Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

Does good intent exonerate you from negative consequences?

Asked by wundayatta (58599points) March 4th, 2010

The aphorism goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I wonder whether it is actions and results that count, or, if it is intent that counts. What do you think? If a person meant well, does that let them off the hook? Do you think that if you have good intentions, that that defines reality? I.e. it is not possible to have negative consequences if your intent was a good one? If it does not let someone off the hook, does it ameliorate their culpability?

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54 Answers

mattbrowne's avatar

No. Here’s an example: there are people who want that every American carries a firearm, because this supposedly reduces crime (good intent). The negative consequences would be horrible in my opinion because the risks outweigh the benefits. We should leave this job to the police. There are circumstances when seconds count and the police is minutes away. It might be beneficial to have a whole country full of trigger happy John Waynes in these circumstances. But people also get very angry all the time. I fear that in one of a thousand cases this display of anger includes drawing a gun if available.

jackm's avatar

Exonerate you in whose eyes? There is no ultimate justice or judgement. If you had good intentions you may feel better about yourself if it ends with bad results, but someone else may not think your intentions outweigh the negative consequences.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

Absolutely not.It is the end result that counts.

Judi's avatar

@lucilelucilelucile; but then do the ends justify the means?

noyesa's avatar

I think context is pretty important. I think lots of the idiot politicians in Washington, DC are well intentioned, but that doesn’t change the fact that incompetence and bad ideas in Washington can end up affecting the livelihood of millions of people. I don’t care how well intentioned they were.

Cruiser's avatar

Not even close. Good intentions often means poor planning and unexpected results both of which require owning up to.

CMaz's avatar

Not good intent, but GODS intent.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

As one with experience in this (I’m the one you guys gave a break and didn’t point out what a horse’s ass I was) its the final results that count. If I end hurting someone and I meant well the final outcome is still I hurt someone. Same with just about any negative outcome.

marinelife's avatar

Good intent does not count. You still have to take responsibility for your actions.

If good intent was the only necessary defense, all kinds of wrongs would be justified.

zephyr826's avatar

It does not completely exonerate you. Most of us (I’d like to naively believe) have good intentions. Our actions are motivated by wanting to improve the lives of ourselves, those we love, or the community as a whole. However, without thinking things through all the way, our actions may have terrible, unexpected consequences, sometimes for the people we were originally trying to help. Once we can reason, we are responsible for our actions as well as our intent.

cockswain's avatar

Great question. This has so many facets, I’m going to have to be brief. It depends on who is judging the person. Let’s take a super basic example of a nice little ma and pa paper company. They have good intentions of being friendly community small business owners, yet they contribute to deforestation in the Amazon. Or someone may buy their true love a beautiful diamond, yet that contributes to the rampant human rights violations in the diamond industry. Or buying Banana Republic shirts made in Bangladesh. We aren’t judged because of the separation we have from these sources to the check out counter. However the closer we get to the source, the worse our intentions appear.

Another example is religious. There are those who believe the Earth is a gift from God and we are to make use of all it’s resources without worry of tomorrow because God will rapture us all out of here in the probably not too distant future. Religious people think these are great intentions (“drill baby drill”), but atheists think they are morons. Again, it ties into who is judging the actions.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Judi -No.An example would be pragmatism practiced by Socialists who think that Socialism isn’t bad,it just hasn’t been practiced correctly ;)

Judi's avatar

Or capitilists who delude themselves into thinking capitilism is the “Christian” way?

cockswain's avatar

Corporations and politicians are great at deluding the masses.

noyesa's avatar

@Judi Or capitalists who delude themselves into thinking that working in their own self-interest results in the best benefit for everyone, which was proven false a couple decades or 5 ago.

Captain_Fantasy's avatar

If “good intent” becomes the benchmark of law, god help us because chaos will rule.

CaptainHarley's avatar

As I understand it, the law takes intent into account, under “matters in extuation and mitigation,” only after a verdict is rendered.

thriftymaid's avatar

No, but it might mitigate.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@Judi -No one’s rights can be secured at the cost another’s.

Judi's avatar

That may be American but it is not Christian. If that were the case then that whole crucifixion thing was for nothing.

cockswain's avatar

@Judi That logic doesn’t work on those who don’t believe that story

Judi's avatar

@cockswain ; It was directed at those who do. Look up a few posts.

josie's avatar

No. That is an example of the fallacy of the mind/body dichotomy

laureth's avatar

If “good intent” is king over terrible effects, people like Timothy McVeigh and Scott Roeder would be heroes, at least to some people. I don’t think most of us really want that sentiment to take hold.

Nullo's avatar


They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Every action has a consequence; a lot of them arise naturally (you run a red light and cause an accident), while the rest are more arbitrary (you run a red light and get ticketed). They are largely inescapable.

whitenoise's avatar

Good intentions are making a difference. Intentions do not exonerate, but they provide the contextual background in which one should evaluate an outcome.

Let’s take a look at some examples:
* a beggar asks for money, you throw your purse at him. It strikes him at the head and – given your generosity – the beggar dies. Now had you thrown it with an intent to hurt would be really different – in my opinion – from throwing it at him with good intentions, but poor aim.

* What if you are a medical doctor and someone in the street suffers a heart attack.There is no one there to help. Should you be liable if you help him (with all risks involved) or rather when you don’t.

Intentions really make the difference, in my book. (They don’t excuse stupidity, though.)

phillis's avatar

I love this question.

In a perfect world, yes, it would exonerate you, as far as people are concerned. In many types of societies, it is results, not neccesarily how you arrived at them, that ultimately matters the most. The more corrupt those in power are, the more you can get away with. Some might even congratulate you and reward you for it.

On the opposite end of the people spectrum, one can imagine that intention, and not results, would be more readily appreciated by the ones who love us the most. But many people, even those who love us, are not accustomed to seeing beyond what is immediately presented to them. The surface is generally where they operate.

The rules change when we apply the question to inanimate objects. Between myself and a train, I am the only one of us who can think. I might have intended that my car be clear of the tracks before the train came, but ignoring arms, flashing red lights and loud, clanging bells has it’s consequences. Being an idiot leaves precious little room for good intentions. Hello, Darwin.

davidbetterman's avatar

Of course not. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!”

YARNLADY's avatar

I say yes. What if I try to save someone who is injured, only I don’t know CPR and he dies anyway. Is that my fault?

cockswain's avatar

@YARNLADY Good question, but in that specific case if you didn’t do anything negligent you are not at fault. They may have died no matter what, and all you did was improve his chances. Good Samiritan laws exist for that exact reason.

davidbetterman's avatar

@YARNLADY Actually, many states have enacted Good Samaritan laws to relieve rescuers of just that onus.

Judi's avatar

Say you intend to save someones life using CPR. You have been trained and you know what you’re doing.
What you don’t know is that the person has ostioporosis. You break their rib, it punctures their lung and they die.
Your intention was to save them, but the consequence was that they died.
Consequence and responsibility are two different things. In this case, the consequence of your good intentions was death. I would not say you would be held responsible for their death.

Janka's avatar

Great question.

I think usually, yes, if you mean well, but accidentally cause harm, then people should try and be forgiving. Sometimes the harm is because something you could not have known (CPR on the osteoporosis case) example, and then I cannot see how you could be blamed for it. However, if you cause harm because you mean well and actually could have known better, if you do not stop to think before you act, or act from completely erroneous beliefs out of intellectual laziness or dishonesty, then I think you can be blamed for the not thinking, and meaning well does not really excuse that.

In my opinion, in a real life situation, both intent and results count.

josie's avatar

@janka Your close is the whole point. There is no real split between intention and action since all conscious human action is preceded ultimately by choice. If your action produces an undesirable result, then it was not properly considered during the “choice” stage.

whitenoise's avatar

@josie “since all conscious human action is preceded ultimately by choice.”...

Brain research indicates that especially for complex decisions most conscious deliberation are made after the brain chose a certain option to pursue. Or rather: in real life, action most often precedes conscious deliberation.

Janka's avatar

@josie I do not completely agree with the statement that if an action produces an undesirable result, then it was not properly considered. Sometimes there are things that affect the situation that you simply cannot know at the time.

For example, if someone’s life is in danger, and you have to either act now or they die, there is simply no time for to find out if they have an underlying condition that you would have to take into account. Or you might have considered something very properly, but you were misinformed, because someone you did ask for information lied.

In those cases, even if your action does cause a harmful result, I cannot think you can be blamed for having made the wrong choice. You tried your best, but there simply was no way you could have known.

josie's avatar

@whitenoise @Janka If I jump out of a burning airplane without a parachute, my intentions are obviously good-to avoid being burned up. However, my good intentions will not save me from being crushed against the ground. We can equivocate all we want to, but that is a fact.

whitenoise's avatar

@josie Your point being? The question is not whether the outcome is good or bad, since a bad outcome is kind of inevitable when talking about actions with negative consequences.

The question is how to judge someone’s actions: merely on result, on intent, or on both? I feel that intentions are extremely important and a proper judgement would keep those in mind as well as the results.

josie's avatar

@whitenoise If it is a legal question, and not a moral question, then the basis for judgement would be “if you have done what a reasonable person would do in the same circumstance”

whitenoise's avatar

@josie I interpreted this as a moral/ethical question.

When viewed from a legal viewpoint, I am afraid that in many countries in this world what;s legal or not, isn’t necessarily linked with ethics and reasonability. I wish it was

josie's avatar

@whitenoise Then if it is a purely moral question, my burning airplane answer stands as written.

Janka's avatar

@josie I am sorry if I was unclear. I did not try to argue that you can avoid bad consequences simply because your intentions were good; I was simply trying to argue that there are situations where you cannot be blamed for those consequences. If the parachute example, if you jump without a parachute because you do not stop to think and get one when you could have done so, it can be considered your mistake. If you jump because there isn’t one and you are doing to die anyway, it is tragic, but I cannot say it is a mistake. These are the two cases I was trying to differentiate between. I hope this clarifies it.

whitenoise's avatar

@josie The whole difference between my point of view and the one that says only results count is that of whether one looks forward or backward.

If your prime driver is retribution, or for instance an urge to even the score, then yes focus on the result only.

When one’s intentions are to make a better world and promote behavior that is beneficial to our future, then please consider the intentions as well. We need to make sure that it is beneficial for people to have good intentions put to action. There may be an incidental backlash, but overall the society would be better of.

Again: that doesn’t excuse laziness or stupidity. These should be considered as factors that offset potential exoneration.

josie's avatar

@Janka If we are talking about assigning blame, then it is more of a legal question and not a moral one. In that case, the basis for judgement (blame if you will) is “What would a reasonable person do in the same circumstance”. If a reasonable person would jump without a parachute (and they just might, as 9/11 sadly demonstrated) then the action would be understandable and free from negative judgement.

Janka's avatar

“Blame” in the sense that I meant it would be a moral question; I might have used the wrong word (English is not my first language).

(As for jumping out of a plane without a parachute, I do not think legal issues enter into it, assuming you did not danger anyone else. At least where I come from, suicide is not illegal.)

josie's avatar

@Janka Blame makes it a legal question. Morality refers to decisions that you make that affect your own existence-thus the airplane jump is moral. Legal, social convention, customs and culture determine how you treat others. The fact that others are mortal as yourself, and tend to generally value what you value makes moral decisions extend to others in some, but not all cases.

whitenoise's avatar

@josie Interesting explanation, but it seems you’re making up your own definitions. That doesn’t help in discussions with others.

For a more commonly accepted defintion of moral: click here

While ‘moral’ refers to standards of right versus wrong. ‘Legal’ refers to codified definitions of right versus wrong behavior, or rather as to what is defined by law. Click here.

Ethical refers to deliberating and caring for the interests of others in pursuing one’s own. Click here.

(Only) in an ideal society, legal, ethical and moral are synonims.

Janka's avatar

@josie That is not how I define moral; @whitenoise gave you some links to prove that I am not alone here.

josie's avatar

@whitenoise Regarding morality-human beings have two characteristics that demand morality. They are mortal, and they choose their actions before commitment. Thus every choice has implications great or small related to mortality. Since reality does not tell us if we are correct or incorrect, we have to use our reasoning consciousness to make a judgement about what we do. If what we do is counter to our mortal interests, it is “bad” and thus immoral. If what we do favors our mortal interest then it is “good” and thus moral. In a social context, a reasonable person will recognize that all other human beings operate by the same standard, and thus will take that into account in their interactions with others. Any thing else is just people talking. Regarding the ideal society-since society is nothing more than a collection of selfishly motivated individuals, there really can not be a platonic ideal society, unless the sovereign individual is the ultimate social unit, or unless it is imposed by force, and then of course it could not be ideal. Thus, legal is rarely the same as moral. It is immoral for the state to enslave it’s population to it’s policy whims, but it is to one degree or another legal all over the world.

whitenoise's avatar

@josie you (seem to) have a simplified view of morals and a rather dim view on what motivates people. Why don’t you look around yourself a bit more… people (as do a lot of animals) often display a lot of behavior that is not purely motivated from a selfish point of view. I suggest you pick up a copy of Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy.

Empathy and altruistic behavior and, therefore, more complex moral and ethical decision rules come with our biology. At least it comes with the biology of many other species. So I have hope for ours as well.

josie's avatar

@ whitenoise Morality exists whether or not we like it or approve of the basis for it-just like gravity. Acts of charity are voluntary (or in some political circles enforced) and not born out of the necessity of our nature. Everyone must operate in accordance to moral principle or they will die. Everyone does not have to be charitable. The fact that humans experience empathy is certainly a basis for a social order, but not all humans are equally empathetic. All humans are equally living however, and face the equal alternative of death, and thus morality is more fundamental than empathy-I have to be alive and productive before I can afford to be charitable. That is why the grownups put on the oxygen mask first in the depressurized airplane. Otherwise, nobody would be around to take care of the kids and the infirm. BTW, I’ve been called plenty in this life, but you’re the first to call me “dim”. First time for everything.

Janka's avatar

“Everyone must operate in accordance to moral principle or they will die.” I don’t understand this statement, it seems to imply some very unfamiliar notion of “morality” to me. Could you maybe give a definition to “moral principle”?

whitenoise's avatar


No way was i intending to call you dim… sorry if you read my comment that way.
All I (intend to) say is I think your view of morality is simplified. i don’t know you well enough to give any other judgement about you as a person.

BTW you’re on fluther… you cannot be that dim ;-)

YARNLADY's avatar

@josie What I read is you take dim view of things – how does that translate to calling you dim? @whitenoise is referring to your comments, not saying anything about you personally

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