Motivations matter

There’s an interesting ethical dilemma regarding intentions and results. Just like we often wonder, “does the end justify the means?” there is philosophical disagreement about whether or not the right motivations justify the end.

There are generally two camps here. The one that says, “they mean well,” and the one that says, “it is what we do that defines us, not what our intentions are.” Batman says something along those lines in Batman Begins.

I’m going to make an argument for the “they mean well” philosophy. If you’re in the Batman camp, I’m not saying that philosophy is never right. I’m just saying I tend to lean towards the intentions matter camp. Hear me out.


Say you’re working on a project important to you. For this example we’ll say it’s a wedding cake. It’s your first commissioned wedding cake and you know it has to be perfect.

In the middle of frosting your cake, you take a bathroom break. While you’re in the bathroom your toddler gets at the frosting, fingerpainting in the rosettes and lacy details, and effectively setting you back to square one with decorating.

Scenario one: Your toddler was throwing a tantrum and played with the frosting to elicit a reaction out of you.

Scenario two: Your toddler saw you decorating the cake, and wanted to try decorating themselves. Either to be helpful, or out of curiosity.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can usually tell when my toddler does something to illicit a reaction and when he does something because he’s curious or has seen mommy do it. In the first scenario, a time out would be in order. But in the second scenario, I might instead explain to him that this is mommy’s special project, but he could decorate his own cake. I would gather up scrap pieces of cake for him and give him some frosting so he could work right alongside mom.

Intention matters. You wouldn’t want to put a toddler in time out for trying to be helpful. Sure if my toddler “helps” me with laundry, I’ll have to re-do it all again later, but the important thing is his intention: trying to be helpful. Much different than dumping the laundry out of the hamper while watching you closely to make sure you see every his every move. Even though it’s frustrating when your project is ruined, remembering a toddler is still learning how they can help can guide your reaction.

Let’s apply this to adulthood. Sometimes we see people around us in need. Or maybe we just want to do something for someone because we love them. Sometimes we do exactly what they need. We fill up their piping bags for them, clean up their workspace, get them a drink of water. Other times we’re more like a toddler, unsure how to help, and maybe not being helpful at all in the end.

Does that mean we should give up on trying to be helpful?

I think not.

I believe intentions really do matter. That we have to be a little more patient with the people who “mean well,” but don’t understand what we really need.

It’s the thought that counts, right?

When my daughter was in the NICU, I received many comments that didn’t really help. Some could even have been seen as insensitive. But I cannot expect everyone to understand what a NICU journey is like, or know what to say to someone going through that. And the effort they made to say something, even if they weren’t sure of the right thing to say, means something. When I chose to see the intention instead of the result, I felt loved and a sense of community. When I focused on a comment and how it wasn’t the “right” thing to say, I felt angry and alone.

And I know the biggest flaw with this is that we can’t know for sure a person’s intentions. All I can say to that is –use your better judgement. And use it wisely. Trust is a whole other topic.

I know there’s a lot more to this dilemma than the intention to be helpful, but going into every aspect of this philosophy would take a whole essay at least 10 pages long.

To me at least, the most prevalent issue I see regularly is the intention to be helpful, and whether or not that matters, and I believe that it does.


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