Intentions and Moral Relativism

One consequence of moral relativism's influence in our society is that we are much more likely to consider someone's intentions when evaluating the goodness of their actions. The prominence we assign to such internal factors follows naturally from our tendency to contextualize and "relativize" cultural, moral, and religious questions.

I certainly think that intentions matter - to some extent. God does, after all, judge the heart. However, I also think it is a real possibility that we are over-prioritizing intentions in ethical discourse.

One reason I think that is what Halden discusses in this post (not that I agree with him completely).

At the moment, I won't argue for any specific role intentions should have in our ethical analyses. Instead, I'll just share a few thoughts related more to the psychology of the matter than to the ethics per se:

1. One man's "relying on intentions" is another man's "rationalization." I doubt that Stalin would have said that he acted the way he did simply to kill large numbers of people. How honest are we with ourselves about our intentions?

Most of our intentions are not, admittedly, blatantly malicious. But most of our intentions are also not selflessly altruistic. Most of them are, in fact, hopelessly self-centered. How much is it to the credit of rich, well-fed Americans to say we are "well-intentioned"?

2. A quotation from Pascal: "There are only two kinds of men: the righteous, who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous."

3. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:43-48).

Our standards for "good intentions" are far too low if "good intentions" means "not overtly malicious intentions." "Good intentions," according to the Sermon on the Mount, are radical intentions, even bizarre intentions.

4. It's never good when we trust our own intentions more than God's intentions.