A Question of Intent

Often when we do good in the world we consider the intent behind it. We look for the purity of heart in good deeds, even when the outcome is similar.

As if feeding the hungry is invalidated when the incentive could be a tax write off or doing community service is shameful when used as legal punishment.

That second one is different isn’t it? If I volunteer to clean up a park on saturday because I enjoy the park it feels way different than if I was mandated to do so by a judge. With some assumptions–namely that I’ll do comparable or identical work in both situations–the outcome is the same because we assumed it. But for some reason it feels worse.

In an attempt to figure it out we can choose a few extreme scenarios to look at how it functions.

Indisputably bad:
In the case of abuse, I’d argue that intention does not matter at all. No way no how. Even if the abuser genuinely believed that they were doing something good for the victim (mostly in emotional cases), it’s a bad outcome and the abuser is at fault.

Indisputably good:
The most saint-like person you’ve ever met volunteers all day every day because they believe in helping others with no benefit to themselves. Although I’ve labelled it as indisputably good, the role of intent is unclear here. The ability to claim that this person has immense purity of heart makes for great storytelling and role modeling, but it’s not that much different than if that person thinks that helping others is a way to help themselves.

As I’ve phrased it, we have every reason to believe the interpersonal reactions of our saint are identical whether they are completely selfless or hold the helping you helps me mentality. Conveniently real life isn’t simple and this distinction is important. When doing good the difference often shows in your interactions.

You know at least one person whose interactions radiate genuine care and attention. Interacting with this person is a joy and doing so regularly is quite the privilege. This is the kind of touch that often comes with the right intent. While I earlier assumed the outcomes can be identical, we now see that the process is not. Yes, the process of creating, but more importantly the process of experiencing.

To take it out of context yet again, we can consider the process of buying something at a store. I’m confident you can imagine the difference in feeling between a mega-chain store and a smaller local shop. The mega-chain tends to be very sterile and just business feeling while local shops can often be more people focused. This comes from intent. The former is focused on the transaction while the latter is focused on serving people. This leads to the subtle yet important difference of experiencing someone really truly caring about something.

Another interesting concept to consider is the time scale associated with intent. If people can change, so can their intent, and thus the outcome.

While some go searching for their passion, others just start doing something and learn to love it. Often the passion behind something isn’t from the generic subject matter but from the rewarding nature of diving deep into something. This tends to have a large time scale (many years) associated with it.

Intent and its change can work similarly. In the community service example our hardened criminal is mandated to clean the park–arguably a bad intent. But what if in a few years our now softened criminal continues to clean the park. The mandated service hours are long over and they’re still doing good. What may have started as begrudgingly following orders has developed into that genuine caring that acting with good intentions is all about.

What I’m getting at here is that current actions don’t exist in a bubble. What you’re doing right now isn’t an instantaneous and isolated action that only affects the world right this minute. What you’re doing right now can ripple around for a while before coming back to you or finding someone else. Considering this, I’d argue its more useful to judge an idea/action/project by its potential to have good intent than the current intent of the person behind it.

If my intent in writing this is for publicity of my name and writing (its not), but my post somehow inspires you to cure cancer, does my bad intent ruin the post? As it (hypothetically) has the potential to get you to think about something in a new way that can benefit society, it’s a net positive. Since I don’t have selfish intent behind this, I hope the thought and my voice comes through on it.

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