Ewan Morrison

Word-Less

The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Is parading our good intentions online making us blind to real outcomes?

Posted Apr 15, 2019

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or so the proverb goes.

I have to admit that other people's good intentions have caused me many problems in life, and that I am, as a result, deeply concerned by how much we, as individuals in today's hi-tech society, are now engaged in the parading of well-meaning attitudes, as if we're all competing to be seen as virtuous.

This subject came alive for me recently, after I gave a talk on Why We'd Be Happier Without Utopia. The talk was a historical rundown of how almost every time that any social group has attempted to build a Utopia - literally attempting to embody their good intentions in the creation of a perfect place - it has ended in tragedy, misery and the abandonment of their project.

After the talk, a mature woman came up to me. She described herself as having a mixture of hippie political idealism and new-age spirituality. After pleasantries, she got to the bare bones of it. My talk had made her angry. It would, she said, rob everyone of hope and make the world miserable. All of the utopians I had talked about, she said - and these included utopian socialiststhe diggers, perfectionist religious groups, Fourieristsfree love groups and new agers who had set up collectives and alternative living experiments over the last three hundred years - all these people, even though they may have failed, still had good intentions, she said. It was unfair of me, to criticise them.

I tried to explain to her that my task was to look at the actual consequences of these well-meaning projects. With a scientific eye. With an ethical eye. After all, what I had discovered was that the real-life outcomes were too awful and immoral to be swept under the carpet by claiming that the experimenters had good intentions. Because, after all, the Rev Jim Jones of the People's Temple, had good intentions, but the result was the Jonestown Cult Massacre. And the hippie, Jesus Movement group known as The Children of God, also had good intentions and wanted to bring free love to everyone, but yet their cult was prosecuted for rape, sexual coercion, and child sex abuse. And for that matter, if we were to take Pol Pot and Stalin at their word, they clearly believed, and had everyone else believe, that they had good intentions. In fact, it's alarming how often on the internet today we hear people claim that Stalin's genocides weren't as bad as Hitler's genocides because, Stalin "meant well".

I then explained to the woman that I had a personal stake in this debate, because my parents had been hippies, and my traumatic childhood had been the unintended consequence of their ideals. I told her that I knew many other children of hippies who had also had childhoods of neglect and abuse, and that surely, she wasn't asking me to sweep away all the evidence of that personal injury and forty years of difficult lived experience for the sake of a few lines about peace and love.

She was not pleased. "You want to put my generation on trial," she said, and stormed away, leaving me with the feeling that there is a generational split between the boomers and my generation, Generation X. Most likely because we are the living consequences of their ideals, and they don't like what they see.

There is a particular weakness in human psychology when it comes to our goals and dreams. We use magical thinking and confirmation bias in the following way: We set ourselves an idealistic or ambitious goal that will make us feel good about ourselves - say, for example, attempting to grow tomato plants in a cold climate. We make ourselves believe that by sheer force of will power, positive thinking, faith, love and perseverance, the plants will grow. But when they wither and die, we either pretend to ourselves that they grew quite well, or we blame some other factor and depict it as malevolent (the local cats, an unexpected storm). The last thing we want to do is examine our initial intentions, because they may turn out to have been ill-planned or even foolish. We then experience cognitive dissonance; we feel emotional distress at having failed at out own values, so to get rid of that horrible feeling we create rationalisations after-the-fact that justify what we have done. We tell ourselves that even though, the results weren’t quite perfect, trying to grow tomato plants in a cold and barren land, is still a beautiful ideal. Then, we hide all the evidence of failure. We might even feel ashamed after telling all of our neighbours about our great plan, and so we lie and tell everyone the plants grew brilliantly.

This is no big deal when it is one person’s struggle with their own private garden, but when such good intention projects are executed on a society-wide scale, the results can be disastrous. First Scottish philosopher David Hume and then economist Adam Smith, with his "law of unintended consequences," warned us that "interventions in complex systems tend to create undesirable outcomes". The theory goes that the larger the planned change in society, the greater is the probable likelihood of unforeseen and adverse outcomes. Substantial evidence was gathered to back up this theory in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton and most recently by neuroscientist and anthropologist Terrence Deacon.

No matter how much inventors, social engineers, corporations and government leaders try to execute plans based on good intentions, unforeseen consequences have persistently led to the opposite of what was intended.

Trish B. Freeimages.
Portrait of Mao Zhedong. Tiananmen Square.
Source: Trish B. Freeimages.

One of the most ambitious pieces of society-wide utopian planning was Chinese Communist leader Chairman Mao’s "Four Pests Project" in The Great Leap Forward (1958-62). It was intended to eradicate mosquitoes, flies, rats and above all sparrows from China, destroying all the parasitic creatures that diminished the rice crops. But after the populace killed 23 million birds, something unanticipated occurred: swarms of beetles emerged, then locusts, slugs and all of the smaller crop-eating insects that the birds would have eaten. This massive ecological imbalance contributed considerably to the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61. In one county, Guangshan, one-third of the population died from starvation, while the total national death toll from starvation was 20-45 million people. Mao Zedong's communist party had to then hide the evidence of mass starvation, and then, in the next year to import more birds from the Soviet Union. With the magical thinking, made of the union between guilty conscience, reality denial, and self-deception, the communist party declared the Great Leap Forward to have been a huge success, with the suppression of anyone who had evidence that proved otherwise. Good intentions prevailed again.

Other examples of unintended consequences include dams which cause droughts in states and countries other than the ones in which they were built. (New Mexico vs Texas, Turkey vs Iraq).

The unintended consequences of the internet have included massive shrinkage in the music industry, print journalism, and book stores; along with the aggressive emergence of trolling, fake news, online identity theft, online bullying, and bullycide. While, new roads that have been designed to be safe, end up causing more accidents than “dangerous roads”, due to changes in driver’s “perceived risk”.

In the UK, a well-meaning increase in state funds, intended to alleviate the problems of single parents, contributed to an increase in the number of single parents and made it harder for young couples on welfare benefits to stay together (parents receive more state benefits if they live apart), Thus adding to the social fragmentation that the state had attempted to mitigate.

Further examples of unintended consequences include: Air conditioning systems that raise city temperatures by 10% and government road building plans to alleviate congestion that lead to an increase in car ownership. There’s also Superbugs that have been created by the overuse of antibiotics. 

Freakishly positive unexpected outcomes can also occur, such as the side effect of anti-depressants that make them a cure for premature ejaculation or the side effect of Aspirin, that makes it useful in preventing heart attacks. 

The west’s largest attempt at declaring our good intentions on a world scale was Live Aid (1985). It pains us to question the real outcomes of that great charity event. We don’t want to look at the evidence that $85 of the $220 million intended to relieve the famine in Ethiopia ended up in the hands of the country's dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, leader of a communist military force that took control of Ethiopia in the 1970s. Or at what Spin magazine called "the fraudulent use of the charitable money by unmistakably the world's most brutal dictator, and the naive, hubris drenched complicity of Live and [Bob] Geldof".  It's too horrible and it makes us feel complicit, so instead we stick to singing “We Are The World” once a year, and keep on telling ourselves that we meant well.

We're living at a time when the good intentions fallacy is gaining dominance: the belief that because we mean well, everything, in reality, has to correspond to that wish. It's a variant on the older righteousness fallacy, that everything righteous people do and say is good.

It might be wiser for us to accept that the law of unintended consequences messes with all intentions, and approach all our well-intentioned plans with caution and concern. But this seems highly unlikely in an age in which the signaling of our good intentions on social media has become one of the ways in which we construct our fragile identities. We signal our virtues every day for the likes and clicks of virtual others. We feel we are useless nonentities unless we endlessly tell social media: “I, personally, am saving the world, right now”.

It is much more comforting for us to live in a fantasy world in which consequences don’t exist and all our intentions come true; in which every time we are troubled with doubts about how things actually turn out, we conceal the evidence and evade judgment by insisting that “we meant well”. Real life consequences can be ugly, and disturbing and if we hide from them then we never stand a chance of learning from them.

But how psychologically healthy is it, really, to live in a state of denial all the time? In a world in which intentions dominate and outcomes are banished, nothing is of any consequence.