On Philosophy

September 4, 2006

Introspection and the Ethical Importance of Intentions

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:02 am

As I argued earlier the ethical status of a person and their actions must depend at least partly on their intentions. In a subsequent post I mentioned that that researchers such as Nisbett and Ross have shown that introspection is unreliable in its ability to inform us about our own reasons for making decisions; the reasons we consciously provide for our actions are not necessarily complete, and possibly even inaccurate. Independently neither of these claims poses a problem for ethics, but together they seem to undermine the possibility of knowing about ones own moral condition and the ability to improve ethically.

For example, consider the following possibility, that there may be people who live good lives, in the sense that they perform actions that have good consequences, and they consciously have good reasons for acting in this manner (they desire the good ends as ends, not as part of a self-serving plan). However, unconsciously, they are actually motivated entirely by self-serving reasons, for example fear of punishment, and these reasons are the real reasons for their actions, unbeknownst to them. In fact the reason that these people consciously come up with selfless reasons for acting is because they believe that intentions are important, and thus, because of a desire to be good, their real motivations are suppressed, which doesn’t make them better people but fools them into thinking they are.

There are several possible responses to this possibility. One is to deny that truly ethical people exist, and that those who think they are ethical are fooling themselves. Another is to argue that such situations are rare, and thus not worth considering. A third possibility is to require that only the conscious reasons for acting be good. And finally there is the possibility that some form of consequentialism may be able to escape from the criticisms mentioned earlier, and thus make all of our intentions, even our unconscious ones, irrelevant.

I will pass over the possibility that ethical people don’t exist, because it is obvious that there is something in the world that our intuitions about ethics and ethical behavior map onto. Saying that nothing is ethical simply indicates that we have defined ethics incorrectly. Secondly, arguing that these cases are rare is not a suitable defense for an ethical theory that considers motivations important. First of all we don’t actually know how rare they are, so to make the claim that they are uncommon is baseless. Secondly it would violate the idea that ethics is universal, since those rare people would be ethically unable to improve themselves (since they would never know that they were acting with the wrong motivations to begin with). The third possibility, that good actions require only consciously good motivations, is also out of the question, because if we require ethically good actions to be accompanied by good conscious motivations then conversely we must require ethically bad actions to be accompanied by bad conscious motivations. However, it is easy for people making ethically poor choices to rationalize their actions, giving them consciously good motivations, and thus preventing us from labeling their choices as morally wrong. Again, this would violate one of our fundamental assumptions about ethics, that it encourages good actions and condemns bad ones, and so it too must be discarded as a resolution to the problem posed by the fallibility of intuitions.

This would seem to leave us back with consequentialism, but hasn’t consequentialism been ruled out already? Well certainly most forms of it have been, but there is a consequentialist-esque possibility that is both able to meet the objections to standard consequentialist theories and be unaffected by the failures of introspection. Instead of analyzing either the reasons for an action or the consequences we analyze the intended consequence (which may or may not be conscious). Also we analyze the intended consequence of each action independently, not of a conglomeration of actions. This avoids the problem of assigning ethical blame or praised as a result of an accident or other unforeseeable consequences, while at the same time avoiding the “kill one patient to save five” prescription. Under such a system individuals would also be able to examine their own ethical condition, as well as improve themselves ethically, without direct access to their real motivations. (For example, if you notice that most of the things you do have bad consequences, and not as a result of unpredictable outside influences, then you can safely conclude that you are a bad person. Likewise a person could improve themselves by reflecting more carefully on the possible consequences before acting in order to prevent themselves from doing the wrong thing.) Of course such a theory still requires a definition of what a good result is, but let’s leave that for another time.



  1. “I have discovered an elegant definition of what a good result is, but this comment box is too small to contain it.”

    Comment by Carl — September 12, 2006 @ 3:03 am

  2. Well I have discussed earlier what I think constitutes a good result, so I didn’t want to repeat myself.

    Comment by Peter — September 12, 2006 @ 3:26 am

  3. I was just thinking about this today, thank you for your introspection.

    Comment by Justin — January 9, 2007 @ 10:36 am

  4. Well, it does matter — to the person in question.
    If they have squinchy motives, they have some kind of pathology, wether it’s mere neuroticism, or something larger.
    The question being begged, here, I think, is:
    What does it matter if this person is really ethical or not, as long as their actions are consistently and reliably good? One might say that the odds are best that a person will behave ethically on a consistent and reliable basis when their cognitive schema and values are solid, and run to the core of their being, even and especially down to the subconcios level: they are not, for example, neurotic and act well only out of subconcious fear, as per the example given by the Webhost here.
    It matters to society what a person’s motivations are so that we can predict their future behaviors over time. We don’t want to be conned or tricked into trusting someone, give them a lot of access passes to ourselves and our systems, through our trust, and them have them loot our lives.
    It matters to each individual what their own motivations are because self-concept is the true foundation of whether a person is really happy in life, or not; whether their life works smoothly for them, or not.
    So, are there any truly ethical people? I believe so. Are there many more who are not? I believe that, unfortunately, is true as well.
    What do we do about it, since ethical behavior benefits everyone except criminal or sick sorts (don’t hair split about this generalization: yes, I know some innoscent people suffer as even when the most ethical motives and actions are taken that cannot be best for everyone in the world at that same time)?
    We use our own ethical behaviors, whether subconciously motivated well or not, to make changes in the world and in ourselves that promote and encourage and foster ethical behaviors in others, and in systems.
    And we don’t give up on that.

    Comment by monica englander, msw — August 4, 2007 @ 11:39 am

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