What do we lose when we lose intent?

Chances are, you’ve long found an answer to one of the most difficult philosophical questions. The question is a very insidious one; it shapes not only our morals, but the whole way in which we conceptualize the world. It’s the problem of other minds. Do other people have minds like you do? Like I said, you’ve probably already come to an answer on your own though you might not remember it. Look at the way you act, the way you treat others. It’s shaped every interaction you’ve had. This ability to conceptualize a mind that is not ours is referred to as Theory of Mind. There are plenty of debates going on surrounding it, of course: is it innate, does it shape language, is it a module, and are autism spectrum disorders due to a deficit in this module? Those questions are important, and some require more work than others (though we do have some idea); however, my focus is not on the practical issues risen by Theory of Mind, but the ethical issues.

People have minds. Now what? First and foremost, it helps us interact with humans and other animals. Simply put, we come to learn that we cannot treat living things like non-living things. This brings up interesting points, like if you have a mind and you can suffer and feel pain and dislike it, and others have minds and can thus feel pain, is it bad to cause pain or suffering to others against their wishes? Many of us say yes, we shouldn’t hurt others (though unfortunately we often do). That tends to be one of the easier ethical problems we solve, but what about when we do something accidentally? A big focus in current dialogue around political issues is that of impact versus intent. For example, when someone tells a joke that offended someone, does the fact that the person meant it as a joke matter if the impact is hurtful and oppressive? Some say no. An increasingly popular response to that match-up is to say that intent is irrelevant and that impact should be the focus.

The distinction between impact and intent is intuitive and important, but I find the claim that intent does not matter unpleasant. The disavowal of intent is understandable, but does not actually get at the issue of what is wrong. Naively, we all ascribe intention very often and as a consequence it becomes a way by which we judge the actions of others. Studies conducted by developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg have found, for example, that when children are very young, they draw no distinctions between bad actions done intentionally or accidentally, but as they get older they begin to judge intentionally bad actions much more harshly than those committed accidentally. Of course, one could bring up the role of socialization, which I do acknowledge is likely at play to some degree, though I should note that this work has been done cross-culturally. This finding, combined and strengthened by more recent work on Theory of Mind, seem to indicate that, if not innate, then there must at least be a proclivity to attributing intentional states in humans. Personally, I believe that the capacity for Theory of Mind is innate and develops quickly through infancy.

Theory of Mind is not only one of the things that distinguishes us from rocks, but also what allows for communication. H.P. Grice, a philosopher of language, revolutionized the way communication was thought of by drawing attention to our remarkable ability in attributing intentions, beliefs, and desires to others. Language is basically a cooperative act, he said, and the ability to attribute and infer intention is one of the basic precursors to language development. Grice’s conceptualization of meaning itself requires intention.

What is my point, exactly? That intent is a very basic unit of meaning that is ubiquitously used in language every day. Without intent, we not only lose the basis of many moral codes, but also communication itself. But, that actually isn’t my main point. Intent is unjustly being targeted, why? Because it is a very common occurrence that people use their good intent as justification to wipe themselves of any responsibility they may have had in a situation. This happens so often I don’t feel the need to provide an example. A declaration of good intent is not an apology, and if it were it’d be a shitty apology, something akin to “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt.” It would make a difference to most people, I think, if a friend of theirs accidentally did something shitty as opposed to intentionally. Consider manslaughter for a legal example.

I think the conversation on intent is misguided, and troublesome, and I think that the fault lies at the feet of those that say “I didn’t mean to,” instead of claiming responsibility for their actions and dealing with the consequences. It began to seem as though ridding ourselves of intent became the only way to respond to these scenarios, but this is a misstep as intent is important and useful in understanding others. The bottom line? Intent matters, but in learning to be not just a better ally, but a better person, one needs to claim responsibility for the impact (even if it was unintended).

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