How Much Does Intent Matter?

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:

  1. A person meticulously plans, then executes a murder, and then tries to cover up their tracks in an attempt to evade the law.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. Loud - warm smiles do not make you welcome here says

    Great article, very thought provoking.

    With regards to the Mother Teresa issue, charitably assuming she believed one hundred percent that the suffering of the dying would lead to their place in heaven, that can’t excuse her from responsibility of prolonging that suffering. She can justify it as much as likes, but she has chosen, by her inaction, to prolong it. In my opinion, intent doesn’t matter here.

    Similarly in the cases of parental responsibility that you mention, ignorance should never be a defence where responsibility of care for others exists. Even in the case of the Spanish boy, investigating the truth of anti-vaxxer claims is not difficult, no matter how far down the rabbit hole you are, especially given the life of your own child is on the line.

    For me, at least, this is quite clear cut.

      • sonofrojblake says

        You did’t ask me, but my 2c:
        “Murder” is a qualitatively different crime than causing death by deliberate negligence, whether it be driving too fast in the dark or not vaccinating a child. The charge should therefore be different. The punishment should the same.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          But you said, in my 3 scenarios, that they should all go to prison for a similar length of time… so do you mean that there should simply not be a difference in the punishment associated with murder or negligence, but that they still be called two different things?

          • sonofrojblake says

            Pretty much, yes. If you kill someone because you’re a nasty evil conniving person, we call that “murder”. If you kill someone because you’re actually verifiably mentally ill, you might get convicted of a “lesser” charge of manslaughter with diminished responsibility. Either way, you should be off the streets for 25 to life or whatever.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    “Intent is not magic” has been an SJW mantra for years.

    Your three examples are good ones, in the sense that the kneejerk response might be to consider them differently. Personally, I’d say all three of those people should be going to jail for about the same length of time. (Disclosure: a close friend was very badly injured, although not fatally, by someone driving down a dark road.)

    Oh, you didn’t mean to kill that guy when you punched him in the face? Maybe you should have thought about what might happen before you punched him in the face. You take your victims as you find them. . It’s just possible that if we took that kind of thing more seriously, people might be less prone to punching other people in the face.

    Oh, you didn’t mean to kill someone when you drove round that corner too fast to stop? That’s why we have speed limits, and why you are told, in the words of my driving instructor, “it’s a limit, not a target”. If you can’t stop your vehicle in time to avoid something that’s as far ahead as you can see, you’re driving too fast. As far as I’m concerned, that’s it. As a society we tolerate far too much of people who drive cars. I strongly believe that within my lifetime, or possibly the lifetime of my children, human operation of motor vehicles on public roads will be made illegal, and that day can’t come soon enough. After that happens, our descendants will look back at this time baffled that we allowed the holocaust on our roads to continue. They’ll be as appalled at us as the civilised world is when it looks at the USA’s attitude to gun control and the toleration of the ongoing death toll.

    As far as ignorance as an excuse goes – for me, it goes nowhere. It’s 2016. In most of the world, the internet is pervasive. In most of the world, education to a reasonable level is free and universal. If, under those circumstances, with those privileges, you’re ignorant, that’s intentional, and religions should be treated as an aggravating factor, not an excuse.

    The value of vaccination is settled, scientifically. Children of parents who refuse vaccination are, by definition, being abused by people not competent to care for them, and should be removed into the care of the state and their parents denied all access to and knowledge of them. I draw the line – just – at sterilising the parents to prevent them repeating their error, but the thought does cross my mind. I absolutely reject this:

    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

    That reaction should come immediately, for the sake of the child. I’m appalled at the idea that we should let a child die because of its parents’ delusions.

  3. says

    The pragmatic standpoint is that someone is responsible for a problem if holding them responsible could possibly have helped. I would hold Mother Teresa responsible because that could have discouraged her (or similar charities) from glorifying pain. On the other hand, if the conditions in Mother Teresa’s hospices were a result of lack of money, rather than an intentional decision, then I wouldn’t hold her responsible, because holding her responsible wouldn’t do anything.

    Another way of thinking about it is that the distinction between intentional and non-intentional consequences is far more important than the distinction between good and bad intentions.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    someone is responsible for a problem if holding them responsible could possibly have helped

    That seems to work. In Crys’s examples, holding the people responsible might possibly have got them to be a bit less murdery, a bit less punchy, and slow down when driving round a corner in the dark respectively. (In fact, ironically, the likelihood is that the more “seriously” we regard the offence, the less likely holding them to account is to modify their behaviour).

  5. tecolata says

    In the examples cited, it appears the parents CHOSE ignorance (in the same way Theresa chose to let people suffer). In other words, they were not some illiterates in some rural community in an underdeveloped country who simply did not have information. They were people with access to medical information who chose to disregard it.
    As for people who disseminate lies – tough call. Because free speech gives the right to give opinions even if they are bs. It would have to be shown that the anti-vaxxers, for example, knew they were spreading false information. That would be a tough call.
    I’d rather just have them treated with the utter contempt and ridicule they deserve, like the Flat Earth Society. Sadly, too much of the major media still take a “he said/she said” attitude towards proven nonsense. Some people say planet is warming, others say no. Some people say Planned Parenthood cuts up babies and sells body parts but PP says no. Some people say vaccines are safe but others say they cause autism. Without regard for whether what is being said has any factual value or even is worthy of being reported. (Articles on geography don’t include a line “some people, though, still say the Earth is flat).

  6. chris_devries says

    I believe that actions should be judged by their consequences, and societies should write laws designed to protect people from actions that result in harmful consequences. Thus, if automated cars reduce road fatalities, I (like sonofrojblake) think human driving should be illegal (and I too eagerly await such a day). Similarly, if the consequence of rampant ignorance is people like Mother Teresa or the anti-vaxxers, society (and the governments it elects) has a responsibility to ensure that all children are educated with both true, factual information (that is up-to-date) and critical thinking skills, to a minimum (but very high) standard. I would take this even farther though, and say that governments also have a responsibility to fight against institutions that propagate misinformation, ignorance, and which make a virtue of faith and revelatory “knowledge”. By both providing high-quality education (getting rid of homeschooling and ensuring all public and private schools meet the same high standard) and working to counter the message of organizations that deal in (and depend on) ignorance, we can raise a generation that both knows how to think, and that values knowledge.

    This would require treating children like young individuals (i.e. not the property of their parents), who have a right to the tools that are necessary to navigate the modern world. We really need to start taking to heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”…two people alone cannot and should not be the only major influences in the growth of a child’s mind.

    Finally, as an aside, I find the concept of “blame” unhelpful. People are the product of genes and environment (including upbringing), neither of which is chosen by anyone. Lucky (not *good*) people have the right combination to be able to be functioning members of society. So we should take steps to mitigate harmful consequences while keeping in mind that people who engage in harmful behavior couldn’t necessarily have done otherwise. This approach makes education all the more important because it is the main societal intervention in a child’s upbringing; high standards make for better lives, period.

    • sonofrojblake says

      I wouldn’t get rid of homeschooling – I’d hate to think my right as a parent to educate my child as I see fit was infringed. BUT I’d make damn sure homeschooling was rigorously audited and regularly tested to ensure it met a minimum standard, and a high one. People should have the right to opt out of state education, but they absolutely shouldn’t have the right to opt out of accurate, quality education. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

  7. silverfeather says

    While yes, the consequences were the same, I cannot imagine lumping a premeditated killing and an accidental killing in the same moral category. And without putting them in the same category I don’t see how we get to the idea that both people should have the same punishment under the law. That idea is kind of horrifying to me. That said, perhaps it would be less horrifying if we had a system that was focused on rehabilitation and not incarceration and punishment.

    I have a difficult time making broad sweeping statements about how much intent matters because it seems to be so situational. I agree that in cases where there is a powerless affected party intent matters less and outcome matters more… but intent still does matter.

    If we lived in a world where I could trust my elected officials to use the best current scientific information to create laws to protect people from well meaning but objectively harmful practices, I would be all for it. Make vaccinations mandatory. Make medical care for your sick child mandatory (and free). If the next Mother Teresa tries to set up shop and start forcing completely avoidable suffering on the people in her care – shut her down! I wish I could trust the people in power to compassionately apply facts and ethics to these situations. But I guess if we can’t even all agree that suffering is bad (generally speaking), we have some more basic conversations to have first.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    There are accidents and “accidents”, though.

    For instance: consider three cars, approaching three school crossings.

    In car one, a psychopath intent on taking out the crossing guard. When the guard steps out, she doesn’t even slow down. It’s pretty clear cut that she’s morally responsible for the death or serious injury which follows. Accident? Definitely not.

    In car three, a responsible driver. Their car is nearly new and fully functional. They’ve had it serviced recently, and all is in order, the windscreen is clear, the radio is off, their phone is in the glove box on silent and they have a clear head, good eyesight and both hands on the wheel. When the crossing guard steps out, they apply the brakes… and due to a design error on the heat sink of a microprocessor, the anti-lock brakes lock the brakes off, and the car doesn’t slow down. There is literally nothing the driver could have done to foresee and prevent this problem, so they have no moral responsibility whatever for what follows. Accident? Absolutely. If you must hold someone responsible, it’s an engineer in an office somewhere in Munich or Seoul or somewhere similarly far removed.

    In car two… a driver. The car is OK, I guess, bit old but still goes. Brakes make a bit of a grinding noise, but we’ll get that fixed this weekend… oh, no, next weekend, I’m busy this weekend. Bit of dirt on the windscreen, it’s the shape of Ireland, keep looking at it and chuckling. Phone’s buzzing, but we’re not answering, I can see it’s Dave. In a hurry, so going a bit quick. Distracted – what time was that meeting tomorrow? Should have brought my driving glasses, I’m getting old hahaha… Crossing guards steps out, slam on the brakes too late. “Accident”? On its face perhaps.

    Morally, for me, driver 2 is much closer to driver 1. Sure, they didn’t *intend* to run the guy down, just like driver 3 didn’t. But driver 3 had no informed choices they could have made in advance that would have made any difference – they couldn’t have known that tiny part was defective or what the effect of that defect would be. Driver 2 had lots of choices – fix the car, clean the screen, wear your damn spectacles if you need them, drive within the speed limit and pay attention and slow down for crossings. Even if they’d only had one, they’re morally responsible for the outcome of that choice.

    • silverfeather says

      I’m pretty much in agreement with your assessment here based on the information provided.

      – Driver one: Completely morally responsible
      – Driver two: Very morally responsible (swinging closer to driver one)
      – Driver three: Not morally responsible

      But already we’re in the weeds. Just based on these three examples I would continue to argue that the punishments should be different for each different driver (and again if we were concerned with rehabilitation instead of punishment I would be happier). Let me add another driver.

      In car four… a driver. The car is OK, I guess, bit old but still goes. Brakes just started making a bit of a grinding noise but he can’t afford to get that looked at this weekend because his son Dave has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and he’s torn between sheer terror and the sinking realization that he doesn’t have enough money to pay for treatment. Bit of dirt on the windscreen, it’s in the shape of Ireland. He keeps looking at it and wondering how his whole life could fall apart so quickly. Phone’s buzzing, and he knows he can’t answer, but it’s Dave, and letting it ring is killing him. He has to hurry, so he can get to a place to pull over and talk to his kid. Distracted – and he still has to get to work (what time was that meeting tomorrow?) because he absolutely CANNOT lose his crappy job now. Eyes tearing up behind his driving glasses… he feels so old… Crossing guard steps out, he slams on the brakes too late.

      Morally, for me, driver four is much closer to driver three. And I still think that if we are assigning punishments that all of these drivers should have different ones, based, in part, on intent, and on emotional state, and on information they had in the moment, and on a million other circumstances that make a one-size-fits-all application of punishment based solely on outcome seem horribly unfair to me.

      And hey, we could do this all day. What if driver three had received an urgent notice about possible faulty brakes in her car, but just hadn’t gotten around to opening her mail yet? She now has some responsibility – at least one thing she could have done differently. If by your standards she is now morally responsible, should she also receive the same punishment as the psychopath driver one?

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