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In Search of an Ethical Roadmap
Samantha Neave explores how to be a good person, with the help of Immanuel Kant and the Tooth Fairy.
Last night I dreamt I promised my niece a ride on a skipping giraffe. Sadly, when it came to the crunch, my car broke down half way round the safari due to some gorillas landing on the bonnet, breaking off both wing mirrors and generally getting in the way of Poppy opening the door and making a break for the giraffe enclosure. (Plus I had the child lock on.) So, upon our return, she demanded sweets as compensation for her ruined trip. I told her too many sweets would rot her teeth and they’d all fall out. When she started crying, I tried consoling her that that would mean a lot of money from the Tooth Fairy – but to no avail. Then one of her wobbly teeth actually dropped out while she was eating dinner, and she asked me if the Tooth Fairy deals in Bitcoins instead of leaving a measly pound coin? I told her the Tooth Fairy died suddenly and unexpectedly half an hour ago. She ran screaming to her mum. Shortly after, I was informed that I am ‘a terrible person’.
Image © Erin MchHugh. 2022 Please visit erinmchughart.wixsite.com/website
When I awoke from my nightmare, those words echoed in my head and got me thinking… why? Was it one word, one action, or more that led to that judgement? Is being a terrible person a life sentence? And is telling a little girl that the Tooth Fairy needs a new tomb stone necessarily a heinous act? More to the point – what is a good person? Are good people composed of morally good intentions, or actions? If so, I would like to know. It might give me a kind of ethical roadmap to follow.
So let me take you on a thought experiment. Imagine that, despite my dream, the Tooth Fairy is alive and kicking. Every night, she dives into peoples’ houses, darting in through open windows and slickly avoiding burglar alarms, diving under pillows collecting teeth and replacing them with hard cash. One night, the Tooth Fairy encounters a Fairy Blaster set up in a child’s bedroom. This Fairy Blaster was created by an evil child genius to blow any Tooth Fairy into smithereens. But when the Tooth Fairy triggers the device, instead of obliterating her, it malfunctions, and instead transforms her into four different fairies, who now inhabit parallel dimensions.
Our original Tooth Fairy is a good-natured soul, and when she visits her next client, she decides to fix his teeth as opposed to just taking one of them. She carefully prises open his mouth and sprinkles fairy dust. All his teeth instantly become strong and healthy. The once missing or broken teeth are as good as new.
Meanwhile, in the first parallel dimension, our Tooth Fairy’s twin has the very same intention. She visits the same child, carefully prising open his mouth and taking the fairy dust in one hand to sprinkle over his teeth. Unfortunately, this Tooth Fairy develops a sudden reaction to her own fairy dust, and sneezes into the child’s mouth instead, breaking every single one of his teeth. She makes a hasty exit, sneezing all the way.
In the second parallel dimension, the third Tooth Fairy has no inclination to fix the child’s teeth. She is a mean-spirited fairy, bent on breaking his teeth for no reason other than it would give her pleasure. She prises open the child’s mouth, but just as she is about to run riot in there, breaking every single tooth, she seizes up with cramp. In pain, she accidentally drops the fairy dust in, sprinkling his teeth and making them strong and healthy. The child wakes a few seconds later, roused by the Tooth Fairy’s cries of pain, and she flees before he can see her.
The fourth Tooth Fairy, in the third parallel dimension, is also mean-spirited and wants to hurt the child. (I’m not sure where fairies Three and Four graduated from, but it wasn’t the official School of Tooth Fairies.) She prises open his mouth, smashes around in there until his teeth are in bad shape, and cackles maniacally as she leaves. When the child wakes, he finds the fairy dust left on his bedside cabinet as a calling card, and his parents immediately summon the relevant authorities to report the crime.
Intention & Action
Now let me summarise the different scenarios in terms of moral intent and action:
Tooth Fairy One has good intentions and enacts a good deed.
Tooth Fairy Two has good intentions but enacts a bad deed.
Tooth Fairy Three has bad intentions but enacts a good deed.
Tooth Fairy Four has bad intentions and enacts a bad deed.
So, which of these Tooth Fairies is a good fairy? Does their goodness come down to their intentions, to their actions, or both?
It’s fairly easy to distinguish between a morally good and morally bad Tooth Fairy if she intends to fix your teeth and does so, or intends to break your teeth and does so. Both intention and action are good in the first instance, and bad in the second, so the Tooth Fairy is clearly morally good in the first, and morally bad in the second. Since the Tooth Fairy is good or bad in both intention and action in these cases, there seems no need to differentiate between intention and action here – they both denote the same moral stance. However, where intention and action are on different sides of the moral coin, this requires us to decide which is key to moral character: intention or action? So we will concentrate on Fairies Two and Three to help us decide what makes a morally good person.
By intending to heal the child’s mouth, Fairy Two displays good intentions; but these are all only within her own mind. Those good intentions don’t translate into good actions – and the child won’t even know that his teeth were meant to be fixed and not broken. If we asked the child to judge the Tooth Fairy by her actions, he’d probably say she’s bad simply because all he can see is a bad result. By contrast, the third child might think that Fairy Three is good just because her actions had a good outcome. The fact that the fairy intended to break all his teeth might seem irrelevant to the child as long as the outcome was good. On the other hand, if the child could see into Fairy Three’s rather shady heart, he would know that her intentions are bad. This telepathic child could see that Fairy Two’s intentions are good in contrast, and so be able to compare the two fairies’ intentions. But does that mean that a good person is someone with good intentions, regardless of whether they are fulfilled? Or is a good person instead someone who carries out good actions, regardless of their intention?
Kant’s Moral Thoughts
A person’s intentions are intrinsic to their thoughts, and their thoughts are the basis of their habits, which in turn form character, which leads to thoughts… This means that a person’s intentions are inextricably linked to character. So, upon first examination, it seems as if a good person must be someone whose character is composed of habitual good intentions. Moreover, the nature of intentions contrasts with that of actions, which are a consequence of thoughts. A person’s thoughts lead to actions, and the two are quite different, meaning that actions are a result of character, not part of it. It’s true that our actions can also influence our thoughts, leading to different thoughts and intentions, and causing character development. But even with this being the case, intention is grounded in character, whereas action is a separate entity. So, intentions appear at first glance to be the key to grasping someone’s moral character.
Immanuel Kant agreed about prioritising intentions over actions in ethics. Kant was a deontologist, meaning that he thought moral actions are those performed from duties. In this type of duty-based ethics, your motives for what you do count rather than the consequences of your actions. Kant makes clear at the beginning of his revolutionary work Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) that he thinks a ‘good will’ – the intention to do good – stands apart from other character traits in being unconditionally good. Other characteristics, such as courage and wit, can be used for bad purposes – such as stealing from old age pensioners or insulting them – whereas good will can by definition never be bad. Other character traits rely upon it for them to be turned to good. He also claims that a good will is of ‘absolute worth’, just because its value is not contingent upon the outcome.
So my thinking that good intention rather than the results of action is pivotal to moral worth seems to be in line with Kant’s moral theory. However, Kant’s ethics specifically hinges upon acting from duty, out of respect to the Moral Law, or ‘the supreme principle of morality’, which he calls ‘the Categorical Imperative’. An imperative is a command which tells you how to act, and it is categorical if this command is irrespective of your own desires, or indeed, anything else. The categorical imperative takes five forms in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. One is the universalizability principle. Kant says, “I ought never to proceed except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law.” This means that we should act only in such a manner that would logically hold up if everyone behaved that way. Another is the formula of humanity : in Kant’s words, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or anyone else’s, never merely as a means, but also always as an end.” In other words we should treat people as if they have intrinsic worth, as opposed to just using them for what they can give us.
Kant and I both think that intention is more important than action when it comes to ethics. However, I believe that intention is part of character, whereas Kant excludes qualities of character (courage, wit, etc) from being good in themselves; to be good, these characteristics rely upon being coupled with a good will. Kant dismisses inclinations and desires as a basis for moral worth since he believes our intentions should be from duty, regardless of our desires. So, the source of our ethics differs. Kant thinks that the requirement for moral worth is the good will intending ‘the supreme principle of morality’ in the form of the categorical imperative, whereas I think that moral worth can be derived from a person’s good intentions, instead of them needing to dutifully abide by certain rules to qualify as morally worthy.
Immanuel Kant by Gottlieb Doebler 1791
Intention & Effort
In any case, judging moral worth by a person’s intentions alone could have its pitfalls. What if you intend to help somebody, but get distracted and forget? How much is your intention worth now, if you aren’t following it up with action?
To illustrate this point, let’s just suppose that the Tooth Fairy, pre- her Fairy Blaster encounter, is scouting a different neighbourhood for potential clients. As she’s flying around investigating the area, a rival gang of fairies stops her in her tracks. Their leader brandishes his wand and informs her that she’s on their turf. The Tooth Fairy ignores him and continues flying to the next house. She quickly buzzes through the cat flap and ascends the stairs. But the rival gang is incensed and they pursue her rapidly. By the time she’s on the top floor landing they’ve caught up with her.
Suddenly, the bathroom door opens and a man walks out. He’s startled to see the fairies, who look pretty much like wasps to him, and he almost swats the Tooth Fairy in fright until she shouts “Please help me!” into his ear as she flies to his side for protection. He recognises her as the legendary flying dental merchant, quickly assesses the situation, and picks up the nearest thing to hand, which is a bottle of air freshener. He wants to help the Tooth Fairy, and so points the air freshener towards the rival gang as they fly towards her. However, simultaneously, his wife calls out to him from their bedroom, notifying him that his tea is getting cold. In three more parallel universes, the man:
A) Wanders into the bedroom, meaning to come back when he’s drunk his tea. Upon his return, he is too late to save the Tooth Fairy.
B) Tries to spray the rival gang of fairies, who sneakily hold their breath and keep on coming. The man swats and grasps them, but they bite him, so he instinctively lets go. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t make it out of the house alive. And
C) Tries to spray the rival gang of fairies, but they keep coming as they hold their breath. So the man cups the Tooth Fairy in his hands and backs into the bathroom, turning on a nearby extractor fan, which sucks out the other fairies. Once they’re gone, he switches it off and releases the Tooth Fairy, who sprinkles him with Fairy Dust in gratitude.
In which scenario(s) is the man a good person?
This thought experiment has a different focus from our first. Here, we’re not just comparing intention and successful or unsuccessful action in deciding how to define moral worth. Now we’re also highlighting a facet of action – the effort made. I think effort is key to answering the question of whether intention has worth if the ensuing action never comes. Without investing effort into backing up our good intentions, how substantial are these intentions? They may be good, but for how long; for an instant – until you get distracted and do something you consider more important? In which case, how much did you really care about your initial intended course of action?
In the first scenario, the man may initially mean well, but he’s not committed to following through on his intentions. The fact he soon forgets indicates that (consciously or subconsciously) he believed his intention was not worth his attention; and a half-hearted good intention can hardly be enough to call him a good person. Going to drink his cup of tea was evidently more important to him than saving the Tooth Fairy’s life, so his ‘intention’ here is more of a whim which is easily switched off.
In contrast, scenario B shows the man at least trying to save her. His intention is sincere enough for him to back it up with action. The fact that he’s not successful does not alter the fact that he tried. So, he can be said to be a good person as his effort proves the earnestness of his good intentions.
Bearing this in mind, does scenario C, where the man takes successful action – in contrast to the failed attempt in B – mean this man is a better person? I don’t think so. He is instead a morally good person who is more effective in his efforts, as opposed to being a morally better person.
Let’s suppose that he had no good intention at all – that he saw the rival fairies as pests and did not drive them off to help the Tooth Fairy, but just to get rid of them. Or suppose he shielded the Tooth Fairy merely because he knew he might get some extra money when his teeth fall out. Is the man still being a good person in these cases, even given that he saved the Tooth Fairy? I think not, because he is simply fulfilling his gratuitous desires.
So to be a good person you need both intention and effort, but not necessarily success. Moral worth comes from expending energy in order to help others, often at a cost to your own comfort. An intention based on a whim won’t last, but following through with effort shows you care enough to invest yourself in your moral instincts by committing yourself to where your conscience directs you and trying to help others. Good intention without effort might as well just be a benign wish, and isn’t a tool that character can be measured with. But effort without morally good intention is self-serving, and so is no indicator of moral worth any more than success is.
To be good, do you need any more than good intention followed up with effort? I don’t think one or two good intentions and good attempts at good deeds make you a good person. That comes back to character, which is built from habits. To be a good person you need a consistent flow of good intentions backed up by attempted action to form the regular habit in you of ethical effort. But this is more in line with Aristotle’s virtue ethics than with Kant’s duty ethics.
Although we agree that intention is pivotal to a person’s moral worth, Kant thinks the good will stands uniquely as unconditionally good, whereas I think intention also needs effort as its partner to complete moral worth. Effort is also proof of the earnestness of our intentions, and therefore, of our moral worth. However, Kant does seem to agree with this latter point, since he refers in passing to the good will as “the mustering of all means that are within our power”.
My intention-and-effort based ethics is flexible: it can span both deontological and utilitarian (the greatest good for the greatest number) ethics, in contrast to Kant’s purely deontological outlook. For example, on Kant’s thinking, if an evil Fairy Dictator existed, other fairies would still be obliged to respect him as having intrinsic value and therefore not kill him, no matter how many fairies he himself hurt or killed. However, by seeing intention and effort as the source of moral value, it could be right to spare the despot, or to kill him, depending on the motives of the fairies involved. If a fairy were to put the evil dictator down with her wand in order to save millions of lives (a utilitarian motivation for action) because she thinks that is the best course of action to strive for, that makes her good. Or if she thinks it best not to murder the Fairy King because she considers him a being with intrinsic value (a deontological motivation for (in)action), and that is the best course of (in)action to her, then she is also good. The moral goodness or badness of an individual therefore purely depends upon their intention and effort, not their worldview.
Is everybody capable of following this ethical roadmap? What about people who do not have the mental or physical capacity to expend moral effort; for example, those who are severely mentally incapacitated, or paralysed, with no means of communicating, or those who are too young even to grasp what they’re thinking, let alone wield their moral compass?
I would argue that in these cases people’s lack of capability to flex their moral muscles means they should not be judged either morally good or bad, since lack of capability excuses them from any moral responsibility (‘ought implies can’ is the Kantian principle here). That is to say, those incapable of forming intentions they understand, such as severely mentally incapacitated people, would be amoral; whereas severely physically incapacitated people who understand morality but who cannot act or communicate would be moral or immoral depending upon their intentions. However, my discussion is focused on the majority of people, who are both able to understand their thoughts and attempt to act on them, and therefore have the potential to decide how they will set their intentions and effort within the moral spectrum.
Knowing what it takes to be a good person is just the start. What do we do with this information? Often, people are quick to judge others on what they achieve or fail to achieve, whereas they judge themselves favourably by what they intend, even if those intentions come to nothing. Can using moral effort as a moral barometer change this?
I believe it can. Instead of judging others purely based on what they achieve, perhaps we can learn to try to understand what they’re sincerely trying to do. And instead of judging ourselves as good people based on the merits of our thoughts alone, perhaps we will be motivated to strive harder in our moral pursuits, so we create a better, more supportive world for all.
© Samantha Neave 2022
Samantha Neave recently graduated from the Open University, and enjoys reading and writing poetry, philosophy, and fiction.