Monday, May 25, 2009

Good and bad actions (3)

In the example in my last blog I saved a person who had felt into a canal. What I did not know then was that this person had the intention to perform a bomb attack, which he really did later. I wondered how we had to judge my action in view of what the saved person did later and that I did not know about his plans.
But let me go one step further. Suppose that I had known about the intention of the person that I saved. So, when I saved him, I knew that the man in the water had the intention to perform a bomb attack. Makes this any difference for the judgement of my action (supposing that the person saved really did perform his intended action later)? In view of the supposition that was the starting point of my discussion that saving a man’s life is intrinsically good, can we still say then that saving this man’s life was intrinsically good?
I can make my example more complex. I can vary it this way, for instance, that the person saved had the intention indicated but then did not execute this intention, for example because he was stopped or because he changed his mind. Do these variations (and there are certainly more) make any difference for the way we judge the action of saving a man’s life?
We can infer several things from such a discussion. Or rather, infer is not the right word, for I do not think that we can say: “This is true. We must say that some actions can be intrinsically good or bad”. But what we can infer is that what is true at first sight can be more complicated at second sight, for things may have different interpretations from different perspectives. Actually everybody knows this and actually is a platitude. But in practice it happens so often that people say: “This is absolutely true and it is stupid not to see it”, and they behave that way, they abuse other people who have different ideas, they kill people or wage war in the name of their eternal and absolute truths, or whatever they do in the name of the absolutly right. Or they say “What stupid things do you say”, and they react in the way just said, not seeing the complexities behind a seemingly stupid remark.

One question raised by my last blogs is this one: Can we call an action (intrinsically) good before we perform it (on really good and well-founded grounds), while looking backwards we would call it bad, or at least would tend to call it bad? Take again the case of the saving a future bomb attacker. Can we say then that it was intrinsically good what I did at the moment that I saved his life, but that it was a bad action at the moment I look at it after the bomb attacker has thrown his bomb? And what do we mean then by saying that this action was good or bad? Can the words “good” and “bad” have different meanings when we label an action before it took place and after it has taken place? In other words, things are not always as they look like, even if they look like what they are.

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