Distinctions We Need in Hard Times: Intended versus Unintended Consequences

Distinctions We Need in Hard Times: Intended versus Unintended Consequences March 27, 2020
We cannot talk intelligently about a crisis if we do not have the right vocabulary. To do the right thing, we need to be able to distinguish all the different parts of complicated problems that pop up in our broken world. One distinction is intention. Actions can lead to intended consequences, but sometimes there are unintended consequences. Generally, a person is not morally responsible for unintended consequences. Another helpful ethical category is active versus passive actions. To do a thing is different from not doing a thing!
Thinking more carefully naturally leads to questions. Here are two.
Doesn’t this distinction mean the powerful will demand that they be judged by intention and the harm to the powerless dismissed as irrelevant? 
 The wicked amongst the powerful indeed will demand such treatment and it is wicked. One thing I learned in West Virginia is that the powerful are no more wicked than the poor, but they have the power to make us do what they wish.
The poor are no more righteous than the rich, (see what happens if we are cursed to win the lottery), but we lack the power to do as much harm. When we have gone wrong, we mostly harm ourselves and a few around us (Lord have mercy!), but the rich can harm millions.
The saints with power and money can help millions.
The distinction matters, but anything can be misused.
No harm is irrelevant. Every harm is a matter of sorrow,  God forgive me. No bad thing is irrelevant to the moral calculus and must always be regretted.
Yet.
Yet.
Consider that in a complicated world goods can collide and sometimes we must choose to get less of one good to get the best possible outcome. We guess, we try, we are unsure.
We do what we can. Misusing good does not make the good less good, but the wicked ever more wicked.
Isn’t not doing a good and necessary thing often wicked? 
One person said this to me:

When a doctor tells a grieving child “I didn’t intend for your mother to die, I just refrained from doing the treatments that had a really good chance of saving her life.” Do you think that child is going to feel much better? How do the doctor’s intentions fill the hole in that child’s life? Please be specific.

God forbid that any doctor do this foul deed.

If a treatment had a good chance to save a life, then a Christian must act. We do not passively kill. However, if a treatment merely prolongs dying, there is a moral difference. If the patient will never get better, but will only die more slowly, that is not the same circumstance. Refusing a treatment that will not cure, but merely prolong suffering to reach a certain death by the same disease is morally different from refusing a treatment that had a “good chance of saving her life.”

Some passive acts may come close to murder and are ethically forbidden. If I know pulling this switch will save your life and I do not pull the switch, I am wicked.* If I know pulling the switch will merely prolong your suffering and not stop your death, then I may do or not do depending on your request.

No child should feel better if a parent is denied life saving treatment. Every child (and I know such children) does feel better if death prolonging treatment is refused.

In hard times like a pandemic, calm and reason are the solution, but panic and sloganeering are allies of the virus.

 

 

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*There are complicated situations even here!


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