“But We Love You!”: Good Motives Do Not Guarantee Right Actions

Categories: Ethics
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I’ve recently been reflecting on the danger of assuming that having good motives or intentions ensures that what we do is justified. In fact, this notion might be the most dangerous ethical pitfall of all, allowing a person to justify the most egregious behavior without any strain on the conscience. The old saying isn’t far from the truth: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is terrifying that the atrocities committed by the Nazis were largely committed by people with a clean conscience, people who truly thought they were doing what was right. One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes (from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” a good read in itself) deals with this very problem:

My contention is that good men (not bad men) [can] act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Lewis brilliantly observes that well-intentioned people can become far worse than those who are openly malicious. The danger is that the object of affection may be lovingly stripped of his/her humanity and freedom of choice (free-will) “for your own sake, because I/we love you.” Obviously, with a young child, certain choices need to be made by an authority who has the child’s best interests in mind, but Lewis observes that doing this after someone is of age strips the person of his/her dignity as a human being. When this happens, the relationship becomes controlling (and ultimately destructive), with the object of affection not being loved on his/her own terms.

Lewis accurately observes that two principles must be in place to safeguard against this tendency to control another out of love: 1) a recognition of each adult person’s free will, and 2) a conception of retribution (repugnant as it may be to [post]moderns). The former grants that no amount of good intention can compensate for the crime of stripping a person of the ability to follow his/her own conscience, even if that means allowing them to make a grave mistake. (Exceptions would include situations of addiction, in which a person’s free will and ability to make decisions has been compromised in some way.) The latter is the only avenue through which misbehavior may be addressed when dealing with another moral agent—placing limits on what can be done as punishment (no “treatment” should be worse than the disease) is, in the end, the only stricture that prevents against well-intentioned savagery.

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