Morality: Intentions or results

There are two kinds of morality: a morality of intentions and a morality of results. If you have a morality of intentions you judge people by what they intend to achieve; if you have a morality of results you judge them by what they actually achieve.

Drool hung from his lip as he tried to spit the sand out of his mouth. He must have said something like, “I’m trying,” because the instructor exploded: “There is no try. We do not try. Your teammates do not need you to try to cover their backs. Your swim buddy does not need you to try to rescue him on a dive. Your platoon does not need you to try to shoot straight. There is no try. There is only do. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

BUD/S instructor quoting Yoda; from Resilience by Eric Greitens.

You judge yourself, and others, all the time. Are you doing something good or something bad? Should you kill animals? Cut down rainforest? Overthrow a regime? Lend money? Imprison? Plant trees? Feed birds? Prevent a coup? Set up an orphanage? You judge people by your answers to this type of questions – by your values – in one of two ways: you judge either the intentions behind their actions or the results of their actions. You have a morality of intentions or a morality of results.

A morality of intentions is attractive, when judging yourself in particular, because it is much easier to live up to than a morality of results. If you judge yourself only by what you intend to achieve, it is hard to fail.

Say you think global warming is bad and you want to help prevent it. To do so, you give money to a charity that claims to fight global warming. If you have a morality of intentions, you have now done something good. It doesn’t really matter if the charity is effective at preventing global warming. It doesn’t matter if its opposition to nuclear energy prevents or promotes global warming. It doesn’t matter whether their public advertising campaigns to reduce $CO_2$ emissions are more effective than using the money to plant trees or buy rainforest. And you don’t have to check! Because if you have a morality of intentions, the results don’t matter as long as you intended to do the right thing.

The problem with a morality of intentions is that it does not produce an incentive to be effective. There is no feedback mechanism. It doesn’t require you to do the, often difficult, work of figuring out and what works and then doing it. A morality of results does.

A morality of results is uncomfortable, not only because it requires more work, but because you aren’t in full control of results. Which means you aren’t in full control of how good a person you are. Intentions matter only to the extent they drive actions that achieve results. Trying matters only to the extent it eventually achieves results. With a morality of results, trying hard is not intrinsically good, achieving results is.

After the Rwandan genocide, the media flocked to stories of “desperate war orphans,” and aid agencies set up orphanages across the border in Zaire for refugee children separated from their parents. The problem was that many of the children taken into these group homes weren’t orphans. I talked with mothers who gave up their children – temporarily, they hoped – because they thought it was the only way to ensure their children’s survival. It was a vicious cycle: money flowed into the centers to care for the growing number of children, and the increased resources led even more families to place their children in the centers. With little supervision, some children were abused; others were “fostered out” to “work” for unscrupulous people in the refugee camps. Sometimes these orgaphanages were moved back to Rwanda, and then children really were separated from their parents.

The orphanages grew from the best intentions, but they often harmed the very children they were intended to serve. The aid agencies could have directed their funds toward supporting caregivers and keeping families intact wherever possible; but, perversely, their actions helped to break families apart.

Eric Greitens, Resilience

If you care about reality, a morality of results is more effective. A morality of intentions is kinder to your identity and ego. You get to choose what kind of morality to adopt. If you choose a morality of results, you might have to admit that you haven’t done much good yet. I haven’t done much good yet.


Eric Greitens, Letter 11: Philosophy, Resilience: Hard-won wisdom for living a better life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, )

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