Long ago, philosophers discovered two competing ethical frameworks: one that says only intentions matter and the other concerned only with consequences. Even longer ago, people realized that both matter, and economists chimed in with “it depends.” This is why we have phrases like, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and people are often wary of arguments that use the ends to justify the means.
Though when the intent involves a cause greater than oneself, different rules seem to apply: it is essentially a search for heroes. Intentions to benefit someone or something else are normatively considered good and actually helping someone or something as a consequence of one’s actions are, under normative circumstances, good. Intending to help oneself, is not often considered a good and more often considered a bad.
If good could be quantified, it seems as though good is the product of intentions and consequences, where a single action has a multiplier effect. If an intent is selfless it has a value greater than one because it is a normative good; if the intent is to help oneself it has a value of one, essentially it is neutral. However, if the intent is greater than one, the product is the absolute value of intention and consequence: if the intention is “good,” then there will always be a positive product, a benefit, a good.
Consider William Wallace, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart to those unfamiliar with Scottish history. He failed to prevent the English invasion of Scotland, but with an arguably laudable intent- to fight for his country- he became a hero and produced good. This is not to say that consequences cannot be added elsewhere: for a disaster, the negative consequences could be subtracted from the product. Without that option, negative and positive consequences of equal value would never matter. The absolute value reflects that people tend to change their judgements based on perceived intentions.
Even unarticulated, people recognize the importance of intentions. It is the same reason the Civil War needed to be about state’s rights, not slavery, for Southern justification and Vietnam about fighting communism rather than maintaining a balance of power. It is the same reason many people will donate to a charity without doing adequate research into effectiveness.
But just as Rome was not built in a day, it was also not built on altruism. While certainly no one should ever be enslaved, should we really poo-poo a system that allows for some social mobility? Roman slavery certainly seems a better deal than, in America, relying on a master’s deathbed generosity for release. Or, truly altruistic, someone who buys a slave intending to free the slave. I don’t have the statistics, but my instinct is that altruism, in terms of consequences, loses on number of slaves freed.
While we can, and certainly should, admire those seemingly selfless people, consider what they could not, and could not be expected to, do. Mother Theresa never raised the standard of living of a billion-plus people; Princess Diana couldn’t bring the price of AIDS medication down to 10% of what it cost ten years ago.
If someone, or a group of people had worked at little or no gain to themselves with such laudable results, people would clamor that an honor even greater than a Nobel be awarded. However, an intention towards profit motivated the consequences. Standard of living rose across China, India, Brazil along with GDP, millionaires, and new opportunities for foreign investment. AIDS medication fell because pharmaceutical companies can profit through access to a bigger market.
It is easy to say that people “should” have a certain standard of living or that companies “should” deliver cheap medication, but when the “should” leaves the conditional and enters the present reality, the intentions can discount the victory. It seems, though, that an intention for profit can drive the desired consequence.