But he means well

Researchers at MIT used a weak magnetic field to temporarily impair the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), a brain area which is important when trying to decipher the intentions of others.

According to Anne Trafton

They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.


“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” [Liane Young] says. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”


In both experiments, the researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible. Therefore, the researchers believe that TMS interfered with subjects’ ability to interpret others’ intentions, forcing them to rely more on outcome information to make their judgments.

Although “the ends don’t justify the means”, it’s often true that “the highway to hell is paved with good intentions”. Doesn’t our innate moral sense overvalue good intentions, just as it overvalues sincerity?

For example, George Washington died after “doctors” drained him of half his blood over a period of 9-10 hours. His killers meant well, so their incompetence was moral?

Probably many of the lobotomists meant well, too.

Even on the humdrum day-to-day level, doesn’t having a continued negative impact on other people make one immoral, despite the best of intentions? According to Robert J. Ringer

People often make comments like, “But he means well.” Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t understand how to interpret “means well.” I know what high blood pressure is. I know what a headache is. I know what aggravation is. But I’m not sure what “means well” is. Does it mean that someone should be allowed to rob you of time, energy, and happiness because you think his intentions are good?

For a closely related research study by the same MIT team, see here.


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