In my previous post I discussed the relationship of intent to the morality of rational action. I claimed that acting from good intentions means that someone never uses a harmful or bad means to accomplish an end unless four conditions are met. These are: it is necessary to accomplish the good the action is aimed at, the bad means must not be desired, the person must not be happy that such a bad means is necessary and the goodness of the act (in the end) must be greater than some other evil that would happen otherwise. Applying these observations to speech shows that there are some actions that are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are bad or good depending on the intent and circumstances of the action.
Such actions that might fall into the ‘bad’ category of speech are lying, deception, breaking promises and denying information to other people. In the ideal case, we would want to be completely open and trusting with everyone. The world is not an ideal world though. Behaving as if it were is not only irrational but immoral as well. There is a popular example that can be used to illustrate this. Imagine that a Nazi comes to your door in 1941 and asks if there are any Jews in your house. You are a heroic person and have decided to hide Jews in your house. If you are completely open with the Nazi, then the Jews will die. Therefore, some ‘bad’ action is morally required.
This situation fulfills all of the conditions for good intent. The ‘bad’ action is necessary because there is no way to save the lives of the Jews without doing that. This bad means is not desired. You are interested in saving lives, not in deception.
You are sad that such means are necessary. You would rather live in a society that did not kill Jews and one that did not require deception. Finally, the goodness of saving the lives of the Jews outweighs letting the Jews be murdered. Therefore, in this situation you can act with good intentions and deceive the Nazi soldier.
Some clarification is necessary at this point. Deception, promise-breaking and the like are not actions that are evil in themselves. Neither are they good in themselves. They are conditionally evil or conditionally good. If the situation is right, then they are good actions. If the situation is wrong then they are evil actions. They are neither good nor evil in themselves because the only times that they are good is when a bad situation requires them. One might call these sorts of actions – harmful but not necessarily evil actions.
It is also important to remember that merely having good intentions does not means that the action is good. There are still evil actions that can be done with good intentions. The act needs to be good in itself and the circumstances must permit the act as well. Once these two conditions are satisfied as well, then the act is good.