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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.

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