On Good Intentions

Are good intentions enough? That is, if someone engages in a course of action, believing it to be good or helpful, is that sufficient justification for it? What if the course of action in fact proves to be harmful, counterproductive, or leads to some very bad consequences? Is the intent still enough to justify things?

Many people seem to think that as long as a person, or a group, or a church, or a state, has good intentions, that absolves them of any responsibility if wrong or harm ensues. As long as they “meant well,” that seems to be sufficient. Sadly many believers have latched onto this dangerous mindset as well.

But the truth is, we must judge an action, policy, movement, or activity not just by any good – or otherwise – intentions that are involved. We must also look at actual outcomes and results. We must judge intentions with their consequences – or with reality, in other words.

Thus the old aphorism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is more accurate and true than we might care to admit. Many a good intention has led to hellish outcomes, and plenty of what seemed to be great ideas at the time have turned out to be monstrous concepts leading to disastrous results.

There are plenty of examples of this to choose from, both in Christian and non-Christian circles. Christians are often guilty of thinking that as long as the intention is good, then that is the end of the matter. I recall speaking to a Christian woman some years ago about this.

I think the topic might have been the welfare state or some such thing. I was seeking to explain just how disastrous the welfare state has usually been. She protested, “Yes, but the people supporting all this had good intentions – isn’t that the main thing?”

I assured her that it most certainly was not. If the intention is to actually help people, but we in fact find people actually being harmed and worse off in the welfare state, then all the good intentions in the world don’t mean a hill of beans.

We might feel good about ourselves and our intentions, but what really matters is those on the receiving end of our good intentions. If they end up being harmed or put to disadvantage because of our great ideas, then we really have helped no one. We have in fact made matters worse.

Indeed, entire books have been penned on this and related social policies. Many of those behind them meant well, but they in fact made matters far worse. As one example, back in 1993 Jared Taylor wrote Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America. It clearly documents this point.

Consider another Christian example. One Australian church has thought it is a good idea to accept into the homes of its members some children who were separated from their asylum-seeking parents, as part of the Gillard Government refugee policy.

The church felt this was not the right thing to do for these children, and that it was un-Christlike to allow this to happen, so they offered to take in these children and look after them. Now are the intentions here right? Are they seeking to be compassionate and loving in this situation? Should we congratulate them for their desire to help? Yes to all three questions.

But as I have been arguing, intentions alone are not enough. We need to ask some hard questions here first. In other words, we need to respond to such genuine needs not just with our hearts but with our heads as well. We need to clearly and carefully think through the consequences of our good intentions.

For example, what happens if these children are accepted? What about their families? What happens if many more children start flooding in as a result? What happens if they start demanding similar treatment? What about the whole issue of queue jumping and illegal immigrants?

What happens if people smugglers hear about this and think, ‘Oh great, we have gullible churches in Australia over-riding government policy, and offering to take children on humanitarian grounds, or on the grounds of What Would Jesus Do?’

What happens if many more boatloads of people head for Australia as a result? What happens if more of these poor people die in the process (drowned at sea, or what have you)? In sum, what happens if this well-meaning idea simply emboldens the people smugglers to radically step up their efforts, resulting in more chaos and confusion, and perhaps more deaths along the way? In an effort to help these children, such a move may in fact put more children’s lives at risk.

If so, what does the church say in this case? “Oh well, our intentions were good. We were just trying to help. We just wanted to be like Jesus.” It seems in a case like this that the words of Jesus in the parable of the shrewd manager really need to be recalled: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8).

What about his command that we should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16)? Are we being wise here? Are we using our brains to think things through carefully first, or do we just respond with our heartstrings? Is an emotive response sufficient, or should we carefully do our mental homework first before rushing to a course of action?

Again, we can rightly praise such churches for caring and wanting to help. They deserve high marks for this. But that is not the whole issue here. The real issue is will this decision in fact help these children, or make things worse? We celebrate the good intentions, but we also need to look carefully at the consequences of such intentions.

Indeed, this is a recurrent problem with the religious left. They do this time and time again. They have plenty of good intentions and good motivations. They have lots of compassion and concern. They want to help the poor. They want to achieve world peace. They want to see justice and fairness come about. These are all quite laudable aims of course.

But what if the philosophies, policies and programs they use to achieve these things in fact make matters far worse? What if the very people they are claiming to help are in fact penalised, disadvantaged and made worse off by their policies?

One person who has written much on this – and has good reason to be concerned about all this – is black American economist Thomas Sowell. He has been at the forefront in debunking the various myths put out by the left that their various programs would in fact help blacks, the poor, and so on.

Let me cite just one article of his. In “Good intentions, bad results and intellectuals” he talks about the power of ideas, and how bad ideas – no matter how well-intentioned – can cause a great amount of damage. He reminds us that “both secular and religious ideas have moved the emotions of many — and have moved leaders who moved armies.”

He continues, “If there is any lesson in the history of ideas, it is that good intentions tell you nothing about the actual consequences. But intellectuals who generate ideas don’t have to pay the consequences. Academic intellectuals are shielded by the principles of academic freedom and journalists in democratic societies are shielded by the principle of freedom of the press. Seldom do those who produce or peddle dangerous, or even fatal, ideas have to pay a price, even in a loss of credibility.

“Who blames Rachel Carson, an environmentalist icon, because her crusading writings against DDT led to the ban of this insecticide in countries around the world — followed by a resurgence of malaria that killed, and continues to kill, millions of people in tropical Third World countries?

“Even political leaders have been judged by how noble their ideas sounded, rather than by how disastrous their consequences were. Woodrow Wilson — our only president with a Ph.D. — was an academic intellectual for years before entering politics, and his ideas about a war to end wars, making the world safe for democracy, and the right of self-determination of peoples, have been revered in utter disregard of what happened when Wilson’s notions were put into practice in the real world.

“No one today takes seriously the idea that the First World War was a war to end wars, and many now see it as setting the stage for a Second World War. Indeed there were those who predicted this result at the time. But they were not listened to, much less lionized, like Woodrow Wilson.

“Like many intellectuals, Woodrow Wilson assumed that if things were bad, ‘change’ would automatically make them better. But the autocratic governments in Russia and Germany that Wilson abhorred were followed by totalitarian regimes so oppressive and murderous they made the past despots look almost like sweethearts.

“As for the self-determination of peoples, that turned out in practice to mean having whole peoples’ fates determined by foreigners, such as Woodrow Wilson, who joined in the dismemberment of empires, with dire consequences in the 1930s, as Hitler picked off the small and vulnerable newly created nations, one by one — an operation that would have been far more dangerous if he had had to face the larger empires of which they had been part before the First World War.

“To this day, we are still living with the consequences of carving up the Ottoman Empire to create far more unstable and dangerous states in the Middle East. But Woodrow Wilson’s words sounded great — and that is what he and other intellectuals are judged by.”

Hopefully all of us – Christian and non-Christian – will wake up to the fact that good intentions alone mean little. In fact they can be disastrous, if separated from a careful and close look at the consequences.


[1675 words]

21 Replies to “On Good Intentions”

  1. The intentions of the Greens are good from their point of view. From mainstream libertarian and right wing thinking point of view their intentions are evil. Even intentions should be subject to scrutiny.

    You could say that Stalin had good intentions for Russia, Robespierre and Co had very lofty intentions for France which led to the brutal destruction of a nation that had to be brought into order by a Dictator and became the role model for Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot et al.

    Aaron Downs

  2. Pertinent to this topic are the 4th and 5th chapters of Leviticus. Even unintentional sins must be atoned for.

    Mansel Rogerson

  3. Thanks Bill,
    Good point Mansel. The responsibility as Christians is even greater as we seek to see things from God’s view. The Jewish King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles, considered a ‘good King’, was rebuked for his alignment with the Israelite King Ahab. After all, wouldn’t it have been good (intention) to build a closer relationship with the rest of God’s people in Israel?
    Jeremy Peet

  4. A classic case in point is maternal benefits which are paid by the government to all women having children, regardless of whether they are married or not. It is not uncommon for some women to have children, often by different fathers, simply to collect benefits. One can only speculate at the quality of life, or lack of it, which those children experience as they grow up. Not to mention the problems created for society by the dysfunctional families which result. The MSM are in denial about the conclusions, based on research, verifying this situation.

    Dunstan Hartley

  5. In our little prayer group which meets here we had teaching, this week, calling us each one to become “One who waits on the Lord”. Our discussion on the teaching centred on humility and discernment guided by rightly formed conscience (as well as an appropriate knowledge base) being the ways to know how to recognise what God wants of us in circumstances distinct from the ordinary obligations of our daily Christian life. It’s remarkable to log on today and get confirmation of what we were reflecting on yesterday!
    Anna Cook

  6. I want to thank you Bill for introducing me and others to Thomas Sowell. I now have another impressive resource to draw from. He said amongst a thousand other brilliant things, “If an engineer builds a bridge and it falls down, his career is over, but these intellectuals fabricate ideas and unleash them on the public and are never, held accountable.”

    Daniel Kempton

  7. Good Intentions of Woodrow Wilson:
    Wilson saw the European war as an opportunity. Using the fear of war as a cover, he had already rammed through the Federal Reserve Act, the imposition of income taxes, the introduction of the Internal Revenue Service and the segregation of the armed forces (to prevent white soldiers from contracting ‘black diseases’)…..
    Wilson ordered the infant motion picture industry make propaganda films, commissioning films like “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Battle Cry For Peace” (1915) as part of its public brainwashing effort…..
    As a side note, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which depicted the KKK as the noble defenders of American white race privilege, was reputed to be Wilson’s all-time favorite film and was used to justify his reinstitution of racial segregation as official US domestic policy…..
    Wilson’s successful use of Walter Lippman’s mass brainwashing techniques attracted the attention of two new up-and-coming political leaders, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler..

    As for the Good Intentions going on in Libya: Rebels killing Black Gaddafi Supporters Didn’t hear that on MSM. Of course not, the Rebels are their heroes of liberation.

    Jeffrey Carl
    The FIRST sign Jesus gave was, “Take heed that no man deceive you.” (Matthew 24:4)
    Especially true if the deception is covered with a layer of Good Intentions.

  8. I’m proud to be part of an Australian church goes beyond good intentions and actually have sound policy behind those good intentions.

    I for one support 100% the higher moral imperative rather than bow to the lower reality of pragmatism.

    Fact: In the last 10 years up to 97% of illegal immigration has come to Australia not through boats, but by plane. The majority of these people came from northern Asia, not from where the majority come from on the boats.

    Not much press coverage about that is there?

    Steve Fogg

  9. Thanks Steve

    But when you rather strangely say, “I for one support 100% the higher moral imperative rather than bow to the lower reality of pragmatism” how exactly are we to understand this? You seem to be saying the very thing I speak about in this article: as long as we have lofty and “spiritual” intentions, who gives a rip about the practical consequences of our actions. If you somehow think biblical Christianity should be divorced from reality, and lived instead in ethereal theory and mere good intentions, then I find real difficulty buying that understanding.

    My question remains unchallenged, and unanswered: if more children are sent here, and die at sea, as a direct result of this particular move, what will we say? Will we simply point to our WWJD wristbands and think everything is just fine? Will we simply shrug this off and say, ‘well, we meant well’? Sorry, in my eyes that has nothing to do with biblical compassion or realistic Christianity. It in fact seems heartless and cruel in the extreme.

    And of course your figures on types of arrivals are quite irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

    But as I told others elsewhere, my intention in this article was not for a moment to say I approve of Julia’s refugee policy. I do not at all. I think it stinks. So don’t get me wrong, I am not defending her and her policies. But Christians can and do differ on various proposed alternative policies. I for one find this particular alternative policy to be fraught with danger, and likely to be counter-productive. But hopefully believers can agree to disagree on some of these matters. Thanks for sharing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Thanks for your reply Bill, but honestly if you are going to use the church as an illustration of naivety then I think it gives me the right as a member of the community to voice my support – whether you think it is relevant or not.

    I don’t think that just because one takes a ‘lofty’ position because they want to live out ignores what the practical consequences of ones actions are.

    The figures on the arrivals are totally relevant as you argue our naive position may lead to more people coming by boat, only 3% come by boat. The vast majority fly in from China.

    We believe our policy is actually better for the children’s wellbeing while their visas are processed.

    While you are using selective proof texts about wisdom and serpents which I don’t think Jesus was talking about unaccompanied minors or policy making around it. I’ll throw a selective proof text back at you,

    “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James 1:22

    Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds. – St. Francis of Assisi

    Is our response and policy perfect? probably not.

    Will our response encourage and policy more people to come? I think many people’s situations are so desperate that they will come by boats no matter what the policy.

    Although far from perfect, we are attempting to live out the gospel by doing, rather than deceiving ourselves to just listening.

    Steve Fogg

  11. Thanks again Steve

    But I don’t recall saying you do not have a right to voice your support. And I nowhere said your opinion was irrelevant. What I did say was one line of your last comment was irrelevant.

    And sorry, but your use of James 1:22 and St Francis is a bit of a non sequitur. How does it follow that because I take a different view on this than you do that somehow you are into action and I am not?

    But you guys still fail to answer my direct question. If more children die as a result of this policy, what will you say? Will you just shrug your shoulders and pretend it is not happening? I don’t quite see how that is the compassionate and Christlike thing to do.

    And of course people are desperate to come here. So what? The truth is, there would be hundreds of millions of people worldwide who desperately want to flee their oppressive homes (especially Muslim-majority nations) and come to a place like Australia. They would risk almost anything to get here. So what does all that entail? Do we just throw the doors wide open, and allow our population of 22 million to mushroom to 220 million, because we somehow think this is what Jesus would do? As I said, idealism unmixed with realism is really no help at all.

    And we know perfectly well that different polices lead to different outcomes. Boat arrivals dropped dramatically under the previous government’s policies. Now they are skyrocketing again. So specific policies will indeed impact the actual number of those risking life and limb to arrive here by boat. It seems your policy will simply encourage a whole lot more of this.

    But I have written elsewhere about all this:

    The truth is, we all care about this situation, but we have differing views as how to best deal with the situation. It helps no one to seek to take the high moral ground here, attempting to appear more righteous and more Christlike. By all means we should each attempt to argue our case, but pretending that only one policy option is something Jesus would approve of is rather silly.

    But thanks again for sharing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. Bill, lets right size this conversation.

    For starters, we aren’t proposing that we ‘throw open the doors’. We are talking about at most 50 kids who have no parents here. That’s just plain tabloid language and you know it to say that we are opening the flood gates.

    3% of all illegal immigrants come by boats over the last 10 years. Of that tiny percentage, unaccompanied minors are at most 50 this year. Most illegal immigrants actually come from China and northern Asian countries by plane, so I don’t think the facts support that we will mushroom with a hoard of Muslim majority nations. Again tabloid.

    To say we should do nothing too because it may impact someone somewhere down the line is also a weak argument. If every decision in the world had to be based on this reality we’d all be paralysed with no decision making at all.

    I don’t think I have sole access to the high moral ground at all, I’ll readily admit that I am often times rather silly, my wife can attest to that. I have nowhere said that only one policy option is Jesus’ way.

    Here’s the thing Bill, I ask this with the greatest of respect, where is your policy? I’ve read your blog links that you’ve provided and you’ve put nothing up yourself. What alternate view do you propose. What would you be prepared to back with people, dollars and commitment.

    Where are you on the solution side of this?

    We still may have a different view, but I’d really love to know if you had the ability to effect a policy what it would be.

    Let’s debate your ideas and policy.

    Steve Fogg

  13. Thanks again Steve

    But you continue to demonstrate that you think reality should have little or no bearing on your lofty intentions. You still refuse to take responsibility for the possible consequences of your actions, and yet you accuse me of tabloid journalism? Yikes!

    To argue that wise and prudent caution should be enjoined, so that things do not get even worse, with more children killed, is of course not to argue that we should take no action at all, as you rather foolishly suggest. Perhaps re-reading the book of Proverbs with its many words about the importance of prudence, caution, wise actions, carefully weighing options, and not letting the heart run ahead of the head, might be of some use here.

    Respectfully, you are ignoring reality if you really think no one will be emboldened to do more of the same, if your policy gets the go ahead. You can hide your head in the sand all you like, but yes, biblical Christianity takes very seriously the consequences of our actions. It does not try to gloss them over, and smugly claim that as long as it seemed like a good idea at the time, that is all that matters.

    And again, we are talking about boat people here, so your continued red herrings mean nothing to the argument at hand.

    And it should be clear which policy I prefer. Any policy which actually deters the people smugglers, and therefore reduces the risk of lives lost on boats seeking to come here, is certainly a more humane option than one that deliberately and recklessly puts lives at risk.

    But as I said at the first, Christians should be able to agree to disagree here, but unfortunately that does not seem to be to your liking. While you evidently have your mind made up here, at least others can weigh up the options and decide for themselves.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Policies, whether they are advocated by governments or by churches, do have an effect on behaviour. Compassion for people is a good thing – but we should also feel compassion for the millions of refugees waiting in UN refugee camps around the world for re-settlement. Meanwhile, Australia has a responsibility, and a right, to control its borders.
    The consequences of providing accommodation for unaccompanied minors and others arriving by boat must be considered – it could well encourage more people to take the risky journey by leaky boat to Australia.
    Steve, if people are coming illegally by plane, then we should be introducing tighter processes to monitor and control that, not use it as a reason for relaxing restrictions on those arriving by boat.
    Bill, you rightly say that we must consider the consequences of any action we take – both the intended and unintended consequences. That’s part of responsible decision making.
    As well as the impact on the people smuggling trade, the impact on the church community of bringing young Muslim men into Christian homes and/or the church itself must be carefully considered. Even if the unaccompanied minors are looked after in shared homes, there will still be an impact on those in the church.
    Compassion is a wonderful thing, but there is a big picture here that needs to be considered.
    Jenny Stokes

  15. Hi Steve and Bill,

    One unintended consequence of giving unaccompanied minor asylum seeker children special treatment has been reported by Andrew Bolt:

    “IMMIGRATION detainees are pretending to be teens to get their visa applications processed quicker and live in better conditions. ”

    “Now, before the Government kindly boards them out with church groups and volunteer families, perhaps it could just look a little closer at these boys, and marvel at how mature some surprisingly are.”


    Mansel Rogerson

  16. Hey Bill,

    I think I actually DO agree with you that we can disagree. It is totally to my liking. I don’t for one minute think that just because you disagree with me that you aren’t entitled you your opinion, no matter how much I may disagree with you.

    I’m fully aware that ever action has a consequence. I realise that one day I’ll be judged on my actions, or lack of them.

    I totally in support that Australia has a right and a responsibility to control its borders. But we clearly disagree on the implementation of the policy.

    As you put it, your immigration policy is based on one thing:

    “Any policy which actually deters the people smugglers, and therefore reduces the risk of lives lost on boats seeking to come here”

    I could say the same broad sweeping statement too. Which is a great sound bite, but is has no detail.

    Any policy is based on details and best practice on how you would envisage where people are placed while processing is undertaken, what criteria can refugees become eligible/not eligible for entry into Australia.

    What is your policy?

    Should they stay or go? Australia, Christmas Island, Nauru or Malaysia? which one?

    Should they be in detention or in community?

    At what age is it appropriate if you agree with detention for a minor to be in detention?

    Should a family with young children be in a community house or detention?

    Would you support a minor being in detention in a foreign country by themselves?

    Do you think minors should receive support counselling?

    Do you think minors should receive culturally appropriate supervision and social integration?

    Do you think we should have 30 day processing like the rest of the world or stick to 60+ like we have currently?

    Do you support offshore processing in a country that hasn’t signed the UNHCR and UN refugee convention?

    What is your cut-off point for admitting illegal immigrants in Australia? Is it based on number of people or their situation? or both?

    I’m for the debate of ideas. Let’s debate what your detailed position is. You’ve had a good shot at what we are on about.

    Don’t get me wrong here, I’m for your blog – I’m for people keeping governments accountable. I also think we all have an obligation to debate with each other where we stand on issues and engage in them on both sides.

    Steve Fogg

  17. Thanks again Steve

    But I need to call your bluff here. With all due respect, I am not now going to drop everything and provide you with a detailed, extensive, finely-honed public policy statement on asylum seekers simply because you demand one of me. And that for several reasons: 1) I will do what I feel God wants me to do, not what my critics insist that I do. 2). I never have claimed to be an authority on international law and refugee policy. I am a mere blogger who like everyone else should be allowed to have some opinions about such matters. 3) Such policies are admittedly complex, nuanced, and difficult, and if entire governments are struggling to get it right, why should I be foolish enough to pretend that I can come up with a panacea here. Sorry, but that is just not going to happen.

    And again your logic is quite wobbly here. If I suggest possible shortcomings in someone’s proposed policy, that does not imply that I must therefore have a perfect counter policy of my own. You might as well suggest that unless someone has the perfect solution to, say international terrorism, he has no right to critically assess any other policy. Or you might as well say that I have no right to critique current AIDS policy until I come up with some superior scheme of my own.

    You were the one who rather foolishly went on about, ‘if we follow your advice (about considering consequences) we will never get anything done’. You seem to be doing similar things here: ‘unless someone comes up with a fool proof policy of their own, they have no right to even comment on any one else’s’ policy, and it is thus full steam ahead with our own.’

    As I say, I am not expert on the complexities of refugee policy, international law, and related matters. Are you? Yet I think I have the right to comment on polices that effect us all, especially if they are policies which come from an organisation which I happen to be a member of.

    I would like to think that the half dozen or so articles I have already penned on this topic are sufficient to give people some indication of where I stand on these issues. Again, if that is not to your liking, well, sorry, but at the end of the day I am not answerable to you.

    And bear in mind where all this has come from. I wrote here a generic article on good intentions, which I believe is intellectually coherent, logically argued, and historically sustainable. I happened to use several specific examples along the way, including your proposed asylum policy. If you want to get into a war over that particular paragraph or two, that is up to you. But I will continue to do what I feel I have been called to do. If at some point in the future I have the time and the Lord’s leading to pen such a detailed blueprint of ideal refugee policy, fine. But until then, I will do what I am meant to do.

    But we are starting to become repetitious here, so it may be time to scale this down, especially since refugee policy was not the main focus of this article. For those who want to debate this to their heart’s content, there are plenty of other places to do so. I for example would direct readers to this piece, which offers some clarity on how queue jumpers and “economic refugees” of course harm the chances of genuine refugees:


    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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