“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him.”–Mark Twain

Yes, it’s a matter of intention vs. action, isn’t it?  Mark Twain points up in a comic way something related to a much disputed philosophical issue, as might be illustrated by one of the differences between the followers of Emmanuel Kant (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals–a mouthful, isn’t it?) and those of John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism).

As Kant’s introducer, Marvin Fox, remarks in the Introduction to Kant’s work (stay with me here), “Kant arrives at the conclusion that the supreme principle of morality can be formulated in this manner:  ‘Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a Universal Law of Nature.’  He defines the term ‘maxim’…as the ‘subjective principle of volition’….We must note with care that the categorical imperative is directed toward the maxim, the principle behind the action, rather than toward the particular act itself….Only the maxim can be judged morally.”

Taking the opposite tack, Mill says, “I submit that he who saves another from drowning in order to kill him by torture afterwards does not differ only in motive from him who does the same thing from duty or benevolence; the act itself is different.”  He goes on to clarify (if not to make murkier) the distinction between motive and intention (or motive and “morality”)–“The morality of the action depends entirely upon the intention–that is, upon what the agent wills to do.  But the motive, that is, the feeling which makes him will to do so, if it makes no difference in the act, makes none in the morality:  though it makes a great difference in our moral estimation of the agent, especially if it indicates a good or a bad habitual disposition–a bent of character from which useful, or from which hurtful actions are likely to arise.”  Got that?  This footnote (for this is part of a footnote) appears only in the 1864 edition and was dropped after that.  It does seem to imply, doesn’t it, that even accidental bad outcomes from good intentions may be estimated as otherwise than good, doesn’t it?

Anyone able to shed a gentler and more able light on this issue is encouraged to do so–I for one find it a real conundrum, apt to make me break into the Monty Python “Philosopher’s Song.”  But seriously, I’d like to hear from someone about this.

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Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments

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