In case you don’t know, the above mentioned stretch of pavement is not laid down with brick or asphalt. Rather, it is paved with “good intentions.” I “intend” to have a few words on the subject; I hope they are “good.” If our intentions are good, and we are lucky, we hope things will turn out well. After all, our intentions were in the “right” place, so what more could one ask (much less require)? But this rhetorical question brings us to the very heart of the problem: “luck” is not a method, and “hope” is not a plan. By justifying ourselves on nothing more than our intentions (and our hopes for luck, as far as they go), it is arguably the case that what we really “hope” to do (if we are lucky) is completely separate ourselves from any responsibility for the consequences of our actions. However, let us not assume that things are quite so simple in either direction. Permit me to savagely gloss a few classical ideas from moral philosophy.
Let us not go back too many centuries (not yet, anyway), and content ourselves to mangle a few ideas of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s argument was that, since the experiential world was a rather messy place, the idea that one might somehow be able to evaluate the consequences of one’s actions in such a thoroughgoing manner as to actually generate a rational evaluation of the relevant merits of those actions from their consequences, was patently absurd. Kant was not being dismissive of consequences, mind you, only of the human ability to genuinely evaluate those consequences. But there was one thing that humans could evaluate, and that was the “good will.” This was because a “good will” was good in and of itself, without an reference to external &/or empirical factors that were impossible to track down comprehensively.
An analogy here (analogy, mind you, NOT an identity) would be with a formal proof, such as might be found in mathematics or logic. Such proofs can vary significantly in difficulty, depending on what and how much one allows to be taken for granted. Thus, for instance, “1 + 1 = 2” seems altogether too obvious to discuss. Yet it required Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell some 50 – 60 pages of gut-wrenching logical demonstration in their Principia Mathematica to achieve as much as what every 1st grader takes for granted. This is because Whitehead and Russell wanted to see how far they could go taking nothing for granted beyond the most austere principles of formal logic available.
More or less analogously, Kant thought that the only way that objective principles of morality could be established was by what might be called a “pure logic of ethics” (my phrase, not Kant’s), that would provide the basis for moral reasoning. Being such a “pure logic,” it would be developed on rational principles alone without any appeal to empirical factors that would invariably prove ambiguous, uncertain, and far to complicated to ever fully master. The centerpiece of such moral reasoning is the “good will” or, if you prefer, “good intentions.” Kant states flat out that, “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.” It is important to note in this regard that Kant does not mean anything so sloppy and vague as what is commonly referred to as “good intentions.” To be genuinely good, the will or intention must be completely grounded in rational thought (hence the analogy with logic). But further, there must be nothing else involved. No sophomoric feelings or wishful thinkings (“I hope it works out”) are allowed here. (The most accessible intro to Kant’s moral philosophy is the “Groundwork” or “Fundamental Principles,” a translation of which may be found HERE.)
It is impossible to overstate the severity of Kant’s approach. He explicitly states that, because lying is wrong, we have a moral duty to tell a would-be assassin the location of his target if we knew – even if that target was someone who had come to us for shelter! (Kant’s reasoning is that we are not responsible for the assassin’s choices, only for our own, and our own soul.) One of Kant’s favorite Latin phrases was fiat justitia ruat caelum – “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” In other words, better to burn the world to a cinder than commit a single act of injustice (such as lying.) A person might suppose, upon casual examination, that that sounds rather like the road to hell.
But don’t flatter yourselves that the other roads work out better. John Stuart Mill was entirely opposed to Kant, and argued instead that the moral worth of an action depended upon the consequences of that action – specifically, did the action increase the sum of happiness in the world or did it not? This is a very appealing idea but, as previously noted, it is impossible to realize even approximately, because it is impossible to calculate what the full range of consequences of an action might be especially over the long term. (A literary example of this problem can be found in Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, “A Sound of Thunder.”)
But rather than exploring Mill’s ideas in detail, there is one point of his that is especially worth noting: the difference between intention and motivation. An example of Mill’s (in my own words) is that of one person falling off a boat, and a second person jumping into the water to save the first. The intention of the second person, the “savior,” is to keep the first person from drowning. But it happens that the motivation for saving the first person is that that first person is a political prisoner who is destined to be brutally tortured to death, and the second person (the “savior”) has no desire to allow the prisoner so gentle an exit from this plane of existence as mere drowning.
Mill had no “intention” of discounting the reasons for our actions from the calculus of their relative merits, but he does note a way in which Kant’s discussion of the “good will” seemed to conflate matters that needed to be distinguished. (Mill’s most famous work on moral philosophy is Utilitarianism.) Puzzles about intentions and consequences are the sort of thing that moral philosophers love to construct, and some of those constructions can be quite entertaining and complex. Some of the more simplistic solutions are, sadly enough, downright catastrophic, as they’ve been used as the basis of public policy.
Thus, for example, one group of thinkers decided to mutilate Mill’s ideas so as to force a solution to the complexity of calculating consequences and “The Good.” This group (a great many of whom are now called “economists”) legislated that “Good = $”, and that is the end of the matter (as far as they are concerned.) Others decided on a more subtle route, and began the work of melding Mill’s concerns with consequences with Kant’s efforts to place moral considerations on a purely logical footing. One such thinker was the American philosopher, Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Brightman is an astonishingly seldom studied thinker, given the quality of his thought and its actual impact. With regard to the quality of his thought, one of his most important ethical works is his book, Moral Laws. In this work, Brightman attempts a reconciliation of Mill and Kant in a logical hierarchy or requirements of thought.
Brightman’s argument would be that logical coherence is a higher priority than just a calculation of results, but such a calculation IS a requirement of moral thought, and it must be taken to the best and most comprehensive degree that human intelligence and instrumentalities permit at the time. What is, perhaps, most interesting about Brightman’s approach is that it develops a hierarchy of inquiry: a layered and coherent system of questions that must be asked, and the order in which those questions need to be answered. As for the impact of Brightman’s thought — who was, we should recall, a thoroughgoing neo-Kantian — I leave you with this little gem: Edgar Sheffield Brightman is the man that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King went to study under at Boston University. So I invite your care prior to damning the hell of Kant’s intentions.