Excluding the mentally ill, I firmly believe that people are good and make the best decisions they can with the information available to them. For example, if someone chooses to speed to get to work on time, they are aware that it is wrong, but being late for work, possibly getting fired, and not being able to support their family is a worse consequence than a ticket, so they choose to speed. In their mind, this is the “right” decision. Their intentions are good (make sure I can support my family) given the situation and information available to them, even though from our perspective their actions are selfish and wrong. That is why it is so important when judging someone’s behavior to make sure that you take into account their intentions and motivation in addition to their actions. Our criminal justice system even accounts for the reasons behind people’s actions, as that is what differentiates murder from manslaughter and such. One of my earliest memories is a great example of how, even with the best possible intentions, you can still produce unintended and harmful results.
I was 4 years old, and my sister and I had been playing outside on a hot, Summer afternoon while my mom and dad worked in our garden. As I was so young, my parents didn’t think it was smart to put me behind the controls of a 300 pound power wheelchair yet, so I was using a manual chair. When it was time to go inside, my folks had their hands full carrying the vegetables they had picked, so they asked my 6 year old sister, Stephanie, to push me up to the house. She had helped me get around before in the house, so she got behind my chair and started pushing. What everyone failed to take into account however, was that pushing a wheelchair on smooth carpet or tile is very different from pushing it on hilly, uneven ground. This became readily apparent very quickly though, when after about six feet my wheelchair hit a tree root and tipped over, sending me face first into the ground.
I’m not sure I have ever seen my parents move much faster than they did as they ran over to me. I remember my mother reacting in panic when she picked me up and saw my face covered in blood and tears. Thankfully, it looked a lot worse than it was, and I ended up with nothing more than a fat lip, bloody nose, and some bruises. Honestly, my sister probably suffered worse than I did, as she had to cope with the fact that she had just tipped over the wheelchair of her defenseless, disabled brother. My parents felt terrible on two levels. First, their attempt to avoid having to come back out to get me had caused me harm, which made them feel guilty. Second, they had put Stephanie in a position where she could have been scarred for life if I had been really injured. All of this pain, guilt, and mental anguish were in no way the results of any malice or premeditated rage. They were merely the results of making the best, most well intentioned, decisions based on the information available to them.
One of the main reasons that we frequently end up with unintended, negative consequences even with the best of intentions is due to a shortcoming in our neurological makeup. People suffer from a decision making phenomenon called, “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI). This issue in our thinking basically implies that when we are making most decisions, we base our choices on the information most readily available to us at that moment, and not necessarily on what we would do if we took the time to logically think things through. For example, my parents saw that I needed pushed up to the house, and they saw my sister near me who had pushed me many times before. So, under the spell of WYSIATI their brains quickly connected the dots and came up with the solution of having Stephanie bring me in. If my parents had stopped, looked at the situation in detail, and thought about potential issues, they would have easily seen that a four foot child pushing a four and a half foot wheelchair over uneven ground wasn’t a great idea. Stopping to make decisions this way is slow and tedious though, which is why we run on “autopilot” a lot of the time to speed things up. This is fine for most decisions throughout your day, but every now and then WYSIATI rears its ugly head, and you end up picking up your bloodied, disabled son out from under his wheelchair.
You can see how even with the best intentions, with unavoidable mental failings like WYSIATI, you can get unexpected and unwanted results from your actions. Since these types of unintended consequences are going to happen occasionally, you need to learn how to best manage these situations when they occur. First, you need to be sincerely remorseful and apologetic for whatever you did. Intended or not, you did something wrong, and you need to make amends for that. A well-timed, sincere apology can be a very powerful thing, especially in situations like this. After dealing with the physical consequences of your misstep, you have to be sure to manage the emotional fallout on yourself. While there is nothing wrong with feeling bad for causing harm, even on accident, all too often we end up severely punishing ourselves for something we never intended to happen, nor had much control over. Take a breath (or ten), gain some perspective, and really go over the sequence of events before seeing yourself as this horrible monster that should be put to death. The fact that you feel so bad for doing something accidentally, is much more telling about who you are than the unintended results of a well-intentioned action.
While having good intentions does not absolve you of any wrongdoing, it definitely needs to be considered when looking at and making judgments about certain situations. As my parents would reply to us sarcastically when we would say something was an accident when we were kids, “I didn’t mean to blow up the world. It just happened.” Consequences must be accounted for, just not in a vacuum. Make sure you take into consideration the intended results of someone’s behavior before you cast judgment. Also, be certain to remember your own intentions the next time you start vilifying yourself over something you had little control over. Remember that you can even get away with throwing your crippled, baby brother to the ground if your intentions were pure. Just because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, doesn’t mean you have to drive on it.