What makes an action morally wrong?

It’s the intent of an action that makes it morally wrong, rather than the consequences. 

That’s something I find myself pondering often (obviously in between more important ponderings such as “what’s for dinner?” and “Is it nap time yet?”). When does a neutral action become a morally bad one? At its time of conception with the intention or at its conclusion with its consequences? Or even somewhere in the middle? It’s something Roy and I debate quite often too. Whilst he’s firmly on the consequences end of things, I tend to be swayed more by the notion of intention – and not just because being on opposite ends of the spectrum engenders a better debate.

For me, morality is a purely human construct and because of that, its judgement one way or another should come from a human angle too – emotion, thoughts, intention, rather than more substantial, real-world, empirical results or consequences. It’s bad if it comes from a bad place, if you meant it to be bad. That’s not, of course, to say that negative consequences can’t arise from positive intent because as we all know, they absolutely can. Does that make the action bad, though, or simply unfortunate?

The Driver

accident-1It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Imagine a driver (let’s call her Mildred) who loses control over their vehicle due to some road damage. Mildred swerves and hit a pedestrian (let’s call him Fred). Fred dies. The consequences of this action are tragic certainly, unfortunate, but does that mean Mildred did a morally bad thing? I think most would agree that’s a little far-fetched. The act wasn’t immoral, it was an accident.

Things would be quite different if Mildred had got into her car with the express intent to kill Fred. Mildred turns to face Fred, put her foot on the accelerator, and ploughs straight into Fred, intending to (and succeeding in) killing him on impact. Assuming that there were no mitigating circumstances, most would agree that this act also has a non-ambiguous moral tag. Mildred was wrong. She’s a murderer.

tired-nurse-clipart-1Now imagine that Mildred is tired. Of course, in a perfect world, people wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car unless they were in the correct frame of mind – alert, aware, awake – but it’s not a perfect world and sometimes, people have to get behind the wheel of the car when they are in a worse state than ideal. Mildred’s a nurse. She’s just worked a 16-hour shift because the hospital’s short-staffed (of course), she’s being looking after impatient patients all day and she’s on her way home, only to start another shift in 10 hours time. She enjoys her job, but she’s exhausted and management don’t seem to offer any help. On her way home, she loses control of her car and hits Fred, killing him.

Is what Mildred did morally bad? She was not faultless, certainly – she was tired, she should know not to operate a car, she could have found another way home. She was, in many ways, negligent. She never set out to kill anyone though, that was not her intention. She will undoubtedly regret it for the rest of her life but still, it was her choice to get in that car, that dangerous piece of machinery, and drive home when she was in no fit state. Was she morally wrong? Roy says yes, of course. Fred is still dead, and she knew the dangers of driving whilst tired. I’m more inclined to say no. It was a tragic accident – tragic for both Fred and, I’d wager, for Mildred who will punish herself for the rest of her life.

The Bully

It could work the other way too, of course. It could be that someone set out with negative drunk-29783_960_720intentions but the action ends up having a positive consequences. Imagine a bully (let’s call him Wilfred) who spends months telling someone (let’s call him Bob) he’s no good – he’s useless and ugly and worthless. Wilfred wants to crush Bob’s spirit and with another person, perhaps it might have worked but Bob’s strong. He’s built of tougher stuff and the physical and mental cuts that Wilfred make far from damage Bob but make him stronger instead. As he fights back and defeats his bully, Bob’s confidence grows. He becomes a better, stronger, harder person. The consequences of the bullying, for Bob at least, have been positive.

The same could be said for Wilfred. He was a nasty child but once he becomes an adult, he regrets his treatment of Bob and changes his behaviour for the better. He becomes a nicer person and he tries to make up for his bullying by helping children who are now going through the same thing. He talks to bullies and the bullied, he tries to help, he tries to change their behaviour. Ultimately, Wilfred’s childhood bullying has had a positive consequence and will continue to do so as long as he continues his charity work. If we assume that the morality of an action is derived from its consequences alone, we can only say that Wilfred’s actions were morally good – it’s worked out well for all involved after all. It simply doesn’t seem right to say that bullying of any sort is right though, does it?

So that takes us in a full circle, back to intention. Wilfred’s intentions were negative, making his action morally bad – it’s just a happy coincidence that the end result was positive. With a different bully and a different person being bullied, the consequences could have been very different.


Deciding How to Act and The Perfect Get-Out Clause

The other thing about consequences is that it doesn’t tell you how to act. Whilst we can predict some results, it’s impossible to predict them all and often, things turn out very different to how we imagined (just look at Wilfred and Bob, for example, or even Mildred and Fred). So how can you make morally good choices if you don’t know whether your action is going to end up good or bad? With intention, though, you know, right from the start.

That said, considering possible consequences of actions surely must come into the choices we make. To completely ignore them is crazy. When making moral decisions, both intention and potential consequences should factor meaning that ultimately, it’s both intention and consequence that indicate morality. After all, taking intention alone as indicator of morality is asking for trouble. It’s the perfect get-out clause.

Well…I didn’t intend to do it, so it doesn’t count!


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