Does Intention Matter?

by | Dec 18, 2018 | Life, Religion, Society


“There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”

James 4:12


Should we judge people on their actions or intentions?

I can’t seem to recall the source, but I remember reading an article a long while ago that talked about how socially awkward people overcome their awkwardness.
It depends on what exactly the source of their social awkwardness is (trauma, upbringing, mental disorder, etc.), but some are able to completely mask their lack of emotional intelligence. They do so in a manner that is largely mechanical.
What do I mean by mechanical? Well in the same way that you might remember a recipe, or how to change a tire, these people study and learn how to interact in social scenarios.
The article had examples, ranging from complex to minute. Some people remember to smile when smiled at, to shake someone’s hand when greeting them, to time their eye contact to avoid an intense gaze, etc.
The point is, you may have very well encountered someone who acted completely normal, but did so without any natural instincts to do so. If you can’t tell, does it make any difference? Would you treat this person any different if you did learn their secret?
This line of thinking got me thinking about a larger question, and the accompanying thought exercise.
Does intention matter? Or should we only judge reality by the results/outside appearances?
Imagine this: a man spends his entire life and fortune on charitable actions. He feeds orphans, builds home for the homeless, helps train the poor to find jobs, volunteers his time to educate inner-city children, so on and so forth.
He is widely hailed as a model human being, and wins all the awards and plaudits imaginable across the world for his impossibly kind heart.
When he passes away, lawyers search his modest house for some sort of will. While rummaging around his desk, they find a journal in which he reflects on his personal life.
Upon reading the contents of this journal, they are shocked to find out that this gentleman was not the kind hearted man they thought he was. His writings reveal a man who detested the people he helped, and characterized them as useless leeches. He even goes so far as to suggest that the weak of society should be euthanized for the greater good.
They find out that the only reason that he chose to live a life of (seemingly) high virtue was because he craved fame, and saw it as the easiest route to achieve that.
Is this a good man? Suppose the lawyers never found the journal, or that they burned it immediately and swore its contents to secrecy. The world would be none the wiser, and his legacy would continue on in its current revered state.
Even if everyone were to find out about his true intentions, his impact is still undeniable. Whether or not he could stand the people he helped, he helped them nonetheless. As a result of his actions, millions of human beings have had their life altered in overwhelmingly positive ways—ways that never would have happened without his existence.
This post is also inspired by the book that I’m currently reading—Atlas Shrugged, which many of you may know. If you don’t, the brief overview is that it is an argument for libertarianism (triumph of the markets, minimal government interference, maximum freedom). Ayn Rand, the author, strives to make the argument that capitalism is the superior system for advancing civilization.
In chasing profits, hundreds of thousands of industrialists have dramatically increased the standard of living across the world. By focusing on their own “greedy” self-interests, businessmen actually selflessly create product and services that better everyone’s lives. I happen to largely agree with most of her arguments, and the charitable man example I just detailed seems to follow along those lines.
Perhaps that example is too clear-cut and fantastical to be worth a hypothetical examination. Let’s take something that happens often, no doubt.
What do we say about the man who is an incredible father and husband to his family, but spends his entire life cheating on his wife? He never wastes money on his mistresses, and spends the minimum amount of time with them to derive the pleasure he desires, but otherwise, he provides all the emotional and financial support his family needs. His mistresses are aware of his family, and have absolutely no qualms about it.
I find this example much more challenging to judge. In the first, there are no victims. The charitable man only tortured himself really, by spending his whole life doing something he hated just to chase fame.
In the cheating man example, we have victims. His victims are more in the potential sense, as they are people who would be negatively affected if his actions were found out. Then I suppose the question becomes, are things only bad if they are found out? To which the answer should be no.
These hypotheticals become much easier to answer if you believe in a God, given that the judgement of human beings pales in comparison to an omnipotent being. 
Maybe that’s why we need religion. These questions could be difficult because they’re not ours to answer.


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