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revisiting the notion of intent

(tw: i mention driving while intoxicated and some abstract discussion of murder and the death of people)

A long time ago, once upon at time, a blogger named genderbitch wrote a blog post that has become one the Discourse’s axioms, “Intent! It’s Fucking Magic!”. The main point in the post is this:

Because you see, Intent is the ultimate alchemy. It doesn’t change lead to gold, it changes harmful, negative or damaging actions into happy, fun, “everyone hugs and no one is oppressed”, magical unicorn actions. It dips its eerie powers into the pools of time and space and counters each and every ripple of fuckery and pain created by the actions of an unthinking douchebag who was too privileged or self absorbed to see that their actions were a problem.

Now. The Discourse being what it is, very few people appear to have… grasped the actual point (or, if they grasped the point, they took it far beyond what it looks like genderbitch was trying to communicate). The way this has become an axiom of the Discourse is essentially that intent is entirely and wholly irrelevant.

In what follows, I want to be clear that part of what I’m doing here is making a meta-ethical argument/discussion, not necessarily outright contradicting the point, since I still think it is an important one.

The ethical system in which intent is largely (mostly, perhaps entirely) irrelevant is pure consequentalism (ie, the notion that the ‘goodness’ of an action is entirely determined by the consequences of that action: thus, if an action results in harm, it is bad regardless of the person’s intent.). And, yes, from a consequentialist perspective the way that many people have been applying the point of the post makes a lot of sence, particularly since consequentalism is the dominant system of ethics today.

But let’s examine the actual claim here, rather than how many people have interpreted it. The most generic point we can extract from this blog post is that intent does not obviate the harm caused by an action. In other words, when actions result in harm, the harm remains regardless of the offender’s intent. Accidentally bumping into someone and stepping on their foot results in a hurt foot, regardless of the fact that it was an accident (ie, the offender didn’t purposefully, with intent bump into the person and step on their foot). The ‘victim’ in this case still has a hurt foot. The pain is real and it is there and intent doesn’t change anything about that.

Not too much to really object over here. All it is really doing is establishing a fairly basic notion of cause and effect. If you do something (cause) that results in harm (effect), the effect can’t be retroactively change by additional information about the cause. At the moment when cause becomes effect, all the victim knows is that they’ve been hurt. Learning, after the fact, that it was an accident might alleviate some of the emotional distress (ie any anger or annoyance) but it won’t/can’t actually make the pain go away.

So please note the context here, we are looking at this purely from a consequentalist perspective.

The problem with how many people have applied this notion is that the claim that ‘intent doesn’t erase harm’ has become ‘intent is irrelevant in judging the ethics of an action’. Which…. really isn’t a tenable position. Both within consequentalism itself (and other ethical systems) the problem of intent has some solutions.

Regarding consequentalism, think of the difference between manslaughter and murder. Depending on your jurisdiction, the details might vary somewhat. But generally, really generally speaking, one of the key differences between manslaughter and murder is intent (and premeditation but we don’t need to get into this atm). Manslaughter is what happens when something you do results in the death of another person. Murder is when you do something with the purpose of killing another person.

Examining a situation wherein manslaughter often is a Thing, rather than murder, we can look at a person driving while intoxicated. What they are doing, at the moment, is already against the law. Should they kill someone in the process, this is usually considered manslaughter, not murder. With the above notion, intent doesn’t change the fact that someone died. They stay dead regardless of whether or not the person driving intended to murder them. However, when look at the ethics of the situation itself…

I don’t really think it is tenable to think that, say, repeatedly running over a gay man and getting into an accident while under the influence are equivalent in terms of the badness of the actions. Neither is good by any stretch of the imagination, but… one does seem worse than another.

Okay. Okay. Some people may or may not concede the above point (ie, that there is a real difference between the two things). You might say, “both people did something unethical and both actions resulted in the death of another, thus they are ethical equivalents”. The real problem with applying this notion that intent is irrelevant to all situations is that…

What do you do about accidents?

And I mean genuine accidents. Because these really do happen. It’s winter right now and a bunch of places are getting a lot of snow (particularly in some places where this is a really uncommon occurrence). If a person driving in these weather conditions gets into some kind of accident (idk, car slides on black ice) and the accident results in the death of another person… The above, taken to the extent that I see many people take nowadays, tells us that this is ethically equivalent to intoxicated driving. Both situations result in the same effect and from a purely consequentalist perspective, they are then equal in the harm they caused and, thus, both equally bad.

Based on what I’ve seen a bunch of people articulate in the past four or five years, this is apparently what they believe. They believe that murder is equivalent to an accident because the harm is the same and intent isn’t magic. Which, yes, intent in either case does not make the person less dead, but….

This isn’t really something I’m willing to accept.

Intent isn’t the magic that many privileged people think it is when they invoke it to derail, diminish, or deny the harm that they’ve caused but nor is it entirely irrelevant (nor do I think this is what genderbitch was actually arguing for, despite how people have used this post to state exactly this).

And you can absolutely see how this strict consequentalism has permeated throughout activist communities. It is, I believe, the source of the problem people occassionally articulate about there being no room within teh Discourse for people to make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a person. It is also something I’ve seen played out many, many times.

Please note that I’m not talking about people who try to use intent as a shield for accountability. I’m talking about how people react to someone’s harmful behaviour. Getting called out for harming someone and responding with ‘that wasn’t my intention’ is absolutely an accountability dodge. However, the fact that many people do not consider intent relevant when judging the correctness of other people’s bahaviour has totally created what some have been calling the ‘disposability’ problem.

Make an honest mistake, sometimes just one, and out you go. Ostracized and exiled and never allowed to return. I can’t help but contrast this with the other examples I have of victims coming out and naming their abusers (esp re: sexual) and…. somehow some of these people get to remain. But I digress….

It is also easy to see how this ties into notions of ideogical purity. Sin is sin, regardless of why you did it. Either way, you become impure, soiled, and cannot be allowed to contaminate anyone else with the taint of your sin.

And so these communities live on. Exacerbating people’s anxieties (this was me, it started keeping me up at night at what might happen if I made even one mistake). Creating an environment where the performance and appearance of purity matters more than actual goodness (an environment that doesn’t distinguish harms by intent is one that actively discourages anyone from ever voluntarily admitting to a mistake or a harm caused – instead we transfer the burden of transparency onto victims who then bear the sole responsibility of exposing their harm [which is in its own way is abuse culture and fucked up]). It causes people to self-isolate for fear of making mistakes – also me. It creates fucked up, toxic communities that end up being good for no one (other than those who can perform purity the best).

Intent isn’t magic, but it is important.