On the Question of Intent and the Illusion of Altruism

No matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to the idea of intent and morality. What is it that really motivates our actions? How are our intentions connected to our actions? Can a morally wrong act be a good thing, or conversely, can something good be wrong? It’s easy to think about intent when we think of classic “thought experiment” cases like murder or genocide. With few exceptions, there are very few people who would be on board for carrying out whole-scale or even small-scale murder. There are those cases where we have some difficulty deciding how to act — for instance, whether we should blast a fat man to kingdom come if he has wedged his body in front of the only exit. We might have some difficulty when we say we must blow him up to save the lives of others. But then, there are those instances when we might think that the morally right thing to do is the worst thing to do. It’s especially difficult when we are not exactly sure of what our own intentions are in the matter. Is there ever a time when a moral wrong is ok? Are there times when our intentions may be bad but they are really good? It’s easy to calculate the moral wrong of something like murder. Even the egoist has to say that it’s wrong, even if it does not directly affect him ( he might have to say something like, I disapprove of murder because it makes the city where I live look bad, and that makes me sad). But what about an act with a little moral ambiguity. Let’s take adultery. Now, first off, we’re pushing the Christians out of the room, they’re no fun in this game. They tent to count everything as a moral wrong. Second, let’s decide which moral theory that we’d like to use first. Personally, I’m quite partial to Kantian ethics, so I’ll start there. Kant’s great moral theory is expressed through his Catagorical Imperative (C.I.). At first glance, it seems that by applying the principles of Kant’s moral theory, sexual impropriety is a no-no. But let’s look a little closer. Let’s look at an example: I’m assuming that many philosophers would not admit to watching, let alone enjoying pornography. There’s not much in the way of deep thinking in your garden variety skin flick (there’s alot of other deep stuff going on, but it ain’t what you’d call thinking). Back in the 1970s, when adult films were coming (no pun intended) into the mainstream, some filmmakers attempted to create “real” cinema. That is, some pornographers had in mind to make movies that a mature adult audience would see at the local cineplex. You’d take out the wife to see a double bill of Barbara Broadcast and Smokey and the Bandit. Or so it was assumed that’s what people would do. One of these “adult” films was The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann directed by Henry Paris (by the way, watchers of so-called “soft-core” films may be aware of the fact that Henry paris is also known as Radley Metzger. As Radley Metzger, he directed the movie Carmen, Baby. I only mention this fact because Carmen, Baby contains a scene that, once you’ve seen it, you will never think of wine bottles the same). Where was I? Oh yes. So, luckily for filmgoers looking to arouse their prurient interests, porn plots are fairly uncomplicated. This film is no exception. It goes like this: man has cheating wife. Man hires private dick (ha, ha) to follow wife. Wife seduces P.I. Detective removes himself from the case because he feels (get this) guilty for betraying his employer’s trust (although he doesn’t admit to the real reason why he quits). When all’s said and done, we learn that it’s all been a set-up. Man and wife actually do this to get their rocks off. As they wish each other a happy anniversary, the curtain falls (literally) on the post-coital couple. Now, let’s throw out the fact that sex is supposed to be inherently dirty and morally wrong. Let’s run it through Kant’s C.I. First, we ask, would we want to universalize the act that the Mann’s did in the movie? Well, they might answer yes. In fact, if we take Kant’s declaration that we must first and foremost act from duty as our dominant principle, Mr. and Mrs. Mann may suggerst that they did act out of duty to each other. If couples did as they do, they might reason, their marriages may actually be better off. Ok. Let’s move on. Second, we ask, did anyone get used as a mere means to their end? We might answer yes, the P.I. did. But wait, let’s look at the private detective. He knew that he was following a married woman. He was hired by her husband. He knew what she was up to, namely sharing her virtue with anyone within a five mile radius of her person. So, when she seduces him, was he really used as a mere means? It seems that the detective wasn’t so much used as the pair decided to use each other. The act was mutually beneficial to both. No one got any more out of the act than the other. When the detective regigns from the job, he does not tell Mr. Mann why he is leaving the case. He merely states that “something came up” (I think that pun was intended). He evades the real reason for his leaving because he felt that what he did was morally suspect. And lastly, no one got hurt! At the end of the movie, everyone is happy. This not only checks out for the Kantian, but for the utilitarian, and (especially) the egoist as well. Ok, the Christians still have a problem with the whole adultery thing. So let’s ditch the porn. I’ve gone through how a seemingly bad act can be good, or at least not as bad as it may seem. But, what about so-called morally good acts? Can they be hiding a hidden evil? For some strange reason, I decided to watch Superman Returns the other day (maybe it has to do with finding Kevin Spacey oddly attractive. Whatever), and watching that made me want to watch the far-superior Superman: the Movie starring the late Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Why they tried to make that dude in Superman Returns act like Christopher Reeve, I don’t know. I mean really, they didn’t get some chick who looked like Margot Kidder! But then, we all know why they didn’t, don’t we? Anyway, In the movie, Lois is killed during an earthquake, which is caused by a missile detonating in the San Andreas fault. As Superman stands over her dead body, he suddenly screams to the heavens and darts up straight into the sky. He is confronted by the ghost of his father, who seems to know exactly what he is going to do, who reminds his so that it is forbidden to interfere with human history. But Superman won’t have any of this forbidden business. He spins around the earth, making it reverse it’s spin, thus reversing history and allowing him to go back in time, thwart the missile, and save Lois from death ( he did what Anakin Skywalker could only dream of doing for Padme). By the way, can that really cause an earthquake? Superman not only saves Lois, but he saves some kids on the Golden Gate Bridge from tumbling over the side in their bus, he stops up a dam from flodding a community and all sorts of other good stuff. It all sounds good. It sounds altruistic. But is it so? On the surface, Superman’s actions check out pretty much according to every moral theory. But when we check out his true intentions, his actions are suddenly morally suspect. Ok, let’s say that when we ask Superman why he did it, he says that he has a duty to sav humanity. Ok. That sounds just fine. but the Randian in me (and really, I like to keep her bound and gagged at all times) is saying, no. His duty was not to mankind. He’s doing it to get something. Superman is motivated by his want to fufill his own self-interest, not to serve the needs of mankind. When he arrived in Metropolis, it shifted from something to someone — Lois. We might suspect that had Lois lived, he wouldn’t have gotten so riled up over all that destruction. He probably would have saved as many lives as he could, but would not have defied his own father to save any one person in particular. Superman reversed time to save Lois, pure and simple. His motivation towards saving her wasn’t duty — it was that he wanted to do to Lois what he eventually did do to Lois in Superman II (that is, he pulled a private detective on her). Like the Mann’s, Superman may try to sneak duty past us when he explains to us why he saves people. But this is just not so. His goal is to get Lois. If you want to get really dark about things, you can say that the entire state of California served as a mere means to his getting Lois — an act which puts Superman’s morality right along side of a typical character you’d find in your average smut flick (in fact, this would make a terrific plot. Superhero saves lady. Lady feels need to shower with equally hot roommate. Cable guy shows up…). Let’s not forget the fact that the utilitarian can say that Superman’s supposed altruistic act caused more harm than good. By diverting the missile and letting it explode in outer space, Superman shattered the phantom zone, thus releasing General Zod and his equally evil companions to take their revenge against Superman’s father out on the citizens of earth. Superman merely swapped one evil for a greater evil. Instead of Lois dying or just the people of California in danger, Superman endangered the entire planet when Zod and his two cohorts were released from captivity. When all’s said and done, Superman’s acts only have the veneer of good deeds, but deep down, they’re truly evil. Which makes me think that this is why, when I think of what I do in the real world, my decisions are not so cut and dry. I find that, despite my disappointment in admitting as much, I am far too often a Superman. All of my seemingly selfless acts stink of ulterior motives and hidden wants and desires. I used to think that watching movies and TV was nothing more than brain candy, stuff that, instead of being a useful tool to sort out my own thoughts, sucked my thoughts away and made me into a passive participant. Not so. I think, and I think that it’s not just me on this one, when we watch TV or movies or play video games, we can just sit back and consume. Or, we can look with a careful eye, watching the moments and situations that should and can help us to sort out our own lives. Heck, if I can learn in two hours while watching a movie what takes ten weeks sitting in a classroom listening to often boring lectures — which one would anyone rather choose?


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