Mini-Feature: Intentions vs. Outcomes

Which matters more for morality?

Are intentions or outcomes more important when judging whether actions are moral?

Intention is what we have lost. Put it outside of ethics: John of Salisbury, in The Metalogicon, explained  how intention and circumstances must be taken into consideration in order to truly understand the meaning of another's words. This means that history, biography, and context are obviously of great importance if one is to understand another's thought.

It is especially necessary to understand those three things which are most to blame for blocking comprehension of meaning... [the 3rd of the three is] the various considerations which prompt the speaker or writer to say what he does, and which, when recognized, make straight the way for understanding. Indeed, as Hillary tells us, 'What is said should be interpreted in the light of why it is said.' Otherwise, even in the canonical scriptures, the Fathers would be at odds, and the Evangelists themselves would be contradicting each other, if we were foolishly to judge only from the surface of their words, without considering their underlying purposes. Such procedure indicates a perverse disposition and disregard of one's own progress.

Bad ideology blinds us to reality even if we’re staring right at it. What’s worse, its distortion prevents us from truly defending or acting for the good. One potentially ends up doing more harm than good.

“Free speech” is like this. Without understanding three centuries of American tradition and thought on this continent, a ludicrous notion rejecting that tradition—holding that the purpose of speech doesn’t matter and therefore there is virtually no limit to it—has taken firm hold on all sides, at least “in theory” or “principle”, especially among boomers.

In other words, the meaning of the First Amendment has been abused beyond recognition since the 1960s. This is a relatively new development, easily traceable historically and intellectually, and it is not sustainable nor practicable. This is partially why younger people on both sides of the aisle want to see the current faulty underlying ideological framework change, albeit in different ways.

-Matt Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Outcomes are more definitive, but intentions weigh more heavily. Even the most terrible outcomes, however immoral, are less immoral than many of the invisible feelings that suffuse the human heart.

Then again, at the heart level, what is an intention but an outcome hidden from the knowledge of others? This is why Jesus attributes sinfulness even to the fantasy of sin. (Something no less true taking sin in the Greek sense of hamartia, missing of the mark, rather than the doing of a thing.)

So what could be a more sinful fantasy of sin than pretending that intentions and outcomes are so distinct that the absence of the latter absolves the former? This is the teaching of Hamlet, whose overeducated prince fails his sacred mission to restore right order by pretending his own mission to deconstruct the relation between intention and outcome is even more important.

Biblical apocalypse associates the final or ultimate or perfect judgment with the revelation of all the inner outcomes in the hearts of all—mere intentions, we tell ourselves and each other, which surely have no outcomes, or at least outcomes so small that, if only for practical reasons, they fall through the cracks of human judgment, and are, if only for reasons of expediency, left there.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Morality has to be determined by a combination of intentions and outcomes. Notice how frequently murders are described as a "robbery gone wrong," as though killing someone while robbing them with a gun was such an unforeseen possibility that the wrongness qualifies the action. Why not call it an "attempted murder gone wrong" for that matter.

The thing is it doesn't really matter how moral we find something to be; morality is a numinous quality and it's really up to God to decide. You might as well argue over how to determine "popularity." Is it a function of exposure or merit?

The only thing, for good or bad, that matters in this world is legal consequence. Leave morality to the Sunday school teachers.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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The lawyer, writes Philip Sidney, "seeketh to make men good rather formidine poenae than virtus amore"—rather by dread of punishment than by love of virtue. "So is he not, in the deepest truth, to stand in rank with these who endeavor to...plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls."

We all have a common-sense intuition that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is cheating. It doesn't quite "count" to give to the poor because you're forced to by the state, or because you want a pretty girl to see you doing it. At least, it's not as high an act of virtue as if you did it out of the goodness of your heart.

At the same time, the goodness of an intention is measured by whether acting on it brings about good results. Let's say I meant to give you medicine but I gave you poison instead because the bottles were mislabeled: the reason we know my intentions were good is because if I had chosen the serum I meant to, I would have healed you—and healing is a good outcome.

There is a Gordian knot here, or in more modern terms, a feedback loop. What makes good intentions good is the goodness of the things toward which they aim; what makes people good are the intentions that prompt them to aim at good things.

And choosing good things for the wrong reasons, thus getting acquainted with the goodness of them in their own right, can eventually lead us to choose them for the right reasons. Hence Aristotle's observation that good societies produce good men by habituation: living in a place where seeking social clout will lead you to perform virtue, because virtue is honored, can eventually lead you to fall in love with virtue for its own sake. Living in a society like ours, where virtue is considered shameful and outré, will of necessity have the opposite effect.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind