It’s said that intentions don’t matter, but I think they do. When someone says something wrong, it can in fact be excused by the right intentions. For example:
I intended to say something different, but autocorrect failed me!
Here’s a thought: It’s not that intentions don’t matter. It’s just that the most commonly declared intentions are bad intentions.
We have difficulty admitting that people have bad intentions, partly because we want to see the good in all people, but also because we have absurdly high standards for what counts as evil. When we imagine evil, we imagine some supervillain who wants to destroy everything just because. Hardly anyone in the real world has evil intentions quite like that. Or at least, it never seems that way.
First example: “I was just joking.”
“Joking” seems to mean that you know that what you said was wrong, but you said it anyway. You said it purely for personal pleasure. You said it so other people could get personal pleasure from repeating the same thing in their own heads. As far as intentions go, joking is basically the worst intention you could have. (I could add more nuance by talking about how jokes lead to miscommunication, just like autocorrect does. But I leave that analysis as an exercise to the reader.)
As I said, many story villains are evil simply for evil’s sake. This is not considered very realistic, and many people prefer villains with more compelling motivations. And yet here we are in the real world, with people doing evil simply because they think it’s funny. “It was just a joke,” is an embodiment of the most poorly-written of villainy. Saying, “Can’t you take a joke?” is like asking the heroes to join you so you can rule this world together. Does that line ever work?
Second example: “I’ll pray for you.”
I don’t like when people offer to pray for me, but some people say that I must respect the positive intent behind the prayer. If the ultimate goal of the prayer is to help me, I will acknowledge positive intent of a sort. But why is the ultimate goal the only one that matters for judging intentions? How about the more immediate goal of praying for me? They’re certainly not praying for me on accident.
In fiction, we have this concept of the villain with a noble purpose, but who choose evil and twisted ways to fulfill that purpose. What makes them a villain has little to do with their ultimate goals and intentions, and more to do with their more immediate goals and intentions. And then we have to acknowledge that there are multiple levels of intentions, some which can be good and some which can be bad. Which level of intentionality is the one that matters for the sake of moral judgment?
I invite readers to reflect on other “good” intentions. Is Donald Trump’s intention to make America great again a good intention? Is wanting to remind everyone that all lives matter a good intention?