Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. Almost any significant action has unintended consequences, and in some cases these consequences can turn out to be the exact opposite of what we intended. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, not in the sense that we only start to think about doing good when we’re already on the way to hell, but in the sense that our good intentions result not in more good, but in more harm.
This is the classic distinction in moral theory between consequentialists and deontologists. For the former, an action is morally good if and only if it produces good results, whatever the intentions. For the latter, an action is good or bad depending on the nature or character of the action. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any good that might come from it. Immanuel Kant is perhaps the best-known deontologist.
Communism comes to mind as an example of good intentions gone wrong. But human rights activism is no stranger to this either. Some of the best intentioned human rights activism does in fact result in harm being done. A few examples:
- Some western governments have introduced hate crime laws and hate speech laws. They wanted these laws to target Islamist extremists preaching hate in mosques and mobilizing and recruiting terrorists. It turns out, in fact, that these very laws are now used by Islamist extremists to target critics of Islam.
- In a previous post, I mentioned the negative effect of international development aid on democracy.
- If you agree that the U.S. “war on terror” is (or was) at least in part about “protecting our values” and “protecting a free society” then it seems somewhat tragic that this war has led a free society to engage in torture, rendition, arbitrary arrest etc.
- A hasty imposition of democracy (“dropping democracy from a plane“) can lead to ethnic unrest and even civil war. Elections become exercises in ethnic census, and when one group loses, the other rebels.
- In the case of Sudan and Darfur, we saw that the indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court led to the expulsion of aid workers from Sudan, aggravating the plight of his victims. And, of course, making the indictment all the more justified.
- One can also question the need for the bombing campaign against Serbia following the atrocities in Kosovo.
So, I would say it never harms to think first before you act, although no amount of thinking can prevent all unintended consequences.