Intentions Matter

08/05/2014 15:23 | Updated 06 July 2014
  • Tom Burns Australian writer studying neuroscience and ethics.

In a recent column by Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian on why profiting from giving isn't always bad, he said that "starving refugees care about food and shelter, not motives." In essence, he takes an old consequentialist position - doing the right thing for the wrong reasons (or even just partly) is just as good as doing the right thing for the right reasons if the outcomes of both actions are indiscernible. There's just one problem here though: the outcomes are not indiscernible, and starving refugees care about motives more than food and shelter, even if they don't know it themselves.

Famous in the field of moral philosophy is the doctrine of double effect. Take the classical example of comparing a terror bomber and a strategic bomber. The terror bomber intends to kill civilians to weaken the enemy's resolve while also destroying military targets. Contrast this with the strategic bomber who intends to only destroy military targets but foresees that he will also kill civilians in the process. Most would consider the terror bomber to have acted in a less ethical way than the strategic bomber, even if they both kill exactly the same number of civilians and destroy the same military targets.

As a utilitarian myself - someone who is interested in maximising the happiness and utility of sentient beings - I am presupposed to fall under the traditional consequentialist spell of somehow denying that the terror bomber is a worse person than the strategic bomber. After all, their actions were exactly the same, and had the same consequences. Aren't I then going against my basic ethical tenets to say that one act is worse than the other? Well, yes, but only if I think about the short-term and think about individual acts (such as bombing military targets or giving to charity) in isolation of likely future acts.

After the bombing, suppose both the strategic and terror bomber return to base and the next day are sent out on another mission. This time they must survey a village to look for military targets but not bomb. Suppose that both bombers find no military targets, just civilians. If the same intentions and motivations still exist in both bombers as in yesterday's bombing run, we can see that their actions will be very different. The strategic bomber will return to base with just as many bombs as he left with, whereas the terror bomber will have massacred as many citizens as possible. Clearly, then, although his first act had the same consequences as the strategic bomber, his future actions are dissimilar in a dramatic fashion.

In the same way, Bono giving money to boost his ego or public image (if that is what he is doing) is not helpful to starving refugees in the long-term. Yes, it might be just the same amount of food and water he would give if giving from purer motives, but what if he is presented with a scenario in the future in which his ego will lead him to do something bad or not quite as good as he might have otherwise. Say, for example, that he is given the opportunity to give to two charities. One charity says it can save a life for every $4,000 Bono gives to it, and the other charity says it can save a life for every $3,000. If acting out of compassion or with the intention of helping as many people as possible, Bono would probably choose to give to the latter charity who will save more lives. But what if that charity is unwilling to participate in any media or marketing with Bono and the charity who will save less lives say they will put on a big party and press conference, gaining lots of media attention. What will Bono choose then? His ego might lead him to save fewer lives.

Of course, I don't claim to know Bono or his intentions. His motives might be perfectly pure and he certainly has done a lot for many people in need. However the intentions of our actions and our motivations to act matter a lot more than Oliver Burkeman claims in his column. Indeed, more starving refugees might be saved from death and disease if we rid ourselves altogether of egotistical influences in our giving to charities. In other words, no, if starving refugees have an interest in food and shelter then they have an even bigger interest in the intentions behind that giving.


Charity Bono