I disagree with Hightower.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The relevance of intent

Intent is an important - essential - ingredient in determining, for example, the nature of a crime that has been committed. Unless there was a  intent to kill we call it manslaughter or negligent homicide.  We save the word murder for those cases in which the death was the objective.  Even in chess contests intent must be present to enforce the requirement for moving a "touched piece".  Players, who wants to simply adjust a piece on a square, have long used the French expression J'adoube (I adjust) before doing so in order to make it clear that moving not their intention. In this context  "touch" a piece  has been clarified to mean "touch with the intent to move ".  

One can overdo the importance and role of intent.  If you listen to the debate over the Obamacare act you will hear, hidden between the adulatory adjectives, the supreme confidence that the left holds in intent.  The aim is to give every American healthcare. Therefore the outcome must be good.

After hearing Bill Maher explaining to his audience the unmitigated horror that religion has always delivered for our species, I mentioned to a friend who more or less shares that opinion, that I disagreed.  I believe that the conflict between church and state was a major contributor to the development of modern humanism and human rights in the lands that had been Christendom.  The Muslims on the other hand combined church and state into a theocracy which shined for awhile and then sank into such a sorry state that theological leaders who have no base of secular power can order the death of anyone who is, in their mind, in conflict with Islam. My friend thought that the argument had no validity because the leaders, both secular and spiritual, were pursuing their own interest and did not have as their objective the improvement of the lot of the average person.  This is the flip side.  If the intent is not good then the result cannot be good either.  I think this helps turn liberals away from capitalism.  I heard William Ayers respond to the argument that American Capitalism was the greatest wealth building machine that had ever been created.  He dismissed the argument as irrelevant because we stole the land from the Amerindians.  The intent of the capitalist is to get rich.  Therefore he cannot get credit for even “incidental” accomplishments of his system. 

One of my two central beliefs on this is that the Church prevented the European Kings from gaining absolute power.  Because of that the people could benefit from their conflict with each other and internally.  For example, out of the 14th century peasant’s revolt came the following ditty:(gentleman = nobleman)

When Adam delved,
And Eve spann.
Who was then,
The gentleman.

Another example of how intent does not necessarily determine the primary result.
In 12th century England Henry II (whose "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" led to the "Murder in the Cathedral" of St. Thomas Becket) was a very strong king.

The nobility ran the courts of the land and collected the fines that came from them. Henry thought that the King's courts should determine what was justice in England.  The Baronial courts used various means to determine guilt:  trial by fire, by water or sometimes even trial by combat.  Not the kind of courtroom you'd like to go into.  

Henry offered a different kind of justice.  His version had one of his agents call on all of the people who knew anything about the case to come and tell what they knew.  His courts then acted on that evidence.  People got to choose which court to use.  Thus was born the grand jury in particular and the jury in general - that renowned bulwark of English-American freedom.

Now perhaps Henry had a deep appreciation of modern ideas of justice and knew what the outcome would be.  But my bet is that he wanted the money and power.


  1. WRT “If the intent is not good then the result cannot be good either.”

    Once, a neighbor of mine who absolutely despised a neighbor of “ours” called the police with the intent of having him arrested for being drunk in public.

    Fortunately, the police got him to the hospital in time to save him from the heart attack.

  2. What you guys are championing, it seems to me, is the philosophy that the ends really do justify the means.

  3. I took 3 things for the original post:

    1. Intent is an essential decision making ingredient that distills someone (or a group) to commit to an action or course of action.
    2. Actions necessary to accomplish “intent” may or may NOT match the goodness or badness of the original intent.
    3. The goodness/badness of the eventual outcome may or may not match the original intent.

    My conclusion (and takeaway) is that intent cannot/should not be the final and overriding factor in deciding a course of action or evaluating the goodness/badness of a course of action, but it should be a factor in evaluating WHY a course of action was taken.

    We have all heard the old axioms about “good intentions” with bad outcomes but it would be unfair to say there is nothing new here. By separating intent into its own discussion independent of ancillary arguments it provides (or provided for me) a clarity that I needed. I like it.

    1. Tom, your reading pretty much coincides with my intent.
      I would be interested in what Dan thinks of this idea.

  4. I can't find much of anything to disagree with here. Tom's suggestion that intent be looked at as a factor for the "why" but not necessarily the evaluation of good/bad seems proper.

    It reminds me a bit of the problem of moral relativism. Taken to its full conclusion it is unsettling, but it can be useful as a tool to understand various issues - so long as you allow your moral compass to kick in at some point and make a judgement.

    The Obamacare comment is good too - I'm largely a supporter of the law (I actually signed up last night!) but am annoyed when I hear a democrat accuse an opponent of the law of baldly wanting to take healthcare away from people. It is certainly more complicated than that.