Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Best of Intentions

Early in my undergrad years I had a conversation with an old school (as it were) special education teacher who had been in the business for 30+ years. In his presence, I expressed anger and frustration with some parents who had made a poor educational decision for their child. The teacher relayed to me a view that I have since heard repeated many times; that ultimately, parents just want the best for their children.

That argument made sense; it reminded me (A 19 year old undergrad at the time) that just because I might vehemently disagree with someone’s decisions or values, that it doesn’t make them a lousy human being. And so this attitude has value, it is simply one more way of reminding us that the world is very often a shade of grey and that we should avoid ad hominem reasoning.

Moreover, it can be aversive for people to experience criticism. It can cut into their enjoyment of an experience or hope in an idea. If a person is already frustrated or struggling, this could be emotionally devastating. Also, many people are increasingly aware that we live a diverse world that encompasses many views. The attitude of biting our tongues is defended so that a kind of harmony and cooperative spirit is maintained.
This is an ethical argument and perhaps could be described as Utilitarian in that it produces a “good” for the greatest amount of people. And for these reasons, focus exclusively on the positive or at least neutral is sometimes defended. There are many common formulations which represent this idea. Thumper’s Rule states: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.

But recently this issue has returned to my thought and there are some aspects within it that trouble me. I expect this is due to my world view having evolved considerably since the time when I first heard these formulations.

I now operate under certain assumptions that would have been unthinkable to me as a 19 year old; namely, that even criticism and doubt may hold value. It is not that they intrinsically hold value, but simply that they can contain it. Nor would I argue that criticism must be given for the sake of criticism. Instead I would argue that criticism should only be given when merited. I contrast this with “scrutiny” which can and must always be given to decisions and ideas. I will even argue that proper “scrutiny” which I define as the scouring of an idea for merit, always precedes good criticism.

Moreover, criticism may help others realize a problem which may allow this issue to be reduced or resolved. It seems that by the non delivery of the criticism people may be exposed to harm. What is more, when a criticism leads to broad change it also brings a “good” to many people.

Therefore, we now have a conflict between the ethical arguments for avoiding criticism and the ethical arguments in favor of offering them when merited. Harm may come either way, so how can we read this issue?

To resolve this I call into play a philosophy of ethics, known as Deontology. This philosophy, declares that humans have a right to self-determine. It also states that we should treat ends and means as equally important.

In the deontological view we are bound by a duty, to speak the truth. In the absence of full truth we may not grant others the right to fully self-determine. And the harm the truth may emotionally cause does not outweigh the right of the individual to be treated as a “full person” and given the true ability to make a decision and given the entire truth.

In the US, these deontological points are the basis for the idea of informed consent, or the standard in which patients have a right to give, withhold, or withdrawal consent to a procedure. In the US, persons under the age of 18 are considered minors with the inability to make certain decisions. A proxy (Usually the parent) therefore makes these decisions for the child’s benefit; the law having made the assumption that the proxy’s informed consent matches what the minor would have consented to had they been of legal age. This is relevant to this case, because the parents making the decision are not making it for themselves, but for their child.

But while this assumption might be generally true it is also imperfect and this has been noted. There are cases where parents have refused blood transfusions for their badly injured child based on their religious beliefs and been overruled by court order. The informed refusal of the parents on behalf their child, was no longer considered a reasonable stand in for the child’s consent. It seems that in this case, the best of intentions of the parents, could lead to harm for the child.

And this takes us to several new fallacies for my list:

#72 Special Pleading

To argue against a general rule in a singular case, because of metaphysical, experiential, or emotional circumstance.


You don’t understand that how parents perceive things, so of course certain treatments seems ridiculous to you.

#73 The fallacy of Self-Righteousness

This is a subtype of Special Pleading. This fallacy confuses good intentions with an actual good or facts. This fallacy is almost the same as the Fallacy of Samaritan Intent. The difference is that the Fallacy of Samaritan Intent attempts to excuse an argument when harm has already been caused, whereas in this fallacy harm does not have to be present.


Mary: Why is your child on a drug that has a high rate of serious side effects?

Rick: I want him to be successful in school.

And this takes us to the last fallacy and the one most relevant to the topic of this post.

#74 The Fallacy of Good Intentions

This fallacy is used to try to avoid any future criticism of a given group based on that group’s good intentions. It is similar to self-righteousness, but it does not argue against specific criticism, instead it tries to totally avoid present criticism and prevent any future criticism. It is also similar to an appeal to the gallery, as it invokes specific groups’ sympathies. There is a cliché that encapsulates this idea: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.


Parents just want the best for their children, so please don’t make any negative statements about what they choose for their children.

My conclusion on this issue is that remaining silent violates the deontological responsibility of any individual to speak up when others are offering false or misleading information. The excuse that those who offer such misleading statement are parents is no real excuse at all and that the best of intentions, is not enough by itself.


Blogger Alyric said...

Thanks Jon - really interesting post as always:)

4:28 PM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Really interesting post.

5:13 PM  
Blogger notmercury said...

"My conclusion on this issue is that remaining silent violates the deontological responsibility of any individual to speak up when others are offering false or misleading information."

Amen to that!

6:41 PM  
Blogger Joeymom said...

I'll remember this the next time I get berated for not having my kid put through chellation. After all, I have good intentions...

8:39 PM  
Blogger Zaecus said...

Very well written, and relevant to me, thank you.

2:13 AM  
Blogger mcewen said...

I didn't know that was "Thumper's rule'.

"If enough data are collected, anything may be proven by statistical methods ' = Williams and Holland's Law

Best wishes

9:12 AM  
Blogger LIVSPARENTS said...

My word-power word for the week- deontological.

I find it more relevent in my work life; railing against the 'wrongs' of business practice without actually pointing others toward the 'right' path. I am therefore guilty of undeontological practices.

You are right to use the 'deontological' ideal in your pursuit of informing those parents of potentially unsafe, useless or untested therapies.

I, for one, may not act upon your advice in some cases, but I will certainly take them under consideration. Which, after all, is your intent.


10:20 AM  
Blogger VAB said...

There is nothing wrong with explaining your reasoning to people who seem to have failed to grasp something that you believe to be true, but remember that decisions simply have to be made and it is parents, not professionals, who have to make those decisions. Remember also that you are only one professional among many that parents see. Providing advice is a part of the role of any professional, but control is the role of none.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...


thank you for visiting an reading my post.

"but remember that decisions simply have to be made and it is parents, not professionals, who have to make those decisions."

I will remember this, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Joeker said...

Hm... I find this to hit pretty close to home, to me. You may take that comment however you wish.

I enjoy your views, and your blog.
I think you're one of the best bloggers I've found as of yet.

I have only found your blog recently, but I'll be sure to come here often.

Thank you for your time,

6:34 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

You are always welcome here Joeker, even if you disagree.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Joeker said...

My thanks.

I find myself to be in agreeance with your blog, and many of your views. I don't think I'll disagree much here though, you're quite open-minded.
I find this post to be a solid principle.

Nodding in agreement,

8:12 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home