Intent Doesn’t Matter?

Let’s Think This Through Here

It has become increasingly common in some progressive political-cultural circles to hear the phrase “intent doesn’t matter” uttered (or nodded along to) by people not wearing straitjackets. This often occurs in the context of people whose actions or words caused some kind of offense or hurt, and then reaped the whirlwind. This increasingly popular sentiment is that if you caused offense or harm, it does not matter if it wasn’t your intent — only the outcome matters. If you caused offense, or made someone feel uncomfortable, or evoked in someone an unpleasant memory of past trauma, you are in the wrong no less than if you did so on purpose — and should be punished accordingly.

This, frankly, is imbecilic. And dangerous. What was common sense five minutes ago must now be litigated and defended against some of the most educated and affluent among us. So, it’s worth thinking this through here.

Intentions and Outcomes

We are, all of us, every day, making moral judgements. We deem certain things to be good and others bad. We do this not only partly from instinct, but because we recognize on some level the clear need to develop and maintain principles: rules we ought to generally follow, as well as models: approximations of people's future behavior. This kind of behavior modeling is crucial for any attempt at sanely navigating the world.

Although morality need not necessarily be relative in principle, in practice, human views of morality differ widely, even within cultures. There are two near-universal components, however, that factor into the moral judgements made by every person not consciously trying to exclude them: intentions and outcomes. We need to evaluate whether the outcome of an action is good or bad, of course, but we must also determine what motivated it. These are necessary for constructing accurate models.

So which is more important in forming our principles and models, intentions or outcomes? Should one be more important than the other? Might it be best that they hold equal importance? To explore this, let's imagine an old lady with a cane is struggling to cross the street. It is understood that helping the old lady is a moral act, while abstaining from helping her is either neutral or somewhat immoral, and doing something to actively make her traverse more difficult or dangerous, or even directly harming her, is obviously immoral.

Suppose someone decides to help the old lady. There are many intentions that might motivate this decision, and they fall along a moral spectrum. Near the highest end, one might be moved by pure concern for this person's welfare. Or one might be motivated by a sense of duty or responsibility as a citizen, neighbor, or simply fellow human, to do one's part in the community. Moving further along this spectrum, one might help the old lady because doing so feels good, and they wish to feel good by helping her. Conversely, one might later feel guilty had they not helped, so they choose to help to spare themselves this guilt. Near the bottom of this spectrum are intentions of the most abject selfishness. Perhaps one helps the old lady only because they expect to be paid in reward, or because someone nearby is watching, and they wish to impress them.

We recognize a moral difference in these intentions. And yet, in each scenario, the old lady was helped across the street. It would be easy to judge the person helping the woman out of genuine concern as being a good person. Should we, however, consider the person who helps the old lady to impress a potential love interest to be a bad person? No. We may perhaps not view them as being as good as the concerned person or the dutiful citizen, but helping an old woman across the street still reserves them a place somewhere on the "good" side of the ledger, even if it's nearer the neutral center. If we knew that the selfish helper would not otherwise have lent a hand, should we want them not to help? No. We obviously want them to help for the best reasons, but short of that, we are right to prefer them to help, regardless of the reason, and if those reasons lack nobility and virtue, it's still better than nothing. Thus, when the outcome is good, both the outcome and intentions matter, but the outcome is of primary importance. Intentions still matter, but to a lesser degree.

What if, far from helping the old lady cross the street, someone knocks her to the ground. This is a bad outcome. Just as with the good outcome, however, there is an ethical continuum of possible intentions. At the lowest end would be the pure desire to cause her harm. Further along, one might have been distracted or clumsy, and bumped into the old lady by accident, knocking her down. Near the highest end of the spectrum, one might have shoved the old lady out of the way of an oncoming car, risking injury to her but saving her life.

The moral difference in these intentions is stark, and yet in each scenario, the old lady is knocked down. It is uncontroversial to judge a person laughingly shoving an old woman to the ground to be a bad person. We cannot reasonably surmise as much for the clumsy person who knocked her down purely by accident, because they acted without intention at all. Our judgement can therefore only be determined by what they do in the immediate aftermath of the incident (when an intention is established). Do they help the woman to her feet, apologize profusely, and summon medical assistance if needed? Or do they keep moving, or scream at the fallen woman to watch where she was going? If the former, we cannot judge them to be bad considering the accident. They would be deemed neutral at worst, and probably better than neutral. The latter scenario would cement them as being plainly bad. They may not have intended to knock the old woman down, but accidents happen to everyone; a person unwilling to take responsibility for those they cause is advertising an ethical deficiency which rightly tells us we would do better to regard them as unethical.

The person who shoves the old lady to the ground to save her from being hit by a car, however, is neither viewed as bad, nor neutral, but as good. They did something that is ordinarily bad, but because they did so to prevent something so much worse, the context and their intention produces a radically different moral judgement from the act itself. Thus, when the outcome is bad, both the outcome and intentions matter, but the intention is of paramount importance, as it determines a wider range of judgements running the gamut from terrible to heroic.

When the outcome is good, we are ultimately happy. Intentions are still important and relevant, but we won't ask too many questions if the outcomes are good. When the outcome is bad, we are unhappy, but everything hinges on the intentions, because without knowing why and how a bad thing happened, we lack the data with which to determine how someone is likely to behave in the future. The outcome therefore matters more when it's good, and intentions matter more when the outcome is bad.

Moral judgements are grounded in behavior models. What does it mean to think someone is a “good” or a “bad” person? Our minds intuitively do this on the fly, but to spell it out, a good person is someone who can be reasonably expected to behave well in the future. And accordingly, a bad person is someone who can be reasonably expected to misbehave in the future. We evaluate both the outcomes of people’s behavior alongside their intentions in building these models. To abandon one of these components — intentions — leaves us with no ability to accurately model future behavior, and thus with no ability to make coherent moral judgements at all. If intent doesn’t matter, it also significantly shrinks the scope of — and need for — due process. A society that embraced this way of thinking would be taking a dramatic step in the opposite direction of justice.

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