This is a question that I struggle with a lot whenever I am confronted with the consequences of mass stupidity and ignorance. The people I have talked to over the years all have very different opinions on it, but now I want to put the question to you as well, in the hopes of starting a wider discussion. It is one of those things that will ultimately come down to opinion, and not everyone will agree. With that, let’s begin.
I think that we can all agree that intent, as in what we intend to do, is important to some extent and this is reflected in our laws. For example, take these three scenarios:
- A person meticulously plans, then executes a murder, and then tries to cover up their tracks in an attempt to evade the law.
- A person gets into a verbal altercation and punches someone in the face, who then trips, smacks their head against a stone floor, and dies.
- A person is driving along a dark road, turns a corner, hits a person walking along the side of the road in the dark and kills them. This person then pulls over and calls the police, distraught.
All three of these scenarios result in the death of an innocent person. In all three cases, the consequences of the person’s actions are the same. However, I think we can all agree that the punishment they should face should be very different, because intent matters. Person A intended to kill someone and get away with it. Person B intended to physically assault someone in the heat of an argument, but certainly never intended to kill them. Person C never intended to do any harm to anyone at all. In most countries the laws reflect that, despite the outcome being the same, the punishment for creating that outcome should be very different in these three scenarios.
Intent matters. But sometimes, when extreme ignorance is involved, we are forced to consider how much intent should really matter.
This question came up most strongly to me after I read Christopher Hitchen’s extended essay about Mother Teresa. In it he addresses the horrific conditions of her institutions, her refusal to heat them even though heaters were donated to her, and her refusal to administer pain relief to those who were dying in her care. He also attacks her motives for doing so, her association and friendship with dictators, and the fact that she did not subject herself to such miserable conditions at the time of her death. The fact of the matter is, the concept of suffering bringing you closer to God is a popular tenet of the Catholic Church. So, in this light, let’s give Mother Teresa the benefit of the doubt, just for the sake of argument.
Let’s pretend for a moment that Mother Teresa believed in everything she said. Let’s say that she truly, deeply, thought that causing people to suffer horribly in their last moments of life was the best way to ensure their place in heaven. Let’s say that Mother Teresa truly believed that she was doing the best possible thing for the people in her care, in the long run. That is the absolute best case scenario. Even given this best case scenario, how much does that intent matter?
The fact remains, no matter how you slice it, that Mother Teresa had it in her power to prevent the suffering of countless sick and dying people. She had the money and the resources to give them clean housing, pain killers, respect and dignity in their dying moments, but she refused to do so. How much does it really matter that she thought that letting them suffer was best?
In the face of such cruelty, how much does the lack of intent of being cruel actually matter?
In how I remember Mother Teresa, it doesn’t matter to me one single bit.
But this is not only a question of how we remember political and historical figures. This is a question that also comes up in our laws today. There have been recent stories of parents not seeking medical attention for their child’s meningitis, preferring to treat him with maple syrup and whey, causing his death. There was the case of a young boy dying of diphtheria in Spain, because his parents bought into the whole anti-vaxx nonsense. And lets not forget about the ludicrous idea that praying will cure your child of diabetes (spoiler alert: it wont). I don’t think that any of these parents intended to do anything other than what was best for their children. But they were sorely ignorant, and now their children are dead, so how much does their intent really matter?
The question of ignorance and intent is always more difficult when we talk about people who have responsibility over the lives of others. If a grown adult chooses to die because they don’t want medical treatment that is their decision, and they are the ones affected by it. But these kids did not choose to be born to ignorant parents. When people have a responsibility to others, how far do we factor in their intent when we decide how society should react?
I have no clear cut answer to this. That those parents should lose their rights to be responsible of other lives seems reasonable, but even that reaction can only come after a death has already occurred. Pushing for education and the constant battle against ignorance is also a crucial fight. However, should they also be punished by law? If so, to what extent?
In the case of the Spanish boy, the parents learned their lesson, got their other child vaccinated, and started spreading the message that these anti-vaxx groups are misleading and dangerous. Should the disseminators of misinformation also face some consequences for their actions? In the case of the parents of the child with meningitis they seemed to have learned nothing, and are complaining of persecution. Should they be held accountable for their child’s death, or is taking their other children away from them enough?
There are no easy answers to these questions, I think. I would love to hear your thoughts.