The road to hell

Suppose you did something wrong—unintentionally. Does your lack of ill intent mitigate the offense?

The issue arose recently in a slightly heated conversation with a good friend of mine. I was upset with her because she had inadvertently done something that I found personally painful, and she shrugged it off because it was unintentional on her part. So that devolved into a discussion of whether good intentions mitigate bad actions.

Sometimes, of course, intentions matter. “It’s the thought that counts,” some say. And there are certainly some criminal cases in which the perpetrator’s intentions matter. But our disagreement turned out to be due primarily to differences in our upbringing. Although we both grew up in middle-class, liberal, well-educated, suburban, New-York-area, secular Jewish households, we have learned that there were some really important differences that have affected us to this day. The relevant one here is that my she grew up being told that intentions are paramount (so I shouldn’t be upset, as she didn’t mean to upset me), whereas I grew up being told that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” (so it’s right for me to be upset, as her bad action wasn’t canceled by her good intent). And where is the road to Hell? See Michigan map above, if you want to find it. Take Route D-32, apparently.

When we compare intentions to effects, there are actually four possibilities, as displayed in this Punnett Square:

The situation my friend and I were talking about here is cell #2: good intentions, bad effects. I don’t think that our upbringings differed in regard to cell #1, where we would agree that things were fine, nor in cell #4, where we would agree that the situation was definitely undesirable. And what about cell #3? That’s where we put actions which had bad intentions but turned out to have good effects. We are, of course, reminded of the famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

And that’s what bears the most pondering. Cells #2 and #3 are the controversial ones. Somehow my thoughts return to Sokrates (as filtered through Plato) — a quotation that I was required to memorize in first-year Greek and has stuck with me ever since:

‘O ἀνεξέστητος βίοϛ οὐ βιωτὸϛ ἀνθρώπῳ.

(OK, OK, I’ll give you a free translation: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”)

So what’s your view? And does it trace back to your upbringing? And what do you think about good intentions that have bad results, or bad intentions that have good results? And what about Naomi? (Hah! I bet nobody will get that reference.)


Categories: Life