Monday, February 29, 2016

Intentions vs functions: when a desire not to offend is insufficient and largely irrelevant

They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Intentions matter for personal ethics, less so for social ethics. When we're considering a particular belief, act or behaviour pattern in an individual, then the conscious intentions held by the individual play a significant (though not exhaustive) role in the ethical evaluation of the belief, act or behaviour. If my six year old knocks her brother to the ground, the question of whether she accidentally struck him in the heat of a game or deliberately struck him in anger with a desire to hurt him is an important one.

But in the sphere of social ethics, where we are evaluating policies, cultural dynamics or systemic realities, then the beliefs, motives and intentions of particular agents fade into the distant background. Whether or not a policy was well-intentioned is largely irrelevant in comparison to how that policy actually functions. A slavery that the slavers conceive of as a form of enlightened benevolence is still slavery, and if the realities on the ground are no different, then it is no better or worse (for instance) than a slavery undertaken on the basis of explicit doctrines of racial subjugation (even if the two examples may lead to somewhat different strategies by emancipationists).

This distinction is crucial when it comes to social and political critique. When a policy or system is attacked, it will not do simply to point to the good nature of the policymakers, or the lack of enmity on the part of those in a privileged position. Such considerations may be important if the personal virtue of the individuals concerned is under discussion, but not for the policy, cultural dynamic or system.

President Obama may harbour no personal conscious anti-Muslim sentiment, but if the foreign policy of his administration includes support for dictators in Muslim-majority nations, the invasion of Muslim-majority nations, the extra-judicial killing of predominantly Muslims, the deliberate stoking of sectarian tensions to provoke intra-Muslim violence, and the upholding of an apartheid regime that oppresses mainly Muslims (for instance), then it may still be accurate to describe US foreign policy as significantly anti-Muslim in effect.

Tony Abbott may have a genuine concern for the plight of Australia's first peoples, but if his administration's policies included opposition to a treaty, the forced clearance of remote communities, the approval of mining licenses allowing for the destruction of sacred sites and degradation of indigenous land, the cutting of services to indigenous communities and the upholding of a colonialist narrative, then it may be still be accurate to describe the Abbott years as significantly anti-Aboriginal in effect. (And PM Turnbull may shed real tears as he speaks of the importance of upholding indigenous culture...)

The CEO of BP may have a genuine desire to see an orderly transition to a lower carbon economy in order to limit climate change in the most sensible low-cost way possible...

George Pell may have genuine compassion for the victims and survivors of institutional child abuse...
The CEO of Woolies may really want to see an end to problem gambling...

Premier Baird may lose sleep over the rates of domestic violence...

In short, the critique of bad policy needn't imply any criminal or otherwise deficient intent on the part of its crafters, nor is the upholding of their benevolence either necessary or particularly relevant in the evaluation of its effects. And this has implications not just for policymakers, but for all of us as we inhabit cultural spaces and social systems.

I may have strong commitment to fight racism, but if I am amongst the beneficiaries of a history of colonialism and white supremacy, I am not thereby immune from the need to check my privilege or at liberty to innocently assume race is irrelevant in my social interactions (nor do I get to put on blackface and claim that it's all good fun).

I may have a firm belief in the universality of human dignity and equality before God and an unswerving desire to honour women, but if I live in a society shot through with ongoing patriarchal logic, in which women are not in fact treated equally in all kinds of ways, then I do not get a free pass to (for instance) select an all-male discussion panel and hide behind a claim of meritocracy.

Wealthy capitalist philanthropists may have every good motive in wanting to alleviate poverty, but if their wealth accumulation was through a system that reduces labour and ecology to tradable value through the absolutising of instrumental reason and sacrifices lives and a liveable planet in pursuit of endless growth, then the people they may manage to save from capitalism's own ills do not thereby justify it.

In each case, the innocence of heart or otherwise of the agents is not what matters. What matters is the function of the system, policy or cultural norm in the lives of those affected by it. That is rarely straightforward. In each of the cases above, there are also positive functions. And so it is often a difficult responsibility to weigh the complex contributions of this or that cultural element, political agenda or economic model.

Indeed, part of the attraction of doing social or political evaluation through intentions is that we are all very familiar with the task of determining whether we believe an individual is trustworthy, a decent bloke/lady, a good egg, and so on. This is the attraction of working to put "good people in charge" and of all personality politics in which we obsess over the personal lives of elected representatives, and thus in which politicians are (generally) carefully stage managed to avoid perceived gaffes. But the temptation of such shortcuts must be resisted.

The good intentions behind bad policy make for might impressive pavement, but it's the destination that matters.