Doing Good Badly: When Intention Matters

Haiti has recently suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. When it seemed like this poor third-world country could not get any worse, it did. The country reeks with the stench of rotting bodies. With the lack of medical supplies and doctors, people are dying from minor infections that can usually be treated easily. To make matters even worse, with their shantytowns crushed in the rubble, thousands of families are left stranded, living on the streets. There is not nearly enough food, water or resources to go around. As a result, people turn on each other. They loot, beat and kill as a means to survive.

This is no place for a child to be.

Hundreds of miles away, thousands of men, women and children witness the trauma of the quake and helplessness of the people through their television screens, Internet homepages and newspapers. Benefit concerts are held. Food, water and medical supplies are collected and shipped. “Haiti” texts are sent to the American Red Cross. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get better. Day after day and night after night, devastating footage of Haiti continues to be documented that screams of desperation.

This very desperation deforms judgment — not just of the Haitian survivors, but also of Americans who want to help, but don’t know how. That’s exactly what Laura Silsby and her team of ten Christian missionaries felt. When the team from Boise, Idaho, vowed to help the Haitian children, they had a very unconventional idea of “help.” Determined to make a difference in peoples’ lives, the group set out to smuggle 30 young Haitian children to the Dominican Republic, promising their parents or caretakers safety, good care and an education. With her mind clouded by the terror and hopelessness around her, one Haitian mother justified her decision when she cried, “If someone offers to take my children to paradise, am I supposed to say no?” Though Silsby and her team had good intentions to help Haitian families, they did so very irresponsibly, and ended up doing more harm than good.

So does value lie in the act or in the intention? If it lies in the intention, then the ten missionaries did indeed do the right thing because Silsby herself insisted that the team “came [to Haiti] literally to just help the children. Our intentions were good.” However, if value lies in the act itself, then Silsby and her team did the wrong thing, as they wound up causing more devastation to Haitian families.

Why did Silsby try to illegally smuggle Haitian children across the border? Was it really out of duty to help the Haitian families? Or was it to alleviate her feelings of helplessness? I would say that it was the latter. I think, out of her feelings of desperation and helplessness through watching the horror, Silsby wanted to help because of her own slightly selfish reasons. She wanted to alleviate some of her own desperation and anxiety. I believe, deep down, her motives were slightly selfish, and because of this she did not help the children in completely good intentions.

Perhaps you don’t agree with me in this. Fine. Let’s go one step further.

Even if you argue that Silsby’s intentions were completely good, it is indisputable that she went about her task in a very irresponsible, dangerous, and illegal way. Considering Kant’s philosophy, did Silsby act in a way that her maxim could be applied in all circumstances at all times? No! She broke the law! Even if Silsby did have the right heart in helping the Haitian children, then she did indeed “do good badly.”

Evidently, it is very possible and common for people to do good badly. For example, when we join community organizations or projects for the sake of moral recognition and praise, we are doing good badly. When we help someone with hopes that they will return the favor, we are doing good badly. Even more so, when we try to help a tired, stressed out friend by cheating on a quiz, we are doing good badly.

Therefore, before you consider yourself a good, righteous person, examine your intentions. Then, examine the means by which you “do good.”

Nicole Chao is a second-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at By at chaon@uci.edu.