Misconceptions of Good Intentions

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Chicago economist Milton Friedman had an amazing talent in regards to distilling very important concepts into memorable one liners for the average person. One of his more well-known quotes is a critique of those that argue in defense of someone’s actions with the fact that their intentions were noble.

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

Dr. Friedman’s quote is in reference to the righteousness fallacy. To commit this fallacy is to assume that you must be factually correct simply because you have a desire to do good.

Stated so blatantly, the absurdity of this conclusion is obvious. Good intentions are not enough to become a surgeon, or a lawyer, and nobody would dare argue such a thing.

And yet this fallacy of good intentions is prevalent across the political compass. It is this fallacy that gives ideologies like socialism an advantage over others. An ideology that claims to advocate for sharing and caring for those in need, however unrealistic, is appealing. Even though socialism doesn’t have the best record of implementation, the good intentions on the surface are often enough to convince some people that it is a valid system.

There are valid objections to my claim that socialists have “good intentions.” Figures like Stalin and Mao were far too cruel to possibly have good intentions. And we should question the intentions of anyone that claims to support prosperity and happiness for all but puts no effort into determining the best method of doing so. In the context of this article, we are defining someone with good intentions as an individual that personally believes what they advocate for is morally just, regardless of their dedication to the truth.

A major misconception of the righteousness fallacy is the assumption that only one side has good intentions, while the other side is aware of their own immorality. In truth, nearly everyone believes that their own belief system holds the moral high ground.

The great danger with this misconception is the volatile effect it has on echo chambers. As the validity of one’s own ideology becomes increasingly obvious, ideological opponents are sometimes mistaken to be pure evil. Antifa offers the clearest example of this effect in action. Follow any Antifa group online and you’ll notice that they don’t talk about harming innocent people or attacking centrists. They talk about fighting Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Within their minds they are fighting for justice against evil. They believe they are good people fighting for good. In reality they are doing quite the opposite.

There are numerous other less extreme examples of this with other political opinions. Regarding the minimum wage, some believe that anyone with good intentions would support workers by supporting a higher minimum wage. Only a rare few will look into this issue further. The rest assume that because they have good intentions, raising the minimum wage is a noble thing to do, and anyone in opposition must be apathetic or against the needs of workers.

The same is applied to the topic of environmental policy. To be opposed to any government “solution” to climate change is to be a science denier, since anyone with good intentions would naturally support saving the environment. The nuance within the debate is often ignored.

If it’s the case that most people mean well regardless of their political positions, then we cannot rely on intent to determine who is right and who is wrong. We also can’t say that someone who means well is necessarily moral. We must rely on the results of one’s actions, not intent.

As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” To have good intentions is not enough to be a good person. Most people have that much, because it’s easy. To really expend effort into listening to different arguments and viewpoints and then coming to a conclusion is the best way to determine what actually helps people.

Good intentions are not a reliable indicator that one is fighting for what is right. As the saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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