Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

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.

8 Responses to “Sustainable and Unsustainable Good”

  1. Linda said

    Okay, but what if one person’s single good act outweighs anther person’s lifetime of attempted good will? (I’m asking that to be contrary.)

    Another thing. . .intentions are all well and good, but if one doesn’t have the skill (or grace, as in your example), then they don’t count for very much. It’s what is observable and measurable that makes people good or not, not their thoughts. In the Jewish tradition, especially, as opposed to the Christian, it’s our acts that determine how good we are, not our thoughts. We are asked to repair the world, not intend to repair the world, not think about repairing the world. Doing it.

    • In that case, the one person’s single good act would be more valuable than the second person’s lifetime of attempted good will. The intention of this essay was not to argue otherwise. Rather, its intention was to explain why intentions are important even when all that matters in the end is consequences.

  2. nan said

    Interesting that you used”she” for the well intentioned person and “he” for the selfish one.

    Your points are very well taken

  3. Cypher said

    Yup, that just about sums up my thoughts on the matter. I like to present it as a thought experiment about a man that is also a bomb, and as a result, will kill a large number of people unintentionally – he must be isolated so that those deaths are not caused, even though it’s not his fault. This (melodramatically) helps show how intention is less important than consequence.


  4. “Our moral instincts tell us that she is a good person, and in fact this is correct. Why? Because she has a good will.”

    She is good because she intends to be good. This is not consequentialism, but virtue ethics.

    • My point wasn’t that a good will is good in itself, but that we should consider it good more so than immediate consequences because doing so will lead to better long-term consequences.

      • I do not dispute your conclusion, I dispute your wording, which is confused. The operative phrase is “doing so.” In other words, considering-the-will-to-be-good is good, but the will itself is bad. A consequentialist analysis bears this out: the good will had bad results so it is bad; the “considering-the-will-to-be-good” had good results so it is good.

        Do you think that considering sustainable goods to be better than unsustainable goods is a perversion of consequentialist ethics? Consider: an automatic, repeated, direct-debit donation is secretly arranged, and over the course of a decade only the donor, the recipient, and the intermediary know that it exists. Under your definition, this is a sustainable good, of which you say: “[the selfish person] will likely do far less good than the well-intentioned person has the potential to do” because the well-intentioned person repeats their action. This may be a move away from consequentialism to agent-centred virtue ethics, because the sole, self-serving donation of a billionaire narcissist or entertainer would probably have far greater beneficial repercussions than the “sustainable” good of the secretive individual. Extreme examples do not invalidate a theory, your definition of “sustainability” seems a bit fuzzy.

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