Tim: It’s just… Let me ask you this—did Beethoven write the ninth symphony “rationally and thoughtfully”?
Zak: I imagine he did.
Tim: And Einstein, was he mad and absent-minded when he discovered Relativity?
Zak: I see no reason to believe so.
Tim: And what about that calculated feat of engineering, was Mr. Andrews at all perfunctory when designing the Titanic?
Zak: No, I suppose he was not.
Tim: Then explain to me this. Why on earth, when to all appearances these men acted perfectly reasonably and in good conscience, why or for what shortcoming did their respective works become the foundation of the atomic bomb, the boat grave of more than 1,500 people, and a favorite music to unify that certain nationalist party during the former half of last century? What moral fault did these failures reflect?
Zak: Well I don’t know.
Tim: So Good intentions, at least in this case, don’t equate to Good ends?
Zak: In this case they do not.
Tim: Zak, have you ever been to a frat party?
Zak: My school was too Christian.
Tim: Have you seen the way some people hug each other when they’ve been apart for a few minutes?
Zak: You’ll have to be more specific.
Tim: That absurdly over-the-top gesture. You know, some people think it makes them look high class. They seem like they’ve had too much coffee or something.
Tim: In Milan people kiss each other. Right cheek then left. But sometimes they just kiss the air, sometimes it’s a very empty formality… like a woman finally telling a man for the first time after ten years that she loves him, thereupon only to leave him.
Zak: That’s very specific.
Tim: The point is, what’s the moral weight of those words: “I love you”? Are Good gestures always equivalent to Good will?
Zak: I suppose they are not.
Tim: So Good outcome does not entail Good intention nor Good intention Good outcome.
Zak: It risks appearing so.
Tim: “It risks appearing so?” Now you just sound silly; if only there were an effective way to translate those Platonic Greek phrases.
Tim: Further to that point, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this dialogue, to personally apologize for its aesthetic failures. I assure you that they are not the outcome of bad intention, only of bad planning. Usually I like to make my characters vague and mysterious enough that the reader can’t tell if they’re boring. In this case, I didn’t have the time or energy, so the secrete’s out: my characters are two dimensional at root.
Zak: Are you calling me shallow?
Tim: Not you, just your persona.
Zak: Got it. Well I’m sure the readers can overlook that. The philosophic pedantry is entertaining enough in itself.
Tim: That’s very generous of you. I guess sometimes bad writing is better than good writing. Anyway, as I was saying, we appear to have very little control over the outcome of our actions.
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
We’re all caught up in this massive structuralist mechanism. I wouldn’t call it a machine, but I understand why some people might have a predilection for that image. As each of us slowly parishes from this life, we are overwhelmed by external forces over which we exhibit no agency. All this runs contrary to intuitions about our moral capacity for action.
Zak: Moral action is impossible?
Tim: Well the issue is essentially this: I may have control over my own use of language, but insofar as significance is predicated on context, I cannot control that, because I can’t control the language of those around me. In that case, what’s the point of being able to control one’s own words in the first place?
Zak: I’m not sure I follow.
Tim: Perhaps Beethoven wrote a symphony which, to him, expressed the beauty of the human experience and the brotherhood of man. For all that intention, he could do nothing to stop posterity from contextualizing it as an expression radical nationalism… nor, for that matter, from repurposing it yet again, this time as the official anthem of the United Nations. At the present moment the piece may happen to enjoy good fortune, but the whole case just speaks to the fact that language is whore. She submits freely to anyone and everyone.
Zak: Indeed, context matters. But usually I’m the one to point out the futility of the arts. Where are you going with this?
Tim: I have no control over where I’m going.
Zak: Hmm. Then let me ask you this—why do you compose music? Is it just to dwell on the powerlessness of human existence?
Tim: It’s a good question. A very strategic one.
Zak: So what? Is composition just another thing you can’t control? You would stop if you could?
Tim: I have no way of knowing what I would do if I could. But the whole crises forces us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what moral duty is involved, if any. Like Aeneas, the author is tossed and thrown at the whims of the high sea. He has essentially no control over where he will end up, but he may have an intention.
Zak: So authorial intent is important?
Tim: I don’t know how important it is from the perspective of the reader, but the creative processes certainly presupposes some form of intention. One may defer causation to a plethora of external sources, but at some point, supposing that even in a small way the author is a liberal agent, he must exercise a certain degree of will in every action, including that of poetry.
Zak: Then he has an intention, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Tim: But it does.
Zak: How so?
Tim: It simply does—as simply and surly as Beethoven is not accountable for World War II. Why outcome should matter is what needs explaining. Intention, as our intuitions tell us, is the central subject of moral discourse; if an intention is good, it is Good without reference to anything outside itself.
Zak: Go on.
Tim: If we are honest, it’s easy to recognize that the best kind of goodwill is the kind that’s indifferent of the object to which it is referred. The Just man donates to charity not because he thinks his money will be useful, but only because he wishes to express that he cares. That willful act of expression stands for itself. It relies on no audience (rhetorical or otherwise) and even no actual beneficiary. The potential situation, which exists inside the mind of the man donating, suffices as context to give the action meaning.
Zak: But the actual outcome is irrelevant?
Tim: The Just man’s intentions, not his fortunes, are what we have in mind when we call him a “good” person.
Zak: Then reading consists in uncovering that first intention, that potential situation, which has been corrupted by external circumstances, such as social context and error in textual transmission.
Tim: Now you’re thinking like a philologist. And I thought I was the one living in Italy for too long.
Zak: So you accept this word, “corruption.”
Tim: I’m a fatalist, aren’t I?
Zak: Today you are. Tomorrow you’ll be something different. I meanwhile will keep on strategizing over my same chess game.