Monday, June 04, 2007

Intentions vs. Actions

An interesting topic is the question of what role intent plays in morality and in crime, and to what extent or in what sense there is a distinction between intentions and actions. When evaluating people and their actions/decisions, what should be looked at? I'd like to share my thoughts on the matter.

Intent matters, but obviously one couldn't argue that someone who simply silently wished death upon someone else is guilty of an aggression. Also, I see much trouble with the idea that crimes should be treated in a different category because of the world-view of the criminal (hint: "hate crimes"). If intent is over-emphasized, we end up with thought crimes.

While intent obviously plays a role in determining wether or not someone performs a particular criminal action, it is actions that are crimes, not thoughts. Someone can theoretically have bad intentions but restrain themselves from acting them out, particularly because human rationality involves the ability to supress instinct. It would obviously be a mistake to make it a crime simply to have bad thoughts.

My way of drawing the line is to declare that only physical actions can be deemed crimes. More specifically, only violent or compulsive (I don't like the word coercion because it is too vague) actions can be deemed crimes.

It requires a human agent to commit a crime, and crime of course requires a victim. If a crime requires a victim, then intent in itself cannot be considered a crime, because intent in itself (a thought) has no physical effect on anyone else (I.E. cannot have a victim). It may be condemnable, but not a crime.

But it is certainly condemnable if someone wishes evil upon others. However, intent is internal to one individual; it has no effect in itself on those that are external to that individual. It becomes a crime when it does have an external effect on others as manifested in physical action.

While we normally associate crime with bad intentions, good intentions can lead people to commit crimes (see egalitarianism). But obviously, this principle works against the arguement of intent in that obviously this should not imply that good intentions are bad or should be criminalized.

It is the action commited, despite the good intentions of the egalitarian criminal, that constitutes the crime. It might be a good intention to want to help other people, but it is a bad action to use violence to do this. Wanting to help others is really irrelevant to the nature of the crime, which hinges on violence.

Should accidents be considered crimes? Or at least, how should accidents be dealt with? On a more micro level, suppose you accidently bump into my knee. Can I have a legitimate self-defense claim? Or should I forgive the person, provided I am assured that their intent was not purposeful? Very interesting question. I would be inclined towards foregiveness, to be honest. However, I can see that forgiveness becomes alot harder the more extreme the scenario is.

Are their possible situations in relationships (particularly long-term) when the victim should attempt to reconcile with the abuser if the abuser claims it was an "accident" or the abuser claims "good intentions"? I would be suspicious that the claim that it was an "accident" is disingenuous. It ain't going to be easy to sell to me that physical abuse was an accident.

If I hit you everyday of your life for 5 years, to claim that I didn't mean to do it is highly disingenuous, especially since it was so repetitive. As for wether or not one should give up such a relationship, even if the person has stopped the abuse, I'm not sure how to answer that.

I think it hinges on wether or not the person genuinely (1) has stopped the abuse (2) regrets the abuse and (3) has compensated the victim. But clearly such a person is morally culpable. rationales such as "I lost my temper" or "It will never happen again" sound more like vein after the fact excuses then signs that it was an accident. They cannot claim total ignorance.

Returning to a scenario that is actually an accident, let's use a more extreme example. Suppose a young child finds a gun in the drawer and accidentally shoots their friend. A case can be made that the child with the gun can claim ignorance.

While the person who beats their child cannot claim that they did not intend to cause harm or were ignorant of the consequences of hitting someone, the child with the gun who accidentally shoots his friend can be said to be without the intent to harm their friend and unaware of the consequences of playing with guns.

It is in this kind of rare scenario where intent, or more imporantly, the lack of intent, is vital to determining the morality of the situation. On the other hand, people who are actual criminals cannot claim to have a lack of intent or absolute ignorance (thieves, for example, clearly intended to steal and clearly do not lack the knowledge that what they are doing harms another person; even an egalitarian thief knows that they are harming others, but they are simply in denial or are using their egalitarian intentions as an excuse for harming others).

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