Villainous intentions

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?


  1. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    I would like you to expand a bit more on: ” 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.” Because you didn’t really clarify what you believer a praying person’s more immediate goal by praying for someone is. OH do you mean specifically in the instance of praying for an atheist to not be an atheist? 😛 I first read it more from the perspective of when Christians tell atheists they’re praying for them to get well or something when they are injured/ill.

    Yeah I mean the EXACT REASON I personally don’t like someone praying for me when I’m hurting with the intentions to help is because I feel sure that it won’t help. The reason I don’t like them praying that I’ll become a believer in their religion/God is because it means they desperately want me to become a believer lol. I don’t want them to want that, but understanding WHY they want that, what they have been indoctrinated/convinced to believe about how important it is to believe does lessen how much I don’t like it, kind of, because at least they aren’t just trying to do something I don’t want them to do. They have some underlying reason of idk, caring about me. In some ways it bothers me more if someone truly believes I’m going to Hell, a hell they believe is real, yet isn’t even bothering to try to save me from it, especially if that person considers themselves my friend. Like how can someone be so callous toward my eternal future? How can they actually believe this stuff and not be doing everything in their power to try to help at the very least the people they care about in their own lives?? I find it easier to believe they don’t REALLY believe it, and am often convinced that these people simply do not fully consider the implications of me going to their version of Hell.

  2. says


    We sometimes say that an action is intentional, as opposed to accidental. When people say they’re praying for me, they said that intentionally, they didn’t misspeak. That’s all I meant.

    On the subject of believing in hell, I tend to believe that self-consistency is overrated. If someone believes in hell but does nothing to help other people avoid it, it seems to me that their ideological inconsistency has in fact done us all a service. Furthermore, inconsistency allows people to slowly shift their beliefs (generally to more correct ones) rather than adhering closely to belief systems that are too big to fail.

  3. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    Oh okay, that makes a lot of sense haha. It wasn’t autocorrect… 😛

    And yeah I think I could get behind that mindset in terms of how to react to a lack of self-consistency…

  4. Aline says

    I would amend your translation of ‘I was just joking’ to add ‘I didn’t think too hard about the possible negative consequences of my words’, ‘I don’t actually believe what I said nor do I think anyone reasonable would believe it, so my words are harmless and I should not be held accountable for them’ and ‘I have no idea why you are so upset about this’ as other ways in which the phrase is used defensively. I think in a couple of those cases evil is a bit much.

    I feel like it’s not often the intentions that are at fault so much as the belief that whatever desire motivated the intention supersedes others’ well-being, though obviously there are cases where the intentions themselves are pretty suspect, such as the case in which someone makes a comment or joke with the express purpose of hurting someone else.

  5. tecolata says

    To me “I was just joking” means “I thought insulting/hurting you (or some group of people, women, gays, Muslims, whoever) was funny! Then I found out you don’t so I’m trying to weasel out of it.”

  6. Jenora Feuer says

    Yes, well, the original ‘Intent is not magic!’ line really just boils down to: if you hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter whether you meant to or not. You should still make amends. Whining about how you didn’t mean it just makes you look thoughtless rather than actively mean.

    Of course, lots of people are both.

    One of the particular annoyances of ‘I’ll pray for you’ is that not only is it usually used as ‘Christian territory marking’, but it also often falls under the category of literally the least they could do. And that’s assuming that the prayers are about an actual problem rather than praying for you to ‘see the light’ because you don’t believe in their particular vision of Hell, in which case there aren’t even the positive aspects about wishing you well.

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