106 - On Thoughts And Actions - Moral Letters for Modern Times
I have not been too busy to answer your question, Deuteros. I just did not want to, at least not yet. People use the excuse of circumstances to pass off blame for their own decisions, but I will not do so. We do not control circumstances, true, but we are in full control of how we react to circumstances. So when someone says they are too busy to do something, this means simply that they have set different priorities.
You wonder why I was hesitant to answer you, when I have been so willing to expand on every question up to now. When I feel myself shying away from a topic I have learned it comes from one of three causes: either I do not understand it yet and so feel I have nothing useful to say; or I think I understand it but I do not like the direction my thoughts are leading; or regardless of my understanding I do not like the topic.
“What sorts of questions fall into this latter category,” you ask? They are questions the answers to which serve only to amuse and not to enlighten. In other words, the topic is a diversion and learning about it may bring you some knowledge but will not bring you further along the path to wisdom. In remembering that I have much to learn myself, however, I can be of more generous spirit in this instance. Perhaps your question is one that will bring wisdom, and it is merely my own blindness that prevents me from seeing the way.
So you have asked if the operation of the well-ordered mind, namely our thoughts, is itself equivalent to the actions we take or whether one is superior to the other. This is not a “which came first” chicken and egg situation, but more a “can one exist without the other” situation. We know people can act with bad intention and so cause harm on purpose. And we know they can act with good intention and create a good outcome on purpose. I think the more interesting category of actions come about when people act without seemingly good or bad intention and so appear to cause harm or good accidentally or unknowingly.
In the world of business we tend to judge actions by their effects. If your action harmed me, then I do not need to wonder at your motivation because the important thing is I have been harmed. If a situation benefits me, I do not need to question whether it was intended to be beneficial because I still profit from it. We have been helped or hurt, and can we identify the cause? Having identified the action we do not spend much time guessing at the motive.
But to the extent we feel it necessary to judge motivations in business, we are comfortable to infer motive from actions. Sometimes we want to understand motive to be better prepared for future actions. We are guided in the direction of looking at the impact of actions because antitrust laws prevent us from talking to competitors. And is it really necessary to ask a competitor if they wished to gain market share when they lowered their prices? Moreover, if we did ask them, would we be responsible business persons if we trusted their answer?
I am reminded of the wise words of Confucius when he said
At first, my way of dealing with others was to listen to their words and to take their actions upon trust. Now, my way is to listen to what they say and then to watch what they do.
People lie, they mislead, and more charitably, they sometimes do not understand their motivations themselves.
Let us leave the world of business and enter the realm of law. In criminal law the question of motives is paramount. The action is given, the only question is one of intent. What was the defendant’s state of mind when they committed the crime? We treat someone who accidentally killed a person very differently from someone who did it in a fit of rage, and differently yet again if they planned the foul deed. But is the legal world really so different from that of business?
To start with, how many defendants are telling the truth when we observe almost all of them insisting they did not commit the crime? I cannot believe our police or prosecutors are so inept that they never manage to identify the responsible perpetrator even some of the time. Can they make mistakes? Most definitely for they are only human. But it strains credulity to assume they are mistaken all of the time, every time. So the logical conclusion is that defendants lie to protect themselves. Our system is such that we do not have to help lay out the rope for our hangman, and this is good and proper. So what is the court and jury to do? We fall back on the weight of the evidence.
A case proved by circumstantial evidence is nothing more than inferring motives from actions. The prosecution seeks to establish the defendant took certain actions. The judge instructs the jury they are entitled to infer the defendant took them with a specific intention. The defendant will not tell us their mind, so we read their mind by inferring their motivation from their actions.
Finally we come to the crux of the question. We know it is possible to say one thing and mean another. Is it possible to think one way and act another? It is possible to think an evil thought, but nonetheless act another way. Every child forced to apologize to their sibling at the end of an unresolved squabble is familiar with this situation.
But how about the consequences of acting in pursuit of a virtuous thought that is the product of a well-ordered mind? Can such an act be of equal value to the reasoned thought? “But wait,” you say, “There is no guarantee that your action will achieve the intended result. Though your intentions are pure, you can still make things worse. There’s a reason for the saying ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’.”
It is indisputably true that actions may not have the desired outcome. But this is the same thing as saying we do not control external circumstances. We control our thoughts, and we control our judgment of things, but we do not fully control external things. The good Samaritan sees a person lying on the sidewalk, and seeks to aid them. In their attempts to help, a blood clot is dislodged and the person has a stroke and dies. Was the attempted aid an evil because it had a bad outcome?
I maintain that you are responsible for your thoughts first, and your actions second. You should seek to take action in the way that represents your best effort, consistent with your thoughts. So long as your judgment was reasoned, the good or bad outcome of your actions does not make your thought greater or less worthy.
Moreover, because your actions can go awry, and can lead to consequences inconsistent with your thoughts, your thoughts are necessarily superior to your actions. The philosopher having attained the wisdom of a well-ordered mind must not let the outcome of their actions undermine the foundation of their thoughts.
Thus I tell you that although the external world almost certainly will judge you by the outcome of your actions, you must focus on the reasons for your actions, and this alone. I have to thank you, my dear Deuteros, for insisting that I answer your question. For now I feel I have come to understand these words of Seneca, which I will pass on as my payment in return for your unexpected favor:
No one, I think, rates higher or is more consecrated to virtue than he who has lost his reputation for being a good man in order to keep from losing the approval of his conscience.