Does moral culpability for harm require intent to harm? This piece from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom explores our different moral instincts when it comes to intent and outcome.
"There are two main considerations that we take into account when something has done wrong—the intent of the actor and the outcome of the action. To take the sort of example used in psychological research, Mrs. Smith thinks your child is allergic to peanuts, makes him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with homicidal intent, and gleefully watches him die. This is murder. But what if she’s mistaken and your child has no such allergy? She watches with surprise as he says thank you and runs off to play. This is bad intent without a bad outcome. It’s awful but not as awful as murder. Now imagine a third scenario in which Mrs. Smith is unaware of the allergy and kills your child by mistake. Here we have a bad outcome without bad intent. But she would presumably be racked with guilt—and should be—and might still be charged with a criminal offense. To take a milder case, if you spill your coffee on my laptop, it matters a lot to me whether you did it on purpose. But even if it was a totally unavoidable accident, you should apologize and perhaps offer to help pay for the repair. Outcomes matter even in the absence of intentions. ...
"There is a logic to this: Intentions are hard to infer and easy to lie about. Outcomes are observable by third parties and can form the basis of impartial judgment. And outcomes—the death of a child, a ruined laptop—are what matter. Indeed, it’s likely that we worry so much about intentions only because they are clues to future outcomes. If you intended to knock over my coffee, it raises the chances that you might do it again—or worse—in the future. ...
"We [do] take intention into account, after all, for people we care about. For them, we are sensitive to nuance and purpose and inclined to give second chances. Zero-tolerance is something we reserve for strangers and enemies, either personal or political. Part of this might just be a desire to harm them, a delight in seeing them fired and humiliated. But deeper considerations are also at work. We don’t trust those we don’t like, and so we dismiss their stated intentions; we are more comfortable thinking of their suffering as instrumental, helping us to satisfy broader goals of deterrence.... And so, in the end, the argument for caring about intention is an argument for charity—for treating a stranger or even an enemy like someone we care about."
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