Ethics, Motives, Killing With Kindness, “Amadeus” And Related Matters

On a thread about the hysterical doom-sayers in response to the US’s exit from the Paris accords on climate change, one dedicated defender of progressive orthodoxy, lacking a genuine rebuttal for the proposition that the social media and pundit panic was nonsense (for there is none), defaulted to the argument that the withdrawal was unethical because the President’s stated motives for it were untrue. This raised two issues, one centuries old, and the other, an irritating one, of more recent vintage.

In order to sanctify many of the Obama administration’s policy botches, many people have adapted  aggressive versions of three prime rationalizations on the Ethics Alarms List: #13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”; #13A  The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”) and #14. Self-validating Virtue. To refresh your memory:

13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”

This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause,’ whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal. Thus Catholic Bishops protected child-molesting priests to protect the Church, and the American Red Cross used deceptive promotions to swell its blood supplies after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Saint’s Excuse  allows charities to strong-arm contributors, and advocacy groups to use lies and innuendo to savage ideological opponents. The Saint’s Excuse is that the ends justify the means, because the “saint” has decided that the ends are worth any price—especially when that price will have to be paid by someone else.

13A  The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”)

This sub-rationalization to the Saint’s Excuse is related to its parent but arguably worse. Rationalization 13 is one of the really deadly rationalizations, the closest on the list to “The ends justified the means”:

 The Saint’s Excuse is that the ends justify the means, because the “saint” has decided that the ends are worth any price—especially when that price will have to be paid by someone else. 

But while the wielder of the Saint’s Excuse typically at least has a beneficial or valuable result to claim as justification for unethical and inexcusable acts, the desperate employers of 13A only have their alleged good intentions, which may be the product of emotion, misunderstanding, ignorance or stupidity. How a bad actor intended his unethical conduct to turn out is no mitigation at all. The underlying logic is that the wrongdoer isn’t a bad person, so the wrongful act shouldn’t be held against him or her as harshly as if he was. The logic is flawed (it is the same logic as in The King’s Pass, #11, which holds that societal valuable people would be held to lower standards of conduct than everyone else) and dangerous, encouraging the reckless not to consider the substance of a course of action, but only its motivations.

The Saint’s Excuse attempts to justify unethical actions that accomplish worthy goals The Road to Hell attempts to justify unethical conduct even when it does undeniable harm, just because it was undertaken with admirable intent.

14. Self-validating Virtue

A  corollary of the Saint’s Excuse  is “Self-validating Virtue,” in which the act is judged by the perceived goodness the person doing it, rather than the other way around. This is applied by the doer, who reasons, “I am a good and ethical person. I have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do, since I would never do anything unethical.” Effective, seductive, and dangerous, this rationalization short-circuits ethical decision-making, and is among the reasons good people do bad things, and keep doing them, even when the critics point out their obvious unethical nature. Good people sometimes do bad things because they are good people, and because of complacency and self-esteem they begin with a conviction, often well supported by their experience, that they are incapable of doing something terribly wrong. But all of us are capable of that, if our ethics alarms freeze due to our environment, emotions, peer pressure, and corrupting leadership, among many possible causes. At the end of the movie “Falling Down,” the rampaging vigilante played by Michael Douglas, once a submissive, law-abiding citizen, suddenly realizes what he has done. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks incredulously. Indeed he is. Any of us, no matter how virtuous, are capable of becoming “the bad guy”…especially when we are convinced that we are not.

This has led to the seeming absurdity of recent arguments, some accepted in court, that the same conduct can be right or wrong, depending on whether the conduct is based on “good” motives, and who is the actor. Since, to take one random example, Barack Obama is obviously good and means well, even inept, poorly planned and irresponsible policies are ethical. Because President Trump is a villain, the same conduct emanating from his dastardly motives would make the same conduct unethical. I have dealt with this biased approach before and will again, but not today.

It is the second, older question that concerns me at the moment, and that is whether human motives should be used in the analysis of whether conduct is ethical or not. The conundrum come up repeatedly in one of my favorite ethics books,  “The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.

Obviously the actor’s motives matter greatly in that individual’s determination regarding whether his or her potential conduct is ethical. All ethical problem-solving methods include “Honestly assess why you believe this is an ethical course.” The object is to eliminate bias,  self-deception, and conflicts of interest. When Alexander Hamilton was deciding whether to support his rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the disputed Presidential election of 1800, over Aaron Burr, he had to ask himself, “Am I doing this because I really think Jefferson will be best for the country, or because I detest Burr and will get great pleasure out of personally blocking him?” Fortunately, he probably concluded that both were the case, but the unethical motive didn’t invalidate the main one..

Years ago, I used this hypothetical, based on the play “Amadeus” and co-written with litigator John May, in a legal ethics course:

Welcome.  Welcome.  My name is Salvador Yary.  You can call me Sal.  It’s so nice of you to visit an old man in this miserable place.  I know you’re here because I say I killed him, I don’t flatter myself by thinking that you came to hear an old lawyer talk about his famous cases. I did kill him you know.  Just as sure as you are sitting there, I had to.  After his humiliation. he was dropped like a hot rock by the media.  I took him into my firm, pretending to help him but always undermining his confidence.  Ultimately it killed him.  But I get ahead of myself.

The first time I saw him. I was in my prime; one of the shining stars of the defense bar.  I was waiting for a status conference and he was finishing up some inconsequential civil case.  His name was Adam Ayus, and he was a cretin.  His clothes were offensive, his manners atrocious, He addressed the court as “Hey Judge.” But when he spoke to the jury. it was as though God himself were speaking.  It was mesmerizing; it was beautiful.  I hated him.

His star rose quickly. He became a darling of the Court T.V. set. where I used to sit alone explaining the latest sensational trial, now this monstrosity shared the camera!

What was worse, the public did not even begin to understand his genius.  His brief in Figaro v. Giovanni was extraordinary.  Yet the old Chief Judge complained it was “too long,” had “too many footnotes.”  Only I, who had always dreamed of possessing such powers, understood the nature of the gifts that had been bestowed on this freak, this offense to the law.

So I waited for my moment to destroy him. and it finally came.  He filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family that had lost their loved one as a result of the particularly gruesome medical malpractice by one Dr. Lector. The Doctor was a beast in every sense of the word.  He was reviled and vilified by the entire country.  I volunteered to represent him pro bono— for free.

In typical, grandstandng, fashion, Ayus had filed suit in Federal Court, because the Courtrooms were bigger.  More press could get in.  He alleged diversity, of course.  No federal crimes here.  His client lived in Fairfax and Lector was served in his office in D.C.

There was very little discovery. Lector had filmed his “operation.”   There was no question of a breach of the standard of care, more like a breach of table manners.  Ayus didn’t even need an expert. I myself filed no discovery and took no depositions.  Ayus thought I was being cheap.  I just stalled, and stalled, wasting days,  and waited for my moment.  That moment came when I put my client on the stand.

“Doctor, I have only two questions.  One, where is your office?” 

“2021 K Street, Washington, D.C.”

And Two, “Where have you been living since this suit was filed?”

“Washington, Virginia.  Two doors down from the Little Inn.  I dined there last night and had a plate of liver with some fava . . .”

“Yes. Yes. Doctor.  That will do. Your Honor, I move to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The parties are not diverse.”

You see, Ayus had confused the Doctor’s little Virginia home town with Washington, D.C..  The Judge had no choice but to dismiss the case.  It was not a case that belonged in federal court. And because I had waited until the last possible moment to raise the issue, which I knew from the moment that I read the file,  the Statute of Limitations had run in State Court the very day before!


Adam Ayus was undone, humiliated.  Everybody shunned him, even Fox News  Like I said, I took him into my firm,  and watched him dissolve like a slug sprinkled with a little salt. Finally, he threw himself into the shredder.

Ah, I see they’re coming to take me to dinner.  I hear we’re having liver.  I’ve become quite fond of liver.  With fava beans, of course…

After pointing out that this jurisdictional maneuver (which a judge is guaranteed to hate) was the only way Sal could win the case for his client, I asked whether the stratagem was ethical. There are many side issues in the hypothetical but as to the main one, since this was Sal’s only option to win for his client, and because Adam had, in fact, engaged in malpractice, even Sal’s cruel motive didn’t make his conduct unethical.

The problem after the fact is that it is impossible to sort out the many, often conflicting human emotions, motives and non-ethical considerations that go into any act. What someone says or writes about their reasons after the conduct is completed is never reliable or complete. For that reason, many ethicists, including me, believe that the conduct must be evaluated without reference to guesses regarding what the “true” motives behind it were. Was the conduct ethical at the time it occurred?

To further illustrate the principle, imagine an idiot, but a rich and powerful one, who detests a famous and respected community figure. The idiot hates the man because of his race, his religion, his appearance; the man is gay, and the idiot hates gays; he is short and fat, and the idiot hates him for that, too. One day, the rich idiot hear someone on TV talk about ” killing with kindness.” “You can kill with kindness?” the fool exclaims. “I didn’t know that! This is wonderful!”

From that day on, the idiot determines to murder his virtuous rival with kindness. He opens his mansion to the man and his family, He takes care of his pets when the man is on vacation. He contributes money to all of the man’s favorite charities and causes, and lavishes him with gifts. He praises him to the news media, and uses his influence to have him honored with awards. Only he knows that all of this apparent generosity and kindness is designed to commit murder.

Does that make his conduct unethical?


30 thoughts on “Ethics, Motives, Killing With Kindness, “Amadeus” And Related Matters

  1. Practical answer from a lay person without law experience (unless Law and Order counts), based on how the ‘victim’ is damaged by the treatment: ethical, if the victim never learns the motivation. Learning would do emotional damage, even if there was no physical damage. Does the victim go to his grave believing he has a friend? Is there never a ‘gotcha’ moment as the goal is death by kindness?

    We never know what is in a man’s heart, and thus humans can only judge by the actions to infer the motivations. We have no other choice, short of a confession of the true motivations or actions that contradict the judgement. In this case, the only damage proposed would be psychic/emotional, but that is damage nonetheless, as the betrayal of one thought to be a friend is rough.

    This is why hate crime laws are so vile. The law must deal in actions not motivations.

    Feel free to discuss and critique my thoughts: I am interested what ethics trained professionals think.

  2. Jack wrote, “Only he knows that all of this apparent generosity and kindness is designed to commit murder. Does that make his conduct unethical?”

    I once posed the question; Is the perception of behavior what makes the behavior ethical, or is it the motives behind the behavior that makes the behavior ethical, or does it take both?

    I have come to a personal realization that only the perception of the behavior is what makes it ethical to those that observe the behavior regardless of the motives; however, even if the perception is that the behavior is ethical the motives, whether ethical or unethical, are what the person conducting the behavior has to live with. Furthermore; if the behavior truly has unethical motives then the truth will eventually be revealed and the perceived character of the person with unethical motives will be forever tarnished in the eyes of those that know the real truth.

    I believe it’s Mark Twain that is credited with saying, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”; I think the same general thing can be said about portraying truthful behavior. I really don’t remember where this came from but here it is anyway: natural behavior to an individual will also be recurring behavior, it’s almost impossible to completely conceal one’s innermost character traits; I think I must have pulled that one out from some of my reading of all my Mother’s college psychology books in my teen’s.

  3. Mr. Marshall,

    Do we actually know the idiot’s motives? If we know the motives, then we know that he intends to kill a man, even if he is incompetent. A man who intends to kill another is not acting ethically. However, if we do not know the motives, then the action is not a bad action, and thus should be assumed as ethical until proven otherwise.

    I believe that it is unhelpful to equate malice/virtue and competency. By this, I mean that we should not assume malice or lack thereof by results alone. While someone may have failed in a task utterly and made a situation worse, their intent is good. Rather than give the action a pass with rationalization 13A, we tend to overreact and declare the intent false. To aid in reasoned civil discourse, we need to take a middle ground and acknowledge the intent, while still addressing the result.

    To return to your question and example, if the intent is reasonably known, we can give the man the appropriate credit (or in this case reprimand) for his intent, regardless of his level of competency. I believe that your ethics incompleteness principle needs a corollary.

    Corollary: Intent and motives are necessary for full ethical analysis. However, as they are often unknown, any conclusion made regarding the application of ethical principles will not always convey the full and correct ethical understanding of a situation.

    Due to what I have said above, if Trump’s motives are bad, then his decision is bad. However, if his decision was based on both bad and good motives (as I assume out of generosity) and since he can’t make a statement to the press that is either complimentary to himself and his process or that doesn’t get spun to the “Trump is evil” narrative, then we are still up in the air on whether this is a good or bad decision. In addition, Twitter (his unhealthy obsession that allows him to state falsehoods and stick his feet firmly in his mouth) allows very few characters, which makes it a poor choice to truly explain the factors in a decision and thus should be regarded as incomplete information. Since we are unlikely to truly understand his motives, it is likely we will have to view this as a ethically good or at least neutral (for those who cannot accept good) choice until proven otherwise. Assuming the worst about the President leads to things like the “Resistance” and the “Birthers.”

    • Sure he intends to kill him. It doesn’t matter. What he is doing is objectively ethical, and that’s all the matters. HE may be unethical, but his actions are not. That’s the point. Good intentions don’t make wrongful actions right, and bad intentions don’t make ethical actions wrong.

      As for competence, that itself is an ethical value. Doing something you are not competent to do is unethical.

      • Sure he intends to kill him. It doesn’t matter. What he is doing is objectively ethical, and that’s all the matters. HE may be unethical, but his actions are not.

        I don’t know. I’ll have to think about this some more. Because it seems to me that actions are ethically neutral, it’s the intent and purpose of the people behind them that makes them ethical or unethical.

        It might be very ethical to feed starving kids. But if you feed them PB&J sandwiches, knowing that they have peanut allergies, and will die, then it’s unethical conduct (and illegal). Or killing someone, but of course, in the defense of others, it might be perfectly ethical.

        Nor am I persuaded that doing something you are not competent to do is per se unethical. We all do things we are not competent to do, often from necessity and/or inexperience. Allowing others to think you are more competent than you are, when there are more competent choices out there, might be unethical.

        Under your scenario, the conduct you outlined is unethical, because the motive is unethical. However, it clashes against another ethics value which takes precedence, where a lawyer must be a fierce advocate for his client. But absent that conflicting ethics principle, would actively plotting the downfall of another person under false pretenses, who has done no harm be ethical?
        Like I said, I’m not sure that your analysis is correct, though I could be convinced otherwise.

        • Don’t bother reading my reply. I believe Mr? Deery says what I wish to say better (and certainly in a more pithy fashion) than I do.

        • It might be very ethical to feed starving kids. But if you feed them PB&J sandwiches, knowing that they have peanut allergies, and will die, then it’s unethical conduct (and illegal).

          Good example. Intended to be ethical, but incompetently and negligently executed, thus Unethical regardless of motive.

      • Mr. Marshall,

        I must ask some questions for clarification, based upon your response. It seems to lead me to some contradictory conclusions and I would rather ask for clarification than wander around confused all day.

        First, if intent doesn’t matter, then is it ethical for global warming scientists to give us their doom and gloom prophesies? They are accomplishing a good goal of pollution awareness, even if the intent is to deceive. They aren’t deceiving very well, but if the idiot murderer is acting ethically despite not murdering very well, aren’t climate scientists? As I doubt you will say that they are acting ethically, where does this differ?

        And when it comes to competence, I must say that I respectfully disagree that competence is an ethical value. (Repeated incompetence where one learns nothing from the previous attempts is another story. I can wholeheartedly agree with you that repeated, proven incompetence is unethical.) After all, much of competence is experience. While I may have misunderstood the thrust of your assertion, I will give you one example to try to make my question clear from my own experience. Perhaps you can clarify my confusion.

        I was a brand new engineer, given a vital task because there is no way to learn vital tasks aside from working on them. I had demonstrated that I could aid in a vital task, but never that I could perform one on my own. I demonstrated a level of incompetency that resulted in an error that cost the company around $100,000 (on a $4,000,000 project in case that is relevant). Rather than firing me for the mistake, they took the attitude that I should learn from it, and gave me a very similar project the next time on came about. My errors cost them around $15,000 (on a $6,000,000 project). The third similar project I was given allowed me to make them something in the $3-5 million ballpark (on a $10,000,000 project). My level of competence grew with each mistake, as it often does for people who admit the errors made and learn from them.

        If it was unethical to do a job one is incompetent at, how could a person ever learn to do their job? I certainly don’t understand how it can be unethical to be incompetent if (AND ONLY IF) you then attempt to improve.

        Thank you for your time and (hopefully) clarifications.

        • 1. First, if intent doesn’t matter, then is it ethical for global warming scientists to give us their doom and gloom prophesies?

          Since they ARE deceiving, it is unethical. This is classic “the ends don’t justify the means” territory.

          2. Competence is an ethical value. You can’t disagree. It’s a fiduciary duty and an ethical obligation in every profession, as well for elected officials, parents, anyone who accepts a duty.It is a feature of most Ethics Codes.

      • I think it’s fascinating to see some people consider motivation more important than actions. It seems to me that the act is all that can be accurately judged. Most people keep their motivations private, and even if they don’t, if their actions are ethical, their motivations are essentially irrelevant.

        Suppose a person risked his life to save another man from an accident. It is later discovered that the man he saved is dying from cancer, and the “hero” actually profoundly hates him for some reason and wants him to die an agonizing death rather than the quick one he saved him from (in this hypothetical, the man he saved wasn’t trying to commit suicide, and is happy to have been rescued).

        Does that make his actions saving the man he hates unethical? It can’t. His motivation doubtless is unethical, but his motivations are opaque to the ethics of his actions.

        • I think I’m resisting the idea that actions, in and of themselves, have any ethical value.

          In your example, the putative hero’s actions are “ethical ” because we impute a good ethical motive to his actions, and 95% of the time, we would be correct. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the time this is what will happen, as you demonstrated.

          Actions, the act itself, cannot be ethical or unethical. How can it be? It cannot distinguish right from wrong, salient laws, conflicting responsibilities. If we are judging only the act itself in isolation, then we are endorsing the consequentialism ethical framework, normally frowned at around these parts.

          • Actions, the act itself, cannot be ethical or unethical. How can it be?

            I’ll answer your question with another question — How can anything other than actions be ethical or unethical? Speaking words is an action. Doing things are actions. The motivations are usually unknown, and we often have to supply those for ourselves. The only way we can judge ethics is by the actions we and others perform.

            You’ll notice Jack doesn’t post ethics commentary about people’s motivations or thoughts. That’s because unless the subjects of his commentary provide them, he doesn’t know what they are. He comments on their actions, which are the bottom line when it comes to ethical behavior.

        • Mr. Logan,

          I think that most people, to some level, find intent important. If someone does a good deed with the intent to grandstand and virtue signal, the person is call a fraud and phony, despite the good deed. If someone does an identical good deed with a humble attitude and still somehow gets publicity, we all say that they were a great person. The deed can be the same, but the reaction to it is opposite, all based on intent. In fact, a deed is often qualified as not good, if the (well publicized) intent behind it is sinister. Charities who suffer from donors/sponsors/activists with poor intent, despite the good done, are less funded. Isn’t that proof that motivation is as important as action? Again, I could be totally confused, but that seems to be the only explanation that makes sense to me.

          • If someone does a good deed with the intent to grandstand and virtue signal, the person is call a fraud and phony, despite the good deed.

            Indeed, this is so. But a person can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still not be wrong, ethically. Motivations, when known, may change the way society views the person, but it doesn’t change the ethical nature of their actions.

            If someone does an identical good deed with a humble attitude and still somehow gets publicity, we all say that they were a great person.

            But suppose the person saves a life through brave action, but isn’t the least bit humble about it? In fact, what if he is downright publicity hound, and reveals that he is racially bigoted toward the person he saved?

            Is the person he saved any less alive? Is his rescuer any less brave? Was his action any less ethical? I say no. His self-serving speech and racial bias are unethical, to be sure, but his actions rescuing the other person are not, no matter why he did it or how wrongly he thinks and acts otherwise. Why he saved the other person is irrelevant.

            Charities who suffer from donors/sponsors/activists with poor intent, despite the good done, are less funded. Isn’t that proof that motivation is as important as action

            By no means. Intents are only revealed by other actions, including speech. The act of supporting the charity is ethical. The actions that hurt the charity are not.

  4. Can I throw out an ethics question?

    In my town people abandon cars all over town. Some of these cars come from out of state as part of some car cartel. These cars attract crime in neighborhoods including vandalism, drug use, and prostituting. The city Abandoned Vehicle Program is slow moving. Too boot, a couple years ago a city employee was found guilty of profiting off towing certain cars (that cartel thing) while leaving others for money. Because of the slow pace of the vehicle program some residents have taken to puncturing tires themselves so the cars will be picked up faster as flat tires will make a car be towed faster. Even some cops have alluded with a wink that flat tires move things along.

    Is puncturing an abandoned car’s tires to ultimately make a neighborhood more safe, ethical?

    • Never heard of this. But it’s destroying or damaging property that isn’t yours, for a speculative reason.
      If that’s OK, why not puncturing the tires of a known alcohol abuser’s car? Or a bad driver?

    • Is the program slow-moving because they have to be sure that a car is abandoned before they tow it, or because they have a lot of cars to tow and limited resources? If the latter, slashing tires speeds up nothing an just affects which cars they tow next. If the former, then it would be good to get some sort of system in place where locals can put a sticker on the car instead of slashing the tires, to mark it for towing. I can see where those stickers could be misused, but anyone could slash tires “irresponsibly” anyway.

      I confess I have no idea how this whole car abandonment thing works, though. If you have a link or would care to explain, I’m curious as to a) why cars are abandoned, b) how they attract crime, and c) how towing select cars and leaving others can make a profit. That’s three different ways people could benefit from their own or others’ abandonment of cars, and I’m having trouble thinking of how any of them could work, since usually cars are only useful if they’re being driven.

      • I live in Portland OR where this is consistent problem in part because of our location near places like CA, WA, ID where apparently many of these cars come from. But not all as homelessness is part of it. Anyway some links:

        There is a serious backlog. A citizen sticker system would be interesting. Basically crime happens because people look for abandoned cars to drug deals & even tricks out of them. Mostly though it’s more nuisance issues from people checking on cars & leaving more of them when someone realizes they can get away with abandoning one, or it’s noise & other issues (like one car in the neighborhood apparently had the person living in/out the car leaving poop all around the vehicle & shooting up & leaving needles in the street where little kids go). It also looks pretty trashy. For example we’ve had a car across the street from us for over a year that was a junker to begin with & now looks like a moldy junker.

        • lady Q, you have described Portland as pretty much a cesspool these days. I must say these stories have not raised my opinion of your once fair city very much!

          I still don’t understand how one can not tow a abandoned car and profit thereby.

      • I always carry a sheet of these non-permanent stickers in my glove box to share with those few people that need their bell rung, would something similar work; of course the wording might change a bit. 🙂

  5. This sounds like a semantic argument. Is ethics defined by consequences, or intentions? I’m tempted to just define it by intentions. However, we conventionally say that “good” people can commit unethical acts (acts which are detrimental to society’s ability to promote individual and collective well-being) in pursuit of their “good” goals. Therefore, ethics must incorporate the actual long-term benefit of society.

    I define “good” and “evil” based on the willingness of a person to sacrifice their own personal quality of life for the sake of that of others, or vice versa, as the case may be. That is purely based on intentions. Problem-solving mindsets (meta-skills) are used to effectively determine and implement what is beneficial for society, thus dealing with the consequences.

    If it is possible to do unethical things in pursuit of an ethical goal, then it must be possible to do ethical things in pursuit of an unethical (or “evil”) goal. I reserve the right to evaluate people’s character based on good or evil aspects in addition to their ethics. If an evil person does ethical things to make it easier for them to do evil, I’m not going to trust them or praise their character.

    A good person can perform a harmful but ethical action if they are ignorant of the facts they are dealing with (an honest mistake). However, a good person can also perform an unethical action by being foolishly ignorant of the long-term consequences of their actions, while otherwise being in possession of all relevant facts. Of course, an evil person’s harmful action is unethical, but an evil person’s helpful action, if selfishly motivated, can still be ethical in its immediate objective, even if the ultimate goal is unethical. Confusing all this is the evil person’s helpful action that was only helpful as an incidental side effect. If the evil person had no idea they were helping, the act simply doesn’t count as ethical. If they knew that it would help, but that didn’t factor in their calculations, the action could be said to be ethical, but we don’t really care about that, because what we really want to remember is that the person is selfish/evil/unethical. They just happened to do something ethical in the course of their generally selfish existence.

    Thus an action’s ethical nature does depend on the mental state of the person making it (their paradigms and grasp of consequences), but it also is independent of ulterior motives and the general “good” or “evil” character of the person. The person’s character and their overarching plan can be ethically evaluated separately.

    I think I did a decent job of spelling that out unambiguously. Does that make sense, both internally and with conventional and intuitive use of the term “ethical”?

  6. Only God can accurately know and sort out motives, and by that objective moral standard the hypothetical idiot is a murderer, just as if he had stabbed his victim in the heart.

    The rest of us are on much steadier ground focusing on punishing or rewarding behaviors. We already have bizarre and dangerous quirks in our justice system due to hate crime laws, whereby it’s less criminal to murder someone out of certain categories of malice than others.

    Therefore the law cannot touch the lucky hypothetical idiot in this case.

  7. As the “dedicated defender of progressive orthodoxy” whose argument spawned this post, I am heartened to see that others here agree with me that intent matters when considering the ethics of an action.

    Many have brought up the potential unknowability of a person’s intent. However, in the case under discussion–Trump’s decision to not sign the Paris accords–Trump told us his intent. Since his reasoning was nonsense, I cannot concede that refusing to sign was an ethical decision, even though Jack has outlined other potential reasons for refusing to sign that could have made the decision ethical.

    The same stands true in many of Trump’s other decisions, such as firing Comey or the travel ban. While there may have been ethical reasons for both decisions, Trump’s actual reasons behind them were unethical, making the decisions themselves unethical. And this isn’t based on making the worst assumptions of Trump out of bias–it’s based on his own words, where he has revealed his unethical motives. The man can’t help himself.

    • If they agree, they are wrong, that’s all, and for the simple reason that there are no pure motives, and even the actors don’t know how they shake out. Motives are crucial for an ethical person to evaluate when a course is being considered because of bias or unethical motives. Once the conduct is taken, however, third parties can only judge it objectively, as any actor making a decision in a certain situation. Ethics does not allow for analysis where the exact same conduct is ethical and unethical, depending on who is responsible for it, absent separate ethical rules. (A lawyer revealing the same confidence as a non lawyer is judged by different standards)

      • I totally disagree. To go back to an analogy I’ve used before, if Trump had fired Comey for not sleeping with him, that would be an unethical act regardless of whether or not he should have been fired for other reasons.

        • That’s not the conduct, though. That’s coercion to force sexual relations, with firing as a threat carried out. Employment is a tricky aspect of this, because someone can become legally protected from firing even while firing for cause exists. If an employee was going to fired for cause, and then filed a harassment complaint, the firing for cause would become retaliation, superseding the valid justification.

          Don’t confuse motive with causation. Motive is internal, causation is external.

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