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Apr 24, 2021

Does intent matter?

At least three times in the recent weeks I heard something to the effect that your intent does not matter, and the effect of your words or actions on other people that matters. Such a position is superficially appealing, for it calls for greater accountability. People should consider how their actions or words may impact others. And if they do not know what the likely effect is, it is their responsibility to learn, especially if the affected people are of different racial or ethnic group. It is fair, especially within the context of long-term structural inequities, where some groups have been systematically excluded. The exclusion was based, in part, on insensitivity to the dominated groups’ perceptions of what is respectful and what is not. It has always been easy for a White person to remain ignorant about other groups’ perceptions, or simply assume they are the same as his or her. The great Kantian mistake is in assuming that other people want to be treated the same as you want to be treated. In the historical context, it is not surprising that the defense “But I did not mean to offend” is being questioned more and more.

However, you also do not want to live in a moral universe where intent does not matter at all. Ethical judgements cannot exist without gradations. In an “either-or” moral universe, death in a traffic accident is the same as murder. A homeless stealing a sandwich is as big a villain as Berny Madoff who stole millions. A man telling a bad joke is the same as rapist, etc. In real life, various versions of “zero-tolerance” policies (all failures) are softer attempts of regulating society without gradations. The “three strikes” laws are also based on a similar “I don’t want to hear your excuses” fallacy. But if small evil is the same as big evil, then there is no evil at all. If any offense is equally bad, none is really bad. Gradualism in ethics is not an option; it is an essential component of any ethical – and legal – system. An ethical judgement always involves weighing in several components. They may not be equally weighted, but there has to be several. While consequences of an action are very important, intent matters, too. Sorry, you have to listen to excuses if you wish to remain ethical.

Another interesting side effect of the “intent does not matter” approach is giving too much power to the victim. I know it sounds weird; after all, why shouldn’t victims have more say in how much harm they experience? Again, on the surface, it is a plausible ideal. After all, the offended person knows the most about the degree of harm the offender has caused. However, there is a difference between giving more weight to victim accounts and giving all weight. It is not the same thing. In the legal world, it is the ancient problem of protecting against false or exaggerated or additionally motivated accusations. I have been dealing with many students convinced that their accusations against faculty may not be questioned at all. After all they are the victims and must be trusted. The revelation that faculty also have rights sometimes come as a shock.

The problem is resolved (albeit imperfectly) through the legal system, where other people have a say on how such real damages have been done, and what was the intent. At lower levels, we have established various due process procedures, where both the offender and the offended have the right to present their points of view on what happened, and a third party makes a call. If intent is nothing, then the victim’s subjective feeling of the harm is everything. This would be an untenable situation. We have seen how progressive social movements harmed themselves by going too far. It often happens when intent is discounted.

Apr 18, 2021

The cost of hygiene theater

In at least two different meetings last week, we discussed campus reopening and safety measures. The question is: should we follow the best scientific advice available right now, or should we also take people’s anxieties and fears seriously? The answer is not obvious. On one hand, we have learned that massive cleaning was a waste of time and money, and that virus does not really spread through surfaces. On the other hand, perceptions of danger are just as real as the danger itself. If we want to people feel safe back on campus, we better show that we care about their feelings. On one hand, we are a university, a place that should always demonstrate respect for science and rational thinking. ON the other hand, we are a caring community, and should not force the science on our people. Some suggest that if we put out too much of the “hygiene theater” we will reinforce some irrational fears and make them worse. However, if we do not put enough, we may lose trust and make the fear worse.

There is also the issue of cost. For example, some people wanted to discuss air purifiers in offices. The Facilities told us they have already upgraded building filtration systems, and individual purifiers are not only useless, but also very costly, if you provide to everyone. However, the good cleaning at least once a day may be not as expensive and not very different from pre-COVID cleaning. The plexiglass barriers are somewhat expensive, but they may have additional benefit of limiting the spread of other viruses, like common cold. We have spent a lot of time calculating various formulas for room capacity, but if everyone is vaccinated, it should not make any difference. Except people are now to used to holding a distance, that it is physically difficult to break out of the new habit. A crowded room will feel dangerous for a long time, even if it is not. After all, many of us lost family members and friends to the virus.

This is a particular case of an old ontological dilemma: what is reality? Is it something that is objectively out there, regardless of what we think? Or is it also how we perceive it? For an administrator, neither option can be acceptable. Like many other similar dilemmas, this one is not going to be resolved without some compromise, without finding a balance. There is still hard truth: the virus is whether spread by contaminated surface or not (It is not). Vaccinated individual can either spread the virus or not (it looks like it is highly unlikely). But that hard pit of reality is covered by soft but significant fruit of human perception that cannot be ignored.