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.