Yes, Intentions Absolutely Do Matter

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

Human beings screw up all the time. Our propensity for making bad decisions and engaging in harmful acts is literally baked into our DNA. It is therefore safe to say that each and every one of us is not only capable of committing harm, but that we simply can’t avoid committing harm.

The question is, then, how are we to determine the degree to which a person needs to be punished for harmful behavior? The answer depends largely on what you think the purpose of a punishment should be. If you believe, as many progressives say they do, that it should primarily be about rehabilitating the person who is guilty of behaving badly, intentions matter a lot — or at least they should — because intentions tell us something important about a person’s character.

As a mentally ill man, I’ve received my fair share of ignorant and offensive remarks over the years. And in cases where the intent was to insult or demean me, I have sometimes reacted rather harshly. In one specific instance in college, I went so far as to temporarily cut off contact with the offender in question — not because I thought that person was irredeemable, but because I knew they’d only learn their lesson if their behavior cost them something meaningful. If you see no harm in deliberately and repeatedly putting down those of us who struggle with mental illness, as that young man did, you’re letting everyone around you know that you suffer from a not-insignificant character defect. And to properly address that defect, it must be made clear to you in no uncertain terms that it’s time for you to either grow up or face more serious consequences.

But what about in cases where the remarks were made with no malicious intent at all? For me, the most appropriate response was to pull that person(s) aside and ask them in the nicest, most diplomatic manner imaginable to please refrain from making those same remarks in the future.

Why the merciful response? It’s quite simple, really. When someone I know to be a person of respectable character says something unintentionally offensive, I don’t need to respond harshly to it. I don’t have to humiliate them in front of their friends or demand that they get down on their knees and beg my forgiveness. I don’t have to try to get them fired from their job or turn them into a social pariah. All I have to do is explain why their remark was hurtful and ask them to not do it again. And since they’re a person of good character, they’ll likely take that request to heart and make a sincere effort to not repeat their mistake.

As you’ll note, in each of the two scenarios I’ve just laid out, the offenders in question were both held accountable for the outcomes of their respective behaviors. Accountability is a very good thing for both the offender and the victim, as well as for society at large. Accountability is a vehicle for personal growth and the most important tool in Lady Justice’s toolbox. It’s also a deterrent to behaviors that society has deemed morally and/or legally impermissible. That’s why you can in fact believe that outcomes and intentions are both important, and that some degree of accountability is necessary even in situations where a person of unquestionably sterling character unintentionally does something harmful or offensive.

However, in the latter of the two aforementioned scenarios, the punishment was nothing more than a polite request to refrain from repeating the behavior in question. That’s because I hold the (decidedly progressive) view that character matters, and that a person of solid character who accidentally does something wrong doesn’t need to be punished to the same degree as a person of poor character who has deliberately committed the same exact offense.

To progressives who disagree — to those of you who argue that intentions do not matter — I ask you this: do you believe it’s time for our criminal justice system to erase the distinction between murder and manslaughter and treat all homicides the same? Do you believe that a drunk driver who accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian in a crosswalk should be punished to the exact same degree as, say, a cold-blooded killer who deliberately murders their romantic partner in a fit of jealous rage?

If you believe that only outcomes matter, mustn’t you answer yes? After all, an unlawful killing is an unlawful killing. In both cases, the victims are dead and gone. In both cases, their families and friends have been burdened with a terrible loss and all the emotional anguish that accompanies such tragedies. If intentions don’t matter, and only outcomes matter, then surely each of these crimes should be met with equally severe punishments.

But you won’t find many self-identified progressives who would endorse that position. On the contrary, the more popular view among progressives is that our criminal justice system should be less punitive than it already is. And when you dig deep into the rationale behind that position, you’ll discover that one of its most essential underlying principles is that, yes, intentions do indeed matter.

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