Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How Well-Intended Are the Well-Intended?

A familiar comment today runs like this: “X was done with the best of intentions, but unfortunately the consequences were otherwise.”

Bad consequences, then, are excused because of the good intentions.

The comment is heard especially in politics, such as, “The proposal was well-intended, as were the regulations and laws, but the policy did not help the poor, did not increase the nation’s wealth, or reduce crime,” etc.

Were the politicians well-intended, even when they failed to acknowledge a connection between their policies and the bad consequences? Were the politicians’ supporters and voters well-intended? And what about the theoreticians who wrote the fundamental ideas that influenced the politicians? Were they well-intended?

Good intentions, of course, can be found everywhere. Parents in particular are said to be well-intended when, for example, spanking a toddler by hand because the child would not crawl into the barber chair to have his hair cut. The dad, after all, was just trying to teach his son a lesson. What about the parent who does not give one swat by hand, but uses a belt or hair brush five or ten times? Well-intended?

How do we distinguish good intentions from bad? Answer: it’s not easy and we must be careful before asserting bad intentions.

This issue falls into the category of “how do we judge other people?” And the answer to that question is that it takes time. We must get to know someone well before drawing conclusions about his or her motivations. Which means we should not sign a business partnership agreement after one meeting or hop into bed after one date or get married after a one-month relationship.

The challenge is to get beneath surface appearances and not be swayed by looks, words, or demeanor. Yes, we can pick up clues from all three but that honest look, statements of happiness and independence, and sincere, confident behavior may be an act. Not necessarily a deceitful act at which criminals are expert, but role playing that derives from a subconsciously automatized psychology that may or may not be sincere.

The continuum of psychology is what makes judging others so difficult. The range of bad versus good intentions extends from the criminal personality, who by definition has bad intentions, to the totally trustworthy soulmate. In between is a wide variety of personalities, all of which we might allow the moniker “well-intended,” for a variety of reasons, including ignorance.

Our psychologies greatly influence our intentions. The many defensive habits we develop in childhood and adolescence—defense mechanisms, defense values, out-of-context emotions—can, on the surface, seem ill-intended, but because they are automated and subconscious, we may not be aware of their causes and often their presence.

Ignorance influences our intentions by causing us to talk and act seemingly confidently when in fact what we say and do may lead to bad, unintended consequences.

Politicians and talking heads on cable television might—might—get a pass because of their ignorance of economics, which today is extensive. And a friend who complains about overpopulation in the US but has seldom ventured beyond the metropolitan city limits to observe enormously unoccupied deserts, mountains, plains, and tree-laden forests should also probably be given the benefit of the doubt.

Behavior, on the other hand, can be controlled by us. This includes, as I have argued before, the dad who swatted his toddler for not getting into the barber chair. Granted, for thousands of years, tradition has said it is okay to hit children, we know too much today about psychology to excuse the behavior. But as I wrote before, this does not mean we should throw the dad in the slammer; it means we should educate him.

Behavior that initiates the use of physical force against innocents cannot be well-intentioned, because it is criminal. This includes smashing plate glass windows and starting fires on college campuses, and blocking entry to venues to prevent the appearance of speakers. Ordering police to stand down in such instances is also not well-intentioned.

Nor can advocating, encouraging, or praising similar behavior through speech or writing. For example, cavalierly (if stupidly) urging the blowing up of the White House or applauding fist fights and egg-throwing in public as “righteous beatings.”

Now let me return to the politicians and talking heads. “Clacking the uppers” is how one wag has described the ways of politicians, but I would say, applying this to both politicians and the talking heads, that they preach the gospel, whatever that gospel may be, over and over and over ad nauseam, with little variation and even less independence or originality.

Stuck records need to be adjusted and if possible replaced. Are the stuck records well-intentioned? Today, it seems to have become sport to call anyone we disagree with an ill-motivated liar. And refusal to read, or acknowledge the existence of, well-argued opposing viewpoints runs rampant. The refusals are often wrapped in abundant ad hominem, argument from intimidation, and rationalization fallacies.

Grudgingly, I suppose I have to allow that such stuck records may be well-intentioned—because I don’t personally know any politicians or talking heads. Their ideas—socialism, progressivism, and mixed economy traditional “liberalism” and traditional “conservatism”—all contain large doses of initiated coercion. There is just no way for me to know their aims or goals or how sincere they are about them.

What I will not do is give politicians and talking heads the honorific that they speak and act “with the best of intentions.” That is a concession, a compromise of principle, that they do not deserve. They must prove their sincerity through personal contact and friendship.


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