The Insufficiency of Good Intentions

October 23, 2015

[Message I gave at a meeting for worship at a meeting of the Quaker United Nations Committee (New York), of which I am a member.]

index‘Good intentions’ are on my mind today for several reasons. One is that we are talking this weekend about the U.N.’s newly approved Sustainable Development Goals. Whatever else they are, they are 17 bursts of good intentions.

Another is that I’m blessed with a son who likes to talk with his parents about his dealings with the people around him. Especially with his Mom he likes to discuss difficult moments in his days – times he’s been annoyed at someone or frustrated. (I remember having no such conversations with my parents.)

‘That’s just mean’ he’ll sometimes say in frustration. When he’s having the conversation with me, I often find myself helping him to see things through the eyes of whoever he’s having difficulty with. I want him to see what they were trying to accomplish, their good intentions, even if the way they went about it wasn’t so good.

Honestly, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have good intentions. I don’t know any ‘mean people.’ That’s become an article of faith with me. I don’t feel like I understand a troubled situation until I can see everyone’s good intentions.

Of course that doesn’t mean I find the world a place free of problems or free of human beings doing harm to one another. Quite the contrary. I’m regularly appalled at the misery and heartbreak we visit on one another. I’ve come to believe T.S. Eliot was right when he said “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”  Or maybe, speaking for myself, I mean all of the evil. And therefore what, if there are only good intentions, does evil look like?  (Let me just pause here to say I know I’m standing on the edge of a huge forest to be explored about the nature of sin and evil. I regularly get lost in that forest.)

Sometimes after these conversations with my son, while I’m reading the newspaper, I’ll find myself wondering does Vladimir Putin have good intentions in Syria or in Ukraine? Or, does Barack Obama have good intentions in Afghanistan? Or, does Wayne LaPierre mean well in encouraging more people to carry concealed weapons? I guess I want to say yes to those questions. The problem isn’t in whether their intentions are well meaning. It’s what follows from these.

A third reason all this is on my mind has to do with a regular activity of Quakers in midcoast Maine. Every Friday afternoon they do a peace vigil for a half hour on the green in Brunswick. Don’t I mean “we?” Well, not really. This is not an activity I make time for. What possible good can come from this peace vigil. I wonder. Doesn’t everyone want peace? Isn’t that part of everyone’s good intentions?

I imagine passersby thinking one of two things. “That’s nice.” Or “Don’t those people get it? If we don’t stop the terrorists, we’ll never have peace.” This vigil is pointless, I think, when it’s announced in Meeting. And then I feel guilty. I remember standing in countless peace vigils during the Vietnam War, and feeling self-righteous while I did it. And self righteousness is an ugly form of good intentions, isn’t it? How about feeling guilty? Isn’t that another form of good intentions? Hearing the announcement about the peace vigil week after week, I find myself doubting that good intentions are enough for peace and justice. In whatever I do for peace, I want to convey more than my good intentions, and the vigil seems like a pure expression of good intentions.

I’ll leave it to each of you to consider whether and where the Bible provides useful guidance on ‘good intentions.’ In recent months I’ve been reading the wisdom books in the Bible. In Proverbs 16:1-3 I find this:

 16 To humans belong the plans of the heart,
but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue.

All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord.

Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans.

Is this verse helpful? I find it so. I read it to say that good intentions aren’t always God’s hopes. And I read it say that worship is essential for laying good plans.

Plans. As a person who has held leadership positions in organizations, I confess I like plans. Plans try to connect, sometimes complexly, initiatives with good intentions (one the one hand) and consequences (not always positive) on the other. Perhaps I read too much into this passage if I think it says that beyond good intentions you have to find a way to understand and anticipate what actions will lead to good consequences. Planning at its best helps us understand how to shape and aim our good intentions towards better outcomes.

How we work out the connections between good intentions, the various alternative actions or policies that may arise from those good intentions, and the resulting outcomes that emerge once we choose a course of action: there are huge questions I won’t try to explore today.

In 1967 – nearly 50 years ago — Martin Luther King, Jr., had this to say:

“A true revolution of values will soon [!] cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

‘What will it look like to have the whole Jericho Road transformed? I think it must mean more than a breaking forth of good intentions.

Surely with the Sustainable Development Goals — and I cheer at these — we have our work cut out for ourselves.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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