Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Problem of Good Intentions


The Problem of Good Intentions

Peter Schultz


                  Speculating on the meaning of Machiavelli’s assertion that failure invariably comes to humans who don’t “learn how to be able not to be good.” [The Prince]


                  What might Machiavelli have meant by this? What is it “not to be good?” And why is this something that needs to be learned?


                  It has often seemed to me that attributing good intentions to American politicians was a mistake, given that they so consistently chose policies that failed. I thought: Maybe they didn’t have good intentions. Maybe they had bad intentions, but intentions that would solidify their power and fortify the status quo. Could be.


                  But what if they did have good intentions and because they did, they invariably failed? That is, because they had good intentions, because they wanted to be and do good, they would choose and stick with policies that failed. Their good intentions, i.e., their inability “to learn how to be able not to be good” led to their failures.


                  Those having and being committed to good intentions, to being and doing good, are unlikely to “go with the flow,” i.e., to see when there is no flow. If you have good intentions, going with the flow will seem bad insofar as, when there is no flow, the best course of action requires relinquishing, abandoning your well-intentioned policies. And, so, in order to not give up your desire to do good, not to give up your good intentions, you press on -futilely – even in the face of obvious failure. For example, because George W. Bush was convinced that his intentions were good – defeating terrorism – he pressed on and on and on in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact that it was obvious his policies were futile. Bush couldn’t abandon his good intentions; he didn’t “learn to be able not to be good.” He had to be good, which was his downfall.


                  Isn’t it universally so that political life requires those engaged in it to have good intentions? Isn’t that how all politicians present and sell themselves? So, perhaps, the irony of political life is that what it requires – good intentions – is precisely what often or invariably leads to political failure. The road to hell – or political failure – is in fact paved with good intentions. Succeeding in political life is best achieved by not passionately embracing good intentions. Ironically, a sense of humor about politics proves to be worthwhile, even indispensable. And, again, ironically, the most serious human beings invariably make bad politicians. 



                  Here is President Obama illustrating that he too did not learn to be able not to be good: “Obama’s message – to Karzai, the Afghan cabinet, and American troops he addressed – was one of unwavering commitment: ‘The United States does not quit once it starts on something…. We keep at it. We persevere. And together with our partners, we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.’” [435] Of course, Obama wasn’t absolutely certain of that. Nor were his partners, for example, the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. And, so, despite the obvious failures of US policies up that point, in order to do good, to persevere, to keep at it, the killings would go on and on and on, including of course the killings of American troopers, with no guarantee that the United States would succeed.  

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