24 March 2011

Up from the comments, a new Rule

In my "Anti-Poverty" post, Peter W. very astutely commented:

Joseph Epstein's book snobbery contains a discussion of moral snobbery in which he offers the following anecdote:

"I once found myself in a mild political disagreement with a middle-aged physician. I cannot now recall the matter we argued about, but when it became apparent that, as in most political arguments, no winner was going to emerge, he said with a complacent smile, 'Oh, you may be right, but all I know is that I care deeply about people.'"

It's perfectly true that it's not enough to have good intentions; one has to care about the effectiveness of one's actions at bringing about the intended goal. But it's also true that people who only care about their good intentions doesn't even have good intentions. If they really intended to, say, reduce poverty they would show some signs of wanting to know the most effective way to do that.
I like the emphasized sentiment immensely.

Which makes for a punchier aphorism?
If all you have is good intentions, your intentions aren't that good.
If all you have is good intentions, you don't even have those.


  1. They both have their charm, but I like the first one better. Seems more Wildean.

  2. I prefer the second in so far as it's the more accurate rendering of the point that I was making, though I'm not sure which is punchier.

    It's not the same as, but it is related to, an observation made by one of the characters in T.S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party. I'm not a great admirer of the play overall; Eliot's literary gifts didn't translate well into theatre. Still, I think this remark should be bronzed somewhere near the entrance to every legislative assembly:

    "Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."