It has been said that "The way to hell is paved with good intentions," and one frequently hears sin excused on the ground that it was done with a "good motive."
There are actions which are bad-in-themselves, and there are actions which are good-in-themselves, and good intentions cannot make the former good,—selfish intentions cannot make the latter bad. Foremost among actions which are bad-in-themselves are those which are classified as "criminal" by all civilized communities. Thus murder, theft, adultery, libel, etc., are always bad, and it is not necessary to inquire into the motive which prompts them. Black and white remain black and white to all eternity, and are not altered by specious argumentations. A lie is eternally a lie, and no number of good intentions can turn it into a truth. If a man tells a lie with a good intention, he has none the less uttered a lie; if a man speaks the truth with a selfish intention, he has none the less spoken the truth.
Besides those actions above mentioned, there are others which, while not classified by the law of the land as criminal, are yet recognized as wrong by nearly all intelligent people—actions pertaining to social and family life, and to our everyday relations with our fellow-men Thus when a child willfully violates its duly to its parents, the father does not stop to inquire into the motives of the child but metes out the due correction, because the act of disobedience is wrong in itself.
The reader may here ask—"In being taught, then, to regard the motive, the condition of heart, as all important, and the act as secondary, have we been taught wrongly?" No, you have not. The motive is all important, for it determines the nature of the act, and here we must distinguish between intentions and motives. When people speak of good or bad motives, they nearly always mean good or bad intentions, that is, the action is done with a certain object, good or bad, in view. The motive is the deeply seated cause in the mind, the habitual condition of heart; the intention is the purpose in view. Thus an act may spring from an impure motive, yet be done with the best intention. It is possible for one to be involved in wrong motives, and yet at the same time to be so charged with good intentions as to be continually intruding himself on other people, and interfering in their business and their lives under the delusion that they "need his help."
Intentions are more or less superficial, and are largely matters of impulse, while motives are more deeply seated, and are concerned with a man’s fixed moral condition. A man may do an action today with a good intention, and in a few weeks time do the same action with a bad intention, but in both instances the motive underlying the action will be the same.
In reality a wrong act cannot spring from a right motive, although it may be guided by a good intention. A man who can resort, whether habitually, or under stress of temptation, to murder, theft, lying, or other actions known as bad, is in a dark, confused condition of mind, and is not capable of acting from right motives. Such acts can only spring from an impure source; and this is why the Great Teachers rarely refer to motives, but always refer to actions. In their precepts they tell us what actions are bad and what are good, without any reference to motive, for the bad and good acts-in-themselves are the fruits of bad and good motives. "By their fruits ye shall know them."
In being exhorted to "judge not," we are not taught to persuade ourselves that grapes are figs and figs grapes, but must employ our judgment in clearly distinguishing between the two; so in like manner must we distinguish with unmistakable clearness, between bad actions and good actions, so as to avoid the former and embrace the latter; for only in this way can one purify his heart and render himself capable of acting from right motives. A clear perception of what is bad or good, both in ourselves and others, is not false judgment, it is wisdom. It is only when one harbors groundless suspicions about others, and reads into their actions bad and selfish intentions that he falls into that judging against which we are warned, and which is so pernicious.
There is no need to doubt the good intentions of those about us, while, at the same time, being fully alive to a knowledge of those bad actions which were better left undone, and those good actions which were better done; taking care not to do the former, and to do the latter ourselves, thus teaching by our lives instead of accusing and condemning others. Numberless wrong actions are committed every day with good intentions; and this is why so many good purposes are frustrated and end in disappointment, because the underlying motive is impure, and the good fruit which is sought does not appear; the act is out of harmony with the good intent; the means are not adapted to the end. Bad actions bring forth bitter fruit; good actions bring forth sweet fruit.
The law runs,—"Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; “ not—Thou shalt not kill, steal, or commit adultery with a bad motive."
Wrong actions are always accompanied by self-delusion, and the chief form which such self-delusion assumes is that of self-justification. If a man flatter himself that he can commit a sinful act, and yet be free from sin because he is prompted by a "pure motive," no limit can be set to the evil which he may commit.
It will be found that bad actions, in the majority of instances, are accompanied with good intentions. The object of the slanderer generally is, to protect his fellow-men from one another. Troubled with foolish suspicions, or smarting under the thought of injury, he warns men against each other, speaking only of their bad qualities, and, in his eagerness, distorting the truth. His intention is good, namely—to protect his neighbors; but his motive is bad, namely—hatred of those whom he slanders. Such a man’s good intention is frustrated by his bad action, and he at last only succeeds in separating himself from all truth-loving people.
The sore of a bad action is not cured by plastering it over with good intentions, nor is the cause of the defilement removed from the heart.
Men who are involved in bad actions cannot work from pure motives. An issue of foul water always proceeds from an impure source; and an issue of impure actions proceeds from a heart that is defiled.
It greatly simplifies life, and solves all complex problems of conduct, when certain actions are recognized as eternally bad, and others as eternally good, and the bad are forever abandoned, and final refuge is taken in the good.
The wise and good perform good actions, and motive, act, and intention being harmoniously adjusted, their lives are powerful for good, are free from disappointment, and the good fruit of their efforts appears in due season. They do not need to defend their actions by subtle and specious arguments, nor to enter into interminable metaphysical speculations concerning motives; but are content to act, and to leave their actions to bear their own fruit.
Let us not try to persuade ourselves that our good intentions will wipe out the results of our bad actions, but let us resort to the practice of good actions; for only in this way can we acquire goodness; only thus can the life be established on fixed principles, and the mind be rendered capable of comprehending, and working from, pure motives.
—From The Shining Gateway
More from James Allen
James Allen was a little-known philosophical writer and poet. He is best recognized for his book, As a Man Thinketh. Allen wrote about complex subjects such as faith, destiny, love, patience, and religion but had the unique ability of explaining these subjects clearly and in a way that is easy to understand. He often wrote about cause and effect, sowing and reaping, as well as overcoming sadness, sorrow, and grief. For more information on the life of James Allen, click here.