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Means, And The Ends That Justify Them. Or Not.

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Yesterday, I wrote a post so lame I ddn’t bother to publish it.  I know I tend to blither, but by the time I got finished with Luther, Calvin, the doctrine of predestination and all the rest of it, even  I didn’t know what I was trying to say.

I’ve had a bit to sleep on it, though, and I think  I can finally get to the point.

When did we decide that “I meant well” was an excuse for practically anything at all?

Okay, we don’t always put it that way.  The formulation I’m most used to is, “But  I was doing it because I was concerned!”  or “But  I was doing it because I care about you!”

Honestly, there are times when I really, really wish some people would being “concerned” about me and mine.

Somebody posted a note about something else that indicated that he thought that the problem with the therapeautic culture was that it thought it could rely on reason by itself–without,  I presume, God–but the truth is that there is nothing particularly rational about the therapeutic mind.

In fact, if religion were to be defined as the acceptance on faith of a set of unproven and unprovable dogma, the culture of therapy would qualify as a religion far more thoroughly than the Catholic Church would.

But at the base of that culture is that formulation, the underlying assumption that is taken as self-evidently exculpatory no matter how one behaves–“I’m concerned!”  “I care!” 

Let me leave off here the fact that this formulation is almost always a lie.  From what I can see of the forced ministrations of the therapeutic culture, “caring” counts a whole lot less in the motives of its practictioners than power.

My problem is that I don’t understand how we got to the place where intentions were all that matters.

It’s not that intentions are negligible.  If you run over a dog with your car, it really does matter whether you did it deliberately or accidentally because you couldn’t see the do out your rearview mirror when you were backing up.

And our criminal justice system makes allowances for intention, too–that’s why there’s something called “involuntary manslaughter.’ 

I know I’ve gone on about this before, but it’s the one thing that keeps striking me about  The  Situation,  and about some of our contemporary politics, too.

People keep justifying the most outrageous behavior by saying, “But what other motive could I have?  I was just concerned!”

The issue this seems to cling to most closely these days is definitely “assisted suicide,” by which almost nobody actually means assisted suicide.  I’m sure there are cases out there where some guy desperately wants to end his battle with cancer but can’t get a doctor to prescribe enough pain medication for him to take an overdose, but those aren’t the cases that make the news, and for good reason.

For one thing, there aren’t a lot of them.  If there’s one thing a doctor knows, it’s that patient who truly want to get hold of a lethal dose of drugs will usually find a way to do it–by going to multiple doctors, by hoarding pills, by stealing stuff out of other people’s medicine cabinets and sometimes even doctor’s offices.

The cases that usually hit the news aren’t assisted anything, they’re outright euthanasia–the patient who’s been in the coma a long time, the spouse with a debilitating disease.

These cases didn’t used to be difficult to adjudicate–no matter how much you “couldn’t stand to see her suffer” anymore,  you didn’t get to kill her.  Nor were vague assertions that “she’d always said she’d rather die than end up like this” accepted as exculpatory.  We didn’t kill off our old and our sick, period.  No matter what your reason for doing it, you went to jail.

In a way, this sort of thing mirrors a lot of contemporary thinking about God and religion, at least that by people who aren’t really committed to any particular religion in any particular way.

Ask the American public if they think they’re going to Heaven when they die, and almost everybody is just plain sure they are.  All that matters is being “a good person” and “a good person” is “somebody who cares.”  The idea that there are things they can do–lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, murder–that their good motives will not absolve them from engenders first incredulity and then resentment.  Who are you to judge them, anyway?  You don’t know what they feel!

Maybe this is what drives me so crazy about the word “inappropriate.”  The implication is that actions are not right or wrong, but only right or wrong for the situation we’re in at the moment.

And there are certainly areas in which this is true enough.  My husband’s Italian family tended to live emotionally large–fights were noisy and physical, upsets led to screaming and crying. they behave in a way that would be considered outright nuts at Yale.  There is, in general, nothing right or wrong about emotional expressiveness or emotional restraint, only arenas in which each is appropriate or inappropriate.

But lying to someone or manipulating him, especially someone who has reason to believe he can trust you, isn’t “appropriate” or “inappropriate,” it’s wrong.  It doesn’t matter what your intentions are.   It doesn’t matter what your motives are.  It doesn’t matter how much you care. Even if you really do care, and you’re not using “caring” as a mask for a naked grasp for power, what you’re doing is still wrong.

And that,  I think, is the basic assumption at the back of the detective novel.   The genre does recognize the fact that many people do wrong out of what they think are the best of motives, and sometimes out of even genuinely good motives.   It upholds the truth that the wrongness of some actions inheres in the action, not in the intention with which we commit it.

Okay, that was a truly terrible sentence.

And I have to go off and teach.

Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2009 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Means, And The Ends That Justify Them. Or Not.'

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  1. Perhaps ‘My intentions were good’ has displaced the saying about the paving of the road to Hell.

    I think anyone who has given the matter any thought cannot avoid realizing that even the best possible intentions can lead to the wrong action. Even if your intentions aren’t a cover for a power grab and you examine them rationally with a carefully considered moral code (religious or secular) you still sometimes choose the wrong actions because of insufficient information, or lack of understanding of the person or the situation. I sometimes irreverently think that ‘do unto others as you would they do unto you’ only should apply in cases where the ‘others’ are identical to ‘you’, because what you would like and what is best for you might well not be the best for another person with a different personality, history and set of problems.

    I’m not sure if everyone who claims ‘good intentions’ does so as a full and sufficient reason for an action. It might be a cover-up for a power grab. It might be a plea in mitigation, as when you kill someone but didn’t intend killing or even harm.

    We’ve had some mercy killings and euthanasia in Canada, and I’ve said before this that I wonder how many of them are carried out because the caregiver simply can’t bear the sight of suffering. There is no place for suffering in today’s world, and no place for the indignities inseparable from illness and disability. It’s like instead of having a human being who is suffering or in need of extra care, you have a lot of frightening and disgusting suffering and needs that can easily be eliminated by eliminating the person involved. And of course, no rational person could possibly object to this, could they? Who wants to suffer? Who wants to be dependant (as though both suffering and dependance weren’t part of the human condition? There was an article at BBC recently claiming that religious people ‘die harder’ than the non-religious – I’d like to find time to read the original study because on the face of it, the implication was that the proper thing of course was to control your dying and to die easy. But neither life, birth nor death is under our control.

    But I’m beginning to rant. I read a brief news article on one such case a while back, and my immediate thougt was ‘In MY family, when someone is suicidal, we bring in the psychiatrists, we don’t hand him a belt to hang himself with.’

    And as for the ‘good person’ – I think a lot of people are convinced, with Rousseau, that humans are innately good. They don’t do much self-examination. They know that they don’t do the things that hit the headlines, like serial murder, and they don’t much question what effect their actions have on others. I saw one person commment that he was free from guilt, which he implied was a kind of evil result of religion. In a novel I read recently, the protagonist started a relationship with a married man. I gave this some thought as I read countless novels in which countless protagonists have had countless affairs without worrying about them much. I decided that what bothered me about this case was the way the protagonist didn’t even consider that she should consider the effect of her actions on the lover’s wife and child. No self-examination.

    So, I don’t think we are perfect. I think we need to examine our actions, before and after we carry them out, and that guilt is a very useful response if we realize that in spite of all our best intentions, we did something wrong. It motivates us to make amends and not repeat the action.


    23 Mar 09 at 12:30 pm

  2. I think it’s the other end of the Unearned Self-Esteem Movement. Guilt has gone out of fashion in parenting, it might damage their tiny self-esteem. Growing up unfamiliar with the concept and the emotions of guilt or shame, is it any wonder adults don’t consider them as a consequence of any of their actions?

    How many parents these days actually ever say to their kids “you should be ashamed of yourself” when that’s appropriate? I sure did, when my son did something wrong, like stealing, or lying, or damaging something or someone powerless. But it wasn’t a common reaction among my fellow parents, that I could see.

    Empathy is another underrated emotion, and the less it’s taught, the more good intentions become a justification for anything. If you don’t understand and empathize that someone else *may not be identical to you* then of course they must agree with your actions, whatever they are. To comprehend damage to another, you must understand that your values aren’t universal.

    Unfortunately, our society has the glaring example of government and politicians who embody the Ends Justifying the Means at all times. Confiscatory taxes? Doesn’t matter. It’s for The Poor. Who by definition must be Deserving, because they’re well, Poor. Pork in every bill? That’s okay, their intentions are good for their state/district, even though the pork may be actively damaging to everyone and everything else.

    I suspect that today, the answer to the classic question “If you could bring about world peace and perfect harmony by torturing one child to death, would you?” by and large would be “okay, go for it!!”


    23 Mar 09 at 12:45 pm

  3. So we’re all going to Heaven now? How strange. Anyone who uses his Bible as something other than a paperweight knows that wasn’t Jesus’ teaching in the matter. He told us that not only is not everyone not going to make it, but that some of those who don’t will be very surprised. Even the more generically “spiritual” might notice that about one “near-death experience” in five is sharply negative. (And would you drink from one of a set of five glasses knowing “only” one of the five was poisonous?)

    As for when good intentions became sufficient, it can’t be any later than the late 1960’s. By that time you could demonstrate to any rational mind that some of the wackier behavior of the era was counter-productive, actually setting back the goals of the perpetrators. But “they’re idealists” or “their goals are noble” was widely accepted as an excuse–and more often by younger than by older people.

    Of course, I grew up in Indiana, so you’d have to expect that sort of thing to have hit New York, Hollywood, the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters between a decade and a generation earlier–which is, when you think of it, about the time committing treason and espionage on behalf of mass murderers became socially acceptable because it was done by people from the right schools and for idealistic motives.

    Personally, I’d rather deal with hired assassins than the sort of person who thinks his cause supercedes “traditional morality.” The assassin will at least stop killing when there’s no money in it, but the idealist’s cause will never stop demanding human sacrifices.


    23 Mar 09 at 5:37 pm

  4. Robert, I was working near Boston in 1965 and knew some of the people who took part in protest marches. My personal opinion was that if they wanted to prolong the war and maximize deaths, they were going about it in the right way!

    Here is a link to a article by Victor Davis Hanson. Its not directly related to anything Jane has written but I think he has the same general worries.



    23 Mar 09 at 6:10 pm

  5. Around here we hope Obama doesn’t think we’re “rich.”

    “3.) A Certain Coarseness” is a great point. Obama is turning out to be the *least* presidential president in behavior and attitude perhaps ever. My husband calls it “Amateur Hour in the White House.” Obama’s foreign diplomacy seems to be written by Monty Python, he’s targeting American citizens who criticize him but have done nothing illegal (enemies list, anyone?), and none of his administration seem to be able to lead. He’s still running a campaign, not a presidency, because that’s all he knows.

    Gah. Screams of frustration. I’m hoping for a turning of the worm where all the True Believers see him for real and realize what they’ve done.

    Yes, people do seem to feel badly about themselves, and Hanson has some reasons, though much of it seems to be classic “things were better in the old days.” Well, I’ll take modern technology and health care over the old days any time, I’m alive because of it. We *can* recover, I think, if an ethic of saving, not spending can take hold, and we can rein in the politicians, with re-elections, if necessary.

    It may be a time when a third party could take hold, particularly if it ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility and absolute ethics. *That* would be a real difference.


    23 Mar 09 at 9:25 pm

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