I’m just a soul whose intentions are good;
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood, by Benjamin, Caldwell, Marcus
So goes the song (written for Nina Simone, made famous by The Animals). Heaven forbid: Oh lord, please—don’t let me be misunderstood.
Being misunderstood is a terrible thing, we say. My intentions are what’s important, we say—look at my intentions, not at my actions. Then you’ll understand me.
The US criminal justice system, as we’ll forever be reminded from Law & Order reruns, has two parts: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.
At least in the TV version, cops who are interested in understanding intention—intention leads to motive. It helps explain behavior, and leads to discovery.
In the courtroom, the crime is partially defined by intent. Killing someone with intent is generally considered more heinous than killing with no intention to do so. Sentencing, too, is affected by intent, as in ‘he still shows no remorse.’
We fear being misunderstood, of having bad motives attributed to us. Yet we attribute bad motives to others all the time. He has it in for me…he never listens to us…he only cares about getting his own…and so forth.
There is a constant interplay between intent and perception. It’s the territory that’s inhabited by PR firms and political consultants. And it’s that interplay that heavily determines trust, among other things.
Big Oil and Its Intent
While consuming gasoline this weekend in the great American pastime of driving while radio channel-flipping, I heard John Hoffmeister, former president of Shell Oil, respond to a question (I’m paraphrasing here by memory): “If BP really didn’t want a massive spill like this, then how can you explain their failure to have adequate prevention mechanisms in place?”
Hoffmeister then spoke some truth (again, by my memory): “Of course I wasn’t there, but in such situations, it’s often not the equipment—steel is steel—it’s the human, managerial part of the equation that goes wrong.”
It usually is. I sincerely doubt that a single employee of BP wants, desires, intends to spew hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I sincerely doubt that anyone in BP is indifferent to the pain and suffering of living creatures and the ecosystem in coastal Louisiana. Yet those motives and worse are easily attributed to Big Oil. And hardly without reason.
The face of evil is far more mundane than the conspiracy theorists suggest. The excellent Wall Street Journal series documents, at a micro-level, how good intentions can co-exist with disastrous decisions.
You can also destroy good intentions with an ongoing climate of fear, confusing goals, and conflicting pressures; see David Gebler’s account of unethical behavior.
How Good Intentions Get Subverted
It’s hard to do good from bad intentions. But Eric Burdon’s plea notwithstanding, good intentions not only won’t keep you from being misunderstood, they are impotent in the face of failure to act on them. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions.
What are some of the most common ways in which good intentions go bad? Here are a few.
1. “It’s not illegal.” Those who invoke the law as a way to justify their good intentions are scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel. Laws are simply the extreme version of social sanctions. Their presence means some proscription has gotten so odious that society chose to ossify it in a law. The absence of such ossification is so distant from evidence of good intentions as to be absurd. We rightly shame people who try to make the connection.
2. “It’s our policy.” Variations on the theme include “I was just following orders,” and “that’s just how things work.” At its best, this an evasion of personal responsibility by blaming things on a ‘system.’
3. “I had no choice.” On the face of it, like number 2, but accompanied by an anguished plea of being caught between rocks and hard places—there was no time, everybody was yelling at me to finish the job, it’s been done before…”
It’s a basal human trait to desire to be understood. More evolved human traits include the ability to detach from that desire, and at the same time do things in a ways that ensure good intentions are in fact clear.
How do investment bankers defraud entire nations? How do oil companies poison entire ecosystems? How do companies come to be mistrusted?
One step a time. One small, innocuous, seemingly inconsequential step at a time. The devil may lurk in our hearts, but he lives in the details.