The fallacy of good intentions

Good intentions have a long history of disappointing results.  Politicians and pundits often invoke the "good intentions" caveat to justify or soften the blow of failed social policies.  The time has come to discard this cognitive crutch.

We can trace the fallacy of good intentions to a misunderstanding of the great 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who influenced modern ethics with his "categorical imperative" and "good will."  Kant recognized that ethics involves a conflict between reason and passion, between duty and desire.  Because humans are flawed and conflicted, and therefore in need of ethical principles, the true measure of moral value is the goodwill of the individual who performs the action, not the consequences of the action.

Consider two individuals who enter an orphanage to make a donation.  The first person has a low-wage job and limited savings but sympathizes with the plight of the children.  After making a modest donation, he exits without fanfare.  The second person is running for political office and hopes news of his donation will spur him to electoral victory.  After making a hefty donation, he takes pictures and holds a press conference.  According to Kant, even though the second person donated much more money, which will help the children, only the first person's donation merits moral praise because he acted with goodwill.

The merit of Kant's ethical system is open for debate, but the problem with the "good intentions" camp today is their belief that they merit Kantian moral praise for merely supporting admirable social policies, such as helping the poor.  Whereas Kant praised the goodwill of an individual who performs an action, the "good intentions" camp takes a more ivory-tower approach and transfers the burden of action from the individual to the state.  For the "good intentions" camp, the state should embody the goodwill, which raises three problems.

First, as Kant noted, focusing on ends or consequences, like helping the poor, often misses the mark because there are multiple ways to achieve the goal, with varying degrees of moral value.  Because the "good intentions" camp believe they have the moral high ground, they believe that their policy proposals are superior, even if they fail year after year or conflict with other moral values.  The challenge with social policy is finding moral solutions that produce tangible results.

Second, our intentions are often nuanced or deceptive.  Good intentions defy empirical observation, and people have a propensity to rationalize their intentions.  We should consider the possibility that those promoting generous social welfare programs might do so for personal gain (intending recipient) or to seek moral praise from their fellow citizens — a champion of the poor.

Third, given that social policies are complex, we should have the humility to accept that our own good intentions might not suffice to offer the best solutions.  Many social policies rely on big data or artificial intelligence, which go beyond our own intuition.  For example, we can all agree that tax policy should be "fair," as long as we define "fair," but we should also understand that the optimal way to raise tax revenue might be counterintuitive to our own good intentions.

Merely claiming good intentions does not sanctify our own policy proposals, just as attributing bad intentions to others does not discredit theirs.  It is not unusual for people with good intentions across the political spectrum to disagree on the best policies.  The true measure of a righteous policy is tangible consequences within a broader moral framework — reducing crime, promoting economic prosperity, promoting strong families for children, and so on.  We might not agree on which polices are the most righteous or how to prioritize them, but at least we can ignore the rhetoric of self-proclaimed good intentions.

Consider border security.  The proponents of open borders regularly flaunt their good intentions for illegal aliens, which raises two issues.  First, promoting open borders is not a righteous policy, regardless of good intentions, because it conflicts with a fundamental moral principle of nationhood that makes social welfare programs possible.  Second, the finite resources allocated to help illegal aliens could be used to help our fellow citizens in desperate need (opportunity cost), such as the homeless or veterans.  We can only wonder why our own citizens are not worthy of the same good intentions.

Anthony C. Patton studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg University and earned an MBA from Thunderbird — School of Global Management.