It is often said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The meaning of this phrase is simply that all too often people with good intentions end up doing more harm than good. One may wonder why this is the case. It may be posited that the reason is twofold; first: people focus on “what is seen” instead of “what is unseen;” second, people are guided by empathy more than by reason.
The first issue is that people focus on what the French economist Frédéric Bastiat called “that which is seen” and not on what he called “that which is unseen.” This means that people tend to look only at the immediate, obvious effects of an action and not the long term consequences of the action. This can be applied not only to Bastiat’s field, economics qua economics, but to the world in general. The trend is to observe only those short-run effects of a policy, idea, or innovation without considering the long-run effects of it. For example, perhaps banning the use of coal may have some benefits (e.g. be more environmentally friendly); however, to ban coal without having a cost-effective and efficient alternative would do more harm than good (e.g. the cost of energy would become too high, harming the poorest people in society). This is the problem of not looking at the long-run, well intentioned policies end up harming precisely those they are designed to help. This lends itself to the second issue.
Empathy is generally seen as a primer virtue. It is argued that the ability to feel someone else’s pain is a tremendous asset and that it will lead to favourable outcomes. However, far more frequently empathy simply is not an effective means of helping others. It may make one feel good about oneself (“oh, I can feel for that person, therefore, I am a good person”) but it rarely does empathy terminate in favourable result. For example, in humanitarianism the empathetic impulse to donate money to poor nations has many downsides, e.g. it perpetrates a self-defeating image of the nations’ people as unable to lift themselves out of poverty (the film Poverty Inc. covers this and related issues very well). Thus, empathy can only go so far. As Paul Bloom puts it in his famous article, The Baby in the Well, “Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.” Therein lays the problem, people are misguided by the human love of others and chose ill fitted means to achieve their noble ends.
Good intentions are not sufficient in solving any issue. What is needed in almost all cases is long-term rational thinking. Short-term thinking must be completely disposed of and empathy most be placed into its rightful home, not as the solution, but as a drive towards a solution. Intentions must give way to thinking. Empathy must give way to reason. If this does not occur the greatest tyranny will be perpetuated, as C.S. Lewis put it:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
C.S. Lewis. God in the Dock.
Paul Bloom (2013). “The Baby in the Well,” in The New Yorker. Online: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/20/the-baby-in-the-well
Frederic Bastiat. “What is Seen and What is Not Seen.” Online: https://admin.fee.org/files/doclib/bastiat0601.pdf