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athgarvan

How can I tell whether my actions are good or bad?

good bad 2I have always been taught that because I possess reason and a conscience I am able to make clear judgments. I have been given certain guidelines to help distinguish good actions from bad ones.

1. What I do must be good in itself; a good intention is not enough.
    A bank robbery is always bad even if I have the intention of giving the money to the poor.

2. Even if what I do is truly good, if I do the good action with a bad intention, it makes the whole action bad.
    e.g. If I walk an elderly woman home (a good deed) with the intention of later breaking into her house.

3. The circumstances in which I act can diminish my responsibility but they cannot change the good or bad character of my action.
    e.g. Hitting my mother is always bad, even if she has always shown little love for me.

But do guidelines like these always work out in prctice?

Comments

There are always exceptions.
A bank robbery isn't bad if the bank in question extorted a whole bunch of money and is going to use it to build some sort of cage to keep orphans in.

Walking an elderly woman home with the intention of breaking into her house later isn't bad if it's to retrieve your mother's heirloom pearls the elderly woman's butler stole.

Hitting your mother isn't bad if she started beating on you first, and you are defending yourself.

Robbing a bank simply to give it to the poor? Yes, bad.
Walking an elderly woman home to case her house? Yeah, bad.
Hitting your mother because she didn't love you enough? Once again, bad--but there are very rarely circumstances without EXTENUATING circumstances.
True dat.

Good and evil have to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and the net creation-versus-destruction (including what is prevented on both sides of the line) worked out. Any uniform rule will lead to error.

Usually.
I really dislike the notion of "painting everyone with the same brush." There is no such thing as "normal." What people mean by normal is the median between one extreme and the other. There are always variables that get glossed over with terminology.
That is my own experience so far.

The exhausting thing about discussing the dangers of generalization is doing it without generalizing. (Cyril Kornbluth wrote an excellent and funny story about an SF writer who had discovered The Answer-- essentially an Algorithm For Everything. He was immediately committed to an asylum under a false name by the other SF writers who had discovered it, because he wouldn't agree to conceal something that would put them all out of work.)
The trouble with a statement like "X is always wrong" or even "X is always wrong it itself" , is that they inspire hundreds of exceptions that sort of unravel the whole idea.

But imo it is useful to have a group of Xs that require a really good excuse, and better be ready to convince a judge and jury.
I think we should distinguish

1) a clearly better objective outcome that does justify the action (eg breaking a window to rescue a child, or some choice of lesser evil)

from

2) some emotional excuse that merits milder punishment, but does not justify the action ("I hit her because I was having a PTSD flashback")
Bit of a tangent here. I hate this anecdote, but it's true:

In WWI, the French had only ten percent the incidence of shellshock-- troops going nuts in the trenches-- of any other army in the war.

Everybody else sent their men to a hospital and then home when they went crazy.

In the French Army they were immediately shot by the nearest officer.

Understand: the men the other armies sent home really were crazy. They weren't faking it to get out of combat. A lot of them never recovered. But in the French Army, going crazy would not result in an improvement in your life. So nine out of ten soldiers were able to remain sane under conditions that would genuinely have made them insane if there was any benefit to it.

People are awfully complicated.
I've been enjoying your posts since we became friends. I haven't commented before because life has been so hectic.