Why Intentions Behind an Action Matter

There are situations that you can imagine where an action of one person leads to the harm of another. Yet depending on the circumstances, more specifically the intentions of the perpetrator, your feelings towards them should vary. Picture this if you will, you’re walking down the street and someone comes up to you, looks you in the eyes and punches you square in the face. The intention is clear, as evident from the surrounding circumstances. The intention was built upon malice, they were looking to do you harm and you have every right to be angry at them.

Now imagine another situation. This time someone walking by you comically slips on a banana peel. Their arms flail about as a result and they smack you in the face. Same result as the first - you’re in a lot of pain. But they didn’t intend this to happen, if given the choice I’m sure they would have rather not slipped on the banana peel and caused you harm. It was an accident. You can’t really blame them. You are still permitted to be angry because after all, you are in pain. However if your anger is directed at the person who fell over, your anger is probably misguided. You should instead be angry at the unfortunate circumstances that lead up to the situation. The intention of the person, or any intention in this scenario is gone.

Now a final scenario to test your imagination. You’re walking down the street but on this occasion a mentally disabled person is up ahead. As you stroll past they start having an episode and are freaking out. An unintended consequence is that they crack you in the face. They’re not in control of their actions in that moment, or if they are they are a victim of their own mind and the situation at hand. You’re in the same amount of pain as the two previous scenarios, but this time you’d probably feel a bit different. If anything, you’d probably feel pity for them.

All of these situations had the exact same result, you getting hurt. Their intention however, changes everything, was it malicious, was it an accident, or was it out of their control? Their intent tells you a lot about how the other person feels towards you and what they will do in the future. In the second and third case I laid out, you can imagine that these people would not want the same thing to happen to you if the situation was replayed. On the other hand with our first subject maybe he would punch you in the face again, maybe if he had more power and would be able to get away with it, he would do worse. Intentions tell us everything.

Remember, even the law makes a distinction when it comes to murder. There are different degrees of murder, even though the result is the same, that someone ends up dead. You have first degree or premeditated murder. Second degree murder is still murder, but not premeditated and instead was done in the heat of the moment. Then you have third degree murder, or manslaughter as we call it. The distinction between all of these acts are determined by the intention of the perpetrator. If it’s a good idea for the law to make this distinction, it’s also a good idea for us to do the same in every day life.

Did that person say something racist on purpose, or did they just give a bad metaphor? The hand signal that was made, were they just trolling or was his intentions more nefarious? If we don’t know someone’s intention, we should give people the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good or misguided (as most people have good intentions for others) or we should at least be agnostic and not condemn people until they give us full, convincing reason to believe the intentions behind their actions. Even if we feel that they were meant to insult us this may not be the case, maybe they used a word that has powerful connotations to some people, but they don’t understand how it can make people feel. If this is the case, ask. Explain how you feel when they say those things, and ask if that’s what their intentions were instead of assuming the worst in people. Too many times I see people trying to read the mind of another, “Oh when he said X he really meant Y” with no supporting evidence.

Jonathan Pie goes on a rant about a misinterpreted joke that lead to a conviction and almost jail time.

“The prosecution said that context and intent are irrelevant … In order to get a conviction, they had to wilfully misunderstand the context of the video.”

To give a salient example of how dangerous it is to assume the worst intent in others. I bring your attention to the example given in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I’ll try to summarise what happens when a student misinterprets someone’s message and then doesn’t getting clarity. In 2015 a student at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) wrote an essay explaining how she felt marginalised and excluded. She noticed that Latinos were better represented on the blue-collar staff at CMC, like janitors and gardeners, etc than among its administrative staff. She felt that there was a standard or typical person at CMC, and she wasn’t one of them. She expressed her feelings in an essay and the dean of students, Mary Spellman, ended up seeing it. The dean had legitimate concerns over this student and sent this reassuring email to the her:

“Thank you for writing and sharing this article with me. We have a lot to do as a college and community. Would you be willing to talk with me sometimes about these issues? They are important to me and the staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold.

I would love to talk with you more.”

I ask you now, what is the intention behind this email? Does it not seem that this dean is wanting to do everything in her power to help accommodate the student? Their intention is nothing but empathy and understanding. Well, that’s how I imagine most people see it. But what was so wrong with this email that it caused people to go on hunger strike until the dean resigned?

Well, it was the fact that she used the term ‘mold’. The student found this insulting, “I just don’t fit that wonderful CMC mold!” she said while posting the private email on social media. She felt that the dean was trying to pigeon hole people, effectively saying that her and other people do not belong at CMC because of the colour of their skin. Need I point out that this is clearly not the case? The student could could have written back asking for clarification but instead decided to wait two weeks before making a giant public complaint on social media. But why would the dean choose to use the word mold? Isn’t it possible that they were trying to be racially insensitive? Well… The reason the word ‘mold’ was used, was because that is how other students at CMC describe themselves. There is no ill will in this statement. There is no intention to make her feel left out, in fact it was the opposite. Maybe it was poorly worded, maybe there was a better word that the dean could have used. That is all true. But it is also true that the student could have written back asking for clarification, explaining how she felt and trying to find out the intent behind the email (as if it was not obvious enough from everything bar that one dreadful word ‘mold’).

This mess (which absolutely blew up by the way, all this can be found with a simple Google search) all could have been avoided by not assuming the dean’s intention and by asking for clarification. The student could have easily have communicated their concerns, like they did in their initial essay and everyone would have been better off for it. It’s just a shame that so many people are too ready to jump on those that they perceive as evil, when in fact they are the ones who are under a misapprehension. In this situation it reflects poorly on the student, not the dean who was later forced to resign amidst the controversy. The intention of others matter.