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Principle Number One: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

by Izzy Kalman August 16, 2010 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

This is an installment in a series called “Ten Principals for Moral Discipline”

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions. I absolutely love this maxim. Whoever came up with it is an incredible genius. It helps explain most of the problems in the world.

Very few people have bad intentions. But most of the problems in the world are caused by good intentions. They may not seem good to us, but they seem good to the one taking the action. Good intentions alone are not enough to make our actions moral. All of us justify our actions to ourselves. It is human nature to do so. Leon Felsinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance posits that we feel psychic distress when we do things that consciously violate our own values, so we create justifications for what we do, allowing us to comfortably live with ourselves. Even Hitler, the modern symbol of ultimate evil, had good intentions, as did his followers. Otherwise, he would not have been able to convince intelligent, educated, enlightened Europeans that the world would be a better place without Jews and other impure people like homosexuals, Gypsies, blacks and intellectually deficient people. However, his good intentions spawned the most horrific genocidal crusade in human history.

During the Middle Ages and afterwards, well-intentioned witch hunters in Europe and America burned tens of thousands of women alive at the stake in the hope of ending epidemics, and they instilled paranoia in the populace, for anyone could be suspected of being a witch or a consorter with witches.

In 1919 our government instituted Prohibition of alcohol with the intention of reducing crime and other social problems associated with the consumption of alcohol. The intentions were excellent but the cure was far worse than the illness. Fortunately, our government had the wisdom to repeal Prohibition thirteen years later.

In the 1970’s, catfish farmers introduced Asian Carp into their fisheries with the good intention of keeping the water clear of plankton and algae, allowing for healthier catfish. The voracious and aggressive Asian Carp, which can reach over a hundred pounds, fly through the air, injuring boaters, and decimate native fish species. It has now overtaken the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and threaten to do the same to the Great Lakes.

For the past few decades, our government has waged a massive war against drug use. This has led to a multi-billion dollar drug industry and a commensurately expensive governmental drug-fighting establishment. Many political analysts and social commentators, and even some officers who work in drug enforcement, insist that the worldwide drug problem and the related crime and violence are the ultimate result of our war against drugs.

We cannot assume that everything that results from our good intentions will be positive. Scientists frequently refer to the “the law of unintended consequences.” The recent best-seller, SuperFreakonomics, repeatedly asserts that we should not underestimate the power of unintended negative consequences.

Because of the Columbine shooting, our country and much of the modern world has gone on a crusade against bullying. More recently, the high-profile bullying lawsuit against South Hadley High School in Massachusetts has fired up people’s hatred of bullies. In reaction, states legislatures throughout the country have beefed up their school anti-bullying laws and policies, and the US Department of Education has just made eradicating bullying its number one priority. Most other countries that have embarked on well-intentioned massive government-backed crusades to eliminate bullying have failed miserably, usually experiencing an intensification of bullying. It is foolish to believe we will succeed by using the same tactics.

Bullying has been escalating in the modern world during the same period that we have been fighting it hardest, and the reesarch has been showing that most anti-bullying programs have no benefit or make the problem even worse. Many experts insist that the anti-bullying crusade is failing because we are not implementing anti-bullying policies consistently and intensively enough. However, we need to consider another possibility: that bullying is escalating because of our anti-bullying efforts.

Good intentions do not automatically lead to moral actions. We must consider the possible negative consequences before we institute anti-bullying interventions. If our interventions cause more harm than good, the interventions are not moral regardless of the loftiness of our intentions.

The very first step to successfully tackling the bullying problem is to refuse to embark on anti-bullying initiatives just because they sound right, to demand to consider the harm that our proposed interventions may cause and to stop implementing interventions that can be shown to cause more harm than good. There already exists enough moral and psychological understanding to enable us to anticipate the negative effects that are likely to ensue from our well-intentioned anti-bully interventions.

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