Ethics: Intention versus consequence

When getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar, public officials tend to offer their good intentions as a defense. I don’t understand why we keep accepting such defenses. Who cares that your intention was to ensure proper tax planning? You still lied about whether or not you were domiciled somewhere else. I don’t see a valid argument that your so-called “good intentions” – an appeal to the ethics of your intentions, rather than the ethics of your actions – is relevant at all. It is certainly not a mitigating circumstance.

In Norwegian, we have two words that describe intention ethics. One – intensjonsetikk – is a straight translation, while the other – sinnelagsetikk – translates as “state of mind ethics. Whichever one you use, making an appeal to the ethics of your intentions can – and often will – backfire. In my experience, the deciding factor is not about your intentions, but about who benefited or were damaged by your action. Let’s have a look at a few examples here:

The first example is the one I’ve already alluded to, where a Norwegian member of parliament (and minister of children, family, and church affairs) was revealed to have lied about maintaining a domicile in his original home county of Aust-Agder whereby he was not only provided an apartment in Oslo free of charge, but was also exempted from being taxed on this benefit.

His defense? Taxation planning. His intentions were certainly not – according to the MP himself – to avoid paying the taxes he was supposed to pay. He simply intended to avail himself of the taxation planning available under the law. To me, the judgement as to whether or not making an appeal to his good intentions would work hinges on how believable his defense is.

While it is at present impossible to know whether he will be the target of a criminal prosecution or not, the result is that he has stepped down both as leader of his party and from his post as minister, in addition to having to pay the taxes he avoided.

The second example is an urban legend I was told when I trained to volunteer in ambulances in Israel almost twenty years ago. When providing CPR to someone whose heart has stopped, you are likely to break their ribs. Apparently, there were places in the US where people refused to provide CPR to avoid being sued for breaking ribs after the fact.

Leaving aside for a moment the existence of good samaritan laws, let’s have a look at whether a defense based on an argument of intention ethics holds water. I think they do; the intention is to save a life, and the person administering CPR does not know whether they will benefit from it.

I’m not saying that intentions don’t matter. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that your stated intentions matter far less than the consequences.

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