Deaths and murders; tsunamis and terrorists.

Roger Crisp invites us to consider two worlds:

In the first, someone entirely accidentally and non-negligently causes non-trivial suffering to some innocent sentient being. In the second, many individuals act with the intention of causing much more serious suffering to many such innocent beings. But for some reason or other… they always fail.

Which world is worse? And, therefore, which should we choose? Crisp insists on the latter:

[I]t doesn’t matter how many bad intentions there are in the second world, it can never be worse than the first. In other words, what really matters (period) in intentionally caused harm is the harm, not the bad intention. The significance of intention, then, has perhaps been exaggerated by certain moral philosophers.

He cites Cardinal Newman as his opponent, who thought ‘one venial sin was worse than any amount of human pain’. But the more famous dissenter would, of course, have been Kant, who quite explicitly offers the opposing view:

Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will… Even if it should happen that, owing to special disfavour of fortune, or the niggardly provision of a step-motherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitfulness can neither add nor take away anything from this value.

This hits on a major divide between consequentialists and Kantians, perhaps the divide in moral philosophy. When we get down to the core ethical question of what ultimately matters in the world, the former propose the substantive results of action. What could be more important than how happy people are? The Kantian says: au contraire, there is no value in happiness, pleasure, the absence of suffering per se, unless it flows from good intentions. The Kantian opts for a world without 9/11 over one minus Katrina.

Now Crisp suggests the Kantian position rests on a mistake: it takes the moral perspective from which we naturally condemn intentional evil without resenting natural disasters, and infers that this special, moral type of badness exhausts the concept of badness simpliciter.

I take it that consequentialism has prima facie intuition on its side. Kantians seem to be doing something quite whacky, perhaps almost fetishising motives. But hopefully one example can help to show why the dilemma is a lot more finely balanced than it so far seems.

Consider world-1, in which all persons with evil intentions are alive and well, brimming with happiness, whilst those we judge good seep with misery. Alternatively, in world-2, everyone suffers from chronic depression. There is no joy to be had in living.

Now I don’t find it at all obvious that we should pick world-1, and this doesn’t seem to be simply down to bloody-mindedness, sheer spite. And nor is it to confuse moral value with ‘value, period’. It just seems to be the case that a world in which bad people are happy and good people sad could never be preferable to a world in which, if the noble aren’t rewarded, at least evil people aren’t either. And I don’t see how Crisp or the consequentialists, in prioritising happiness irrespective of intention, can account for that.

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One thought on “Deaths and murders; tsunamis and terrorists.

  1. Do intentions matter? It’s a good question, and one that comes up in all sorts of places. I was watching The West Wing a few days ago, and they were debating a law that would outlaw hate crimes. Some were of the opinion that they should, while some said there are already laws to punish people for murder or assault, why do we need to punish them extra for what they were thinking at the time? I can see both sides of the argument.

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