Sustainable and Unsustainable Good
Posted by Michael Dickens on July 4, 2010
I often talk about how the highest moral goal is to do the most good for the most people. This is a form of Consequentialism, which states that the good of an action is measured by its consequences rather than by the intentions of the agent. This notion may seem a little counter-intuitive. Are not intentions important as well?
Intentions are important, but only with respect to consequences. This may seem unusual, but it is not a difficult concept to explain. If someone does the right thing but for the wrong reasons, then this isolated action may be considered morally good. But is this person likely to continue to do the right thing? No. A selfish person who happens to occasionally help others as a side effect of his selfishness cannot be considered a good person, because the majority of his actions will be purely selfish and won’t benefit the greater good. Likewise, a well-meaning person who accidentally harms others is likely to try to ameliorate the situation, and will likely do more good in the future.
To put it simply, the well-meaning person’s good is sustainable while the selfish person’s is not. This is why a good will is valuable, and often even more valuable than a particular good action.
Suppose there is a well-intentioned person who also happens to be very clumsy. She tries to help people, but often ends up hurting them due to her own carelessness. It appears on the surface that she is a bad person because she is doing more harm than good. But our moral instincts tell us that she is a good person, and in fact this is correct. Why? Because she has a good will, and this should be encouraged. As she is well-intentioned, she will continue to try to do good despite her carelessness, and as she becomes more careful she is likely to succeed. Although this person causes harm, she has the potential to do a great deal of good, and the good she does is sustainable — she will continue to do good in the future.
A selfish person who helps others only to benefit himself does do some good, but the good he does is unsustainable. It is not likely to continue. Furthermore, he will likely do far less good than the well-intentioned person has the potential to do. A single good act is often not as important as a good will, because a good will produces sustainable good that will add up to a good far greater than the single good act.
A good will is not valuable in itself. Still, because of the exorbitant amount of good that it can lead to, it is highly desirable. The sustainability of a good will can easily outweigh the unsustainability of a single good act.