From Vol. 5, Issue 3, March 2023
Good intentions: - the only thing that matters?
Doing Stoicism || BRANDON TUMBLIN
Is aiming up all that really matters? Is it entirely irrelevant if we fail, make mistakes, are stupid, or miss the mark given that we have good intentions? There’s a core idea in Stoicism that intentions are everything. What this means in practice is that the outcome – good or bad – is entirely irrelevant (morally speaking, of course) given that we have maximized our agency. Tied in with this idea is that it doesn’t matter where we start in life; we can always improve and get better. But why is this so vital for the Stoic?
Failures and more failures
We all know that one person at work who is simply not good at their job. They always make mistakes, they ask the same questions repeatedly, and yet, they never get fired. Why? Well, it could be because the company is bad at firing people, and that’s a real thing. But I think mostly it’s because these people are trying to get better. They are aiming up. That seems to be the only real form of redemption for your insufficiency – continuing to have good intentions no matter how often you miss the mark.
There’s a term we use called “an honest mistake”. An honest mistake is a mistake that was made despite good intentions. It’s when someone misses the mark despite trying to hit the mark. The opposite – say, a false mistake – is one in which we’re not aiming up.
Let’s say your kid tries to help you with pouring your drink and then drops the jug of orange juice and makes a huge mess. It’s not a good thing to get mad at the kid for that; it was an honest mistake. They were trying to do something kind for you – pour you a drink. But they are insufficient. They are incompetent. They don’t have the dexterity to pull that off, even though it’s a very simple task for adults.
Malicious intent – when we aim down
What if, on the other hand, they picked up the orange juice jug and purposefully threw it down on the floor in anger? That, likely, would give you an opportunity to practice Stoicism to deal with your anger, but hopefully, you would realize that it is not fair to get angry at the kid for that.
You see, it seems that we should have all the patience in the world for people – no matter how frustrating the outcome – when they make honest mistakes. The outcome sucks, but the intentions are pure, and that is redemptive. However, what we don’t have patience for is when people aim down when people purposefully cause damage. That’s not to say that you should get angry and yell at them, but they should certainly be served justice.
We all have different starting points. Some of us were born into wealth, others into poverty. Some of us have had great parents, others abusive. Some of us have many people that believe in us, others have no one. That starting point is not fair. It’s a false narrative that we all start in the same place; we do not, though our society aims to make it such. We’re not quite there.
However, that starting point doesn’t truly matter. What matters is that you aim up. What matters is that you have good intentions. And that’s no easy thing – it’s not hard to let your failures and perhaps terrible starting point imbitter you. But if you continue to aim up, using the wisdom gained from all your failures to make yourself better, and fully engage in that process of death and rebirth, that is what allows you redemption no matter where you started or currently are.
Brandon is most well-known for his podcast, The Strong Stoic Podcast, where he discusses philosophical ideas both solo and with guests. He also coaches individuals to help them be their best selves, writes articles, plays music, manages projects, and several other things.