Intention and Outcome

Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention. (Bret Stephens)

I’d take it one step further: a serious moral philosophy focuses only on intention. A serious, practical philosophy balances intention and outcome.

What is intention? I would define it as the spiritual objective of an action. Some organizations intend to stop hunger, save the environment, or fight against the injustices of the world. To the “serious moral philosopher” like Kant, this might be enough.

But what came out of these intentions? Hunger prevails, land, air and water are painstakingly compromised, and injustices seem to multiply each year.

Even worse, intentions can be corrupted from inside out. Do you think genocides were committed by groups that acknowledged their actions as evil? No, they developed a reasoning system in which the intention to do good involved the deaths of thousands or millions.

If you told a participant in genocide that their good intentions would lead to so much death, they could offer two responses:

“My intentions must have been worth it.”

“My good intentions won’t lead to mass death.”

Both answers have a lot of assumptions to unpack, but most resoundingly, good-intentioned folk would opt for the second response. Outright denial, because their intentions do not involve death. Their intentions typically involve the movement toward a better, healthier person or society. Death was not on the menu.

As people were murdered by these folk they were still able to outrightly deny that their good intentions leads to death. How could such a cognitive dissonance occur?

Capital punishment via firing squad—at its most formal—involves several squadmates who are given pre-loaded weaponry. The weaponry is pre-loaded because only a few of the squadmates will have real bullets. The others will have blanks. They are not told whether they were given the blanks or the real bullets. This practice allows every executioner a waiver of culpability for the killing. The executioner can always believe that they just shot a blank; perhaps it was someone else who killed the person.

Intention isolated mirrors the process of doling out blanks and bullets. Powered by the intention to do good, people can decouple the spiritual objective from the factual outcome of their actions. Where Person A and Person B intend for the same thing, Person A can watch in astonishment as Person B’s actions cause death, misery, and mayhem. Person A reassures themself: “Well I just intended this, Person B’s heinous crimes against humanity can’t reflect upon me!” When some intentions are very broad, that can be true, but in the case of many genocides, Person A most likely participated indirectly in supporting Person B’s actions, whether through economic, ideological, or cultural support.

During the Holocaust, there were many Germans who did not believe in the furor of the Third Reich, but did intend to support Germany through thick and thin. Little did they know, their small businesses and support for their own troops and bureaucrats helped contribute to the deaths of millions.

There are a lot of nuances on why intention isolated will ignore its very real consequences. There were many Germans who saw people disappear, and heard rumor of what might be happening, but because they did not see it with their own eyes, they had little motivation to change the status quo.

There is a relevant aside from Bill Hicks: > “I watch the news all the time, every day. You ever watch CNN? I turn on CNN and all I hear is: War. Death. AIDS. Famine. War. Death. AIDS. Famine.—then I open up my window and all I hear are birds tweeting. Where is all this shit happening? Is CNN making this shit up?”

When you live in relative comfort, far from the rumors and hearsay of evil, what could ever get you out on the streets?

The modern phenomenon (as modern as the Agricultural Revolution, which continues to this day) of intention isolated—the sequestering of good intentions from awful outcomes—arises from the increasingly complex division of labor. When you tread down the path of specialization, you are committing to confusing the forest for the trees. The lone accountant, the lone mechanic, the lone logger—these are all products of social, economic, and psychological isolation. When you start leaving the soldier to specialize in death and warfare, you start to disconnect yourself from the immense scale of death and warfare they will participate in—so you don’t have to.

Milton Friedman described the amount of global work that is involved to produce a No. 2 pencil:

There’s not a single person in the world that can make this pencil. Remarkable statement? Not. The wood from which it’s made—for all I know—comes from a tree found in the state of Washington. To down that tree, it took a saw. To make that saw, it took steel. To make the steel, it took iron ore. This black center: We call it led, but it’s really graphite. I think it comes from some mines in South America. The eraser, a bit of rubber, probably comes from Malaya, where the rubber tree isn’t even native, it was imported from South America by some businessmen with the help of the British Government.

Does the logger know where their wood ends up? Do the South American miners know where their graphite ends up? No, because all that matters is that they can eat food because they put in the work. Their intention: To feed themselves and their family, and survive another day of work to keep the cycle going.

If you can reduce each person to a specialized working resource with intentions that can’t extend past survival, you will be able to make any object in the world. If you can reduce a person to a specialized working resource with intentions to better themselves, their community, or their nation, you will be able to achieve astonishing amounts of inhumanity. This is because you are able to separate intention from the outcomes of their specialized work, for specialized work enhances systems, not people. One just needs to promise that the system will achieve people’s intentions.