Sunday, April 30, 2006

Motive, Not Consequence

“An important part of moral development is the recognition that motive, not consequence, is the critical factor in deciding whether an act is ethical.” To me this is a very comforting statement. It says that to be an ethical person I must worry about having a good motive, not a good outcome. Which makes a lot of sense, really; we probably don’t have much control over most of the consequences of our actions. We can only try to do the right thing and hope that the right thing will lead to a positive outcome.
I think that everything we do has repercussions that go far beyond what we can anticipate or imagine, and the consequences of our actions and others’ tangle and weave themselves into webs where outcomes are no longer traceable. If consequence is all that matters, well, then we’ll never figure out what to do or who has done what.
So we focus on motive. We don’t know what our actions will lead to, so we try to do the very best thing we can, and hope that a good motive will at least set us on the right course. That a positive beginning will have a positive end; that kindness will elicit kindness, and justice will elicit justice, and respect will elicit respect.
That said, I do think that if the consequences of your actions seem to be pretty consistently negative, you should probably reconsider whatever it is that you’re doing. Evaluating consequences, although a bad way to make decisions, is a good way to, well, evaluate. Double check yourself, if you will.

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