Do Good Intentions Matter When Commenting about Public Personalities?

Do intentions matter when blogging about someone?

Posted Jan 31, 2011

The motives of certain commentators was questioned shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.  A lone gunman had killed 33 people on the Virginia Tech campus and then shot himself. In the aftermath, some psychiatrists provided their professional opinions of the killer for the media. 

A subsequent editorial in the Psychiatric News, the official newsletter of the American Psychiatric Association, expressed displeasure with the psychiatrists who commented.  The editorial opined that a psychiatrist who was asked for such an opinion ought to consider his or her motives.  If asked, and:

"...if one's motivation is to seek fame or to increase referrals to one's practice, then just say no, as this is not ethical."

The editorial expressed how important virtuous intentions — or the lack thereof — can be. That argument follows the lines of "virtue ethics" — a philosophy that focuses on a person's good or bad intentions. Virtue ethics as applied to judging others takes us a few steps toward ethical judgments of personality.

Our inclination to judge other people stems from three sources of motives. Some motives arise from the groups to which we belong, some from our own individual needs, and some from the basic psychological processes that constitute our minds. In answering "Why do we judge others?" (and why we might do so in a blog), motives at each of these levels might be considered to address the concerns of virtue ethics.

Our motives "as members of a group" draw attention to the fact that each of us is inclined (e.g., by our evolutionary heritage) to make moral judgments of others. Such moral judgments promote the continuity and smooth functioning of a group by singling out and punishing wrongdoers. Although that can be a positive function in some instances, a group member also may be tempted to join in with "the sadism of crowds" — the behavior of audiences (of which a blogger may be a part) who like to watch social transgressors be punished. In premodern societies such behavior included stonings, beheadings, and disembowlings. On the internet today, such acts involve demeaning someone's character, name-calling, undermining someone's reputation, or reducing a person to a joke. Although some of these activities may provide moral cautions to wrongdoers, they also can devastate an innocent or otherwise good person caught in a bad situation.

Our motives as individuals often concern our personal well-being and the well-being of others we care about. Among our personal motives is to better understand a person so that we can better predict the other person's behavior. Predicting others, in turn, helps us plan our own actions. Another motive for judging people at the individual level is to make ourselves feel better. For example, we might compare ourselves favorably to someone in public life who is involved in an embarrassing scandal -- sometimes called a "downward comparison".  We might think, for example, "At least I never did something so foolish!".

Such downward comparisons can enhance our own feelings of self worth, temporarily.  We might also judge others for our own political or economic gain (as the editorial in the Psychiatric News pointed out). A blogger may take an extreme position about someone's character so as to attract attention to her writing and thereby enhance her status. Yet such motives may not always be bad: If the chair of a mental health unit at a respected hospital commented on the Virginia Tech shooting and encouraged people to refer others with psychiatric difficulties to the clinic, there might be a positive outcome; a private practitioner might accomplish the same end.

A third group of intentions arise at the non-conscious level of an individual but nonetheless influence him or her. These nonconscious influences may be generally held and include attitudes about others owing to their race, religion, or sexual orientation. These implicit (uncontrolled) attitudes act quickly and unintentionally to alter one's thoughts.

Idiosyncratic attitudes also can emerge from one's particular learning history. Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, speculated about Linda Tripp, a government employee who provided evidence of President Clinton's extramarital relationships during the President's impeachment proceedings.  Kipnis wrote that Tripp might have possessed an especially pronounced moral disgust toward sexual infidelity that arose from her own father's infidelity.  Experimental evidence supports the general principles behind this explanation although it would be difficult to prove in an individual case without the person in question agreeing to laboratory testing.

It seems plausible to me that a person who cultivates virtues such as common sense, generosity, tolerance, and loving-kindness, will likely make better judgments about others than someone who eschews such virtues. Conversely, it seems that someone who is actively malicious in intent will bring about bad ends more often than is usually the case.

Nonetheless, thinking in terms of virtue ethics can take us only so far in considering whether a judgment of another person is good or bad.

My central point concerning virtue ethics is that there are a multiplicity of motives for judging others. Many everyday motives, such as the need for power, the desire for attention, self comparisons, moral judgments, and nonconscious processes will expectably enter into the mix of conscious and nonconscious intentionality.

It would be naive to believe that anyone could sort out all of their motives, let alone predict the impact a specific judgment might have when expressed.  Virtuous people can make mistakes by overlooking the faults of others or by being swept along by personal biases and inner processes.  Malicious people may at times serve the broader social good by identifying another person's real misconduct. Moreover, more complex judgments such as finding humor in others' foibles, mischievously identifying the flaws of the powerful (see who should retire soon), or simply educating others about character by dramatizing and exaggerating what another person does are difficult to characterize as involving clearly good or bad intentions.

Put another way, cultivating good intentions is likely helpful to a blogger who hopes to judge others ethically, but there are other ingredients in the recipe of moral judgments that are necessary to good taste. Both good and less-than-good intentions almost surely enter into much of what we do. The presence of less-good intentions need not by themselves undermine our better nature; our judgments of others cannot not be judged by our intentions alone. 


On the sadism of crowds and the bad behavior relative to public figures, see p. 113 of Kipnis, L. (2010). How to become a scandal. New York: Henry Holt. Or, go back to Canetti, E. (1960/1984) Crowds and power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [Trans. by C. Stewart; Original work 1960).

Comparisons to others that make us feel better: .Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 231-248.

The quote from the Psychiatric News was from the May 18, 2007 edition: Anonymous (2007, May 18th). Ethics Reminder Offered About 'Goldwater Rule' on Talking to Media. Psychiatric News, 42, p. 2.

 Gracia, J. L. A. (1995). Intention-Sensitive Ethics. Public Affairs Quarterly, 9, 201-213.

Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer