actually in disagreement here. More, these were some thoughts on a presentation at Acton U., so I actually was addressing these things from a Catholic moral perspective. This has been something I have been thinking about for a while, how we let people get away with having good intentions, even if there are bad results, but many of the presentations at Acton helped me to sharped some of the thinking I've been doing.

It is a bit ironic that you point to Kant's aesthetics as a corrective, since it was Kant's ethics that are in play with the adoption of intention as the judgement for ethical action. Not that Kant be a corrective for himself, certainly. Overall, though, I do agree that relativism and just plain laziness are also in play. It doesn't help, though, that a philosophical justification was supplied, though.

Either way, this dissociation among will, thought and action needs to be addressed. More, we need to work on providing philosophical justifications for their being sewn back together. I'm working on thinking this through here, and I appreciate the input. That's the best way to think, after all.