Intent IS Magical …

… sort of.

I keep reading in comments and posts comments that intent doesn’t matter and only the effects matter, and that intent is not magical. Now, I’m a strong ntentionalist when it comes to morality and to moral responsibility, so I find this utterly puzzling and just plain wrong. Finally getting fed up with it, I went to see just who it was that was pushing this line, and came up with this post on Google (there was one higher, but I chose the one with the less swear words) that tries to explain it. So I’m going to address that post.

Melissa McEwan starts with defining “Magical Intent”:

Magical Intent is the principle by which someone who has said or done something offensive, hurtful, rage-making, marginalizing, and/or otherwise contemptible argues that the person to whom they’ve said or done it has no right to be offended, hurt, enraged, alienated, and/or otherwise disdainful because their intent was not to generate that reaction.

In other words: “I didn’t intend for you to feel that way, so if you do feel that way, don’t blame me! My intent magically inoculates me from responsibility for what I actually said and how it was received!”

She goes on to talk about why she doesn’t think it works:

This is one of the most harmful—and common—manifestations of accountability deflecting language, rooted in the false contention that intent is more important than effect. It is a most curious habit, given that most of us would readily acknowledge that “I didn’t mean it” isn’t an excuse for not having to apologize when we bump into someone or accidentally step on someone’s foot. Yet we have nonetheless created an entirely different standard for things we say that inadvertently hurt other people.

Intent does not, in fact, magically render us unaccountable from the effects of our communication, no more than not intending to step on someone’s toes magically renders us unaccountable from the effects of our movement. Pain caused unintentionally is still authentic pain.

The main problem here is that, even in these cases, we recognize a distinction between inadvertently causing pain and deliberately causing pain. Yes, the person is in pain regardless, and often at least the precise same amount of pain, but the responsibility of the person who caused that pain for that pain is different, at least certainly in the sense of judging them. Surely we can all agree that someone who, in fact, is trying to cause someone pain by stepping on their toe is judged harsher than someone who simply, say, took a step back. Saying “I’m sorry” here doesn’t mean that the person is accepting that they did something wrong; what they did might be totally reasonable from their own perspective. In fact, it might be the other person who did something wrong by standing too close. But as long as no one did so intentionally, what we have is a gracious attempt to be polite and apologize for causing pain while the other person graciously accepts it since there was no intent to cause that pain. I think that, in general, this is what we have for speech as well. If I say something that inadvertently hurts someone, I should apologize, they should accept, and we should all go on with our lives.

And I think we can see that in the examples she gives. The first one:

Example One: Alex has a PhD in Subjectology. Jamie knows that Alex has a PhD in Subjectology, yet, during a discussion of Subject, Jamie, who has an interest in and is reasonably knowledgeable about Subject, condescendingly explains basics of Subject to Alex without regard for Alex’s demonstrable proficiency. Alex expresses that Jamie’s insistence on explaining basics makes Alex feel as though Jamie does not respect Alex’s competency or intellectual capacity. Jamie, whose intent was actually to impress Alex, insists that hir intent was not to make Alex feel that way. Alex makes a valiant attempt to explain why Jamie behaving as though Alex doesn’t know the basics of Alex’s professional field is disrespectful, at which point Jamie gets miffed, reiterates that the intent was not to make Alex feel bad, accuses Alex of looking for things to get mad about, and misrepresents Alex’s good faith attempt to address demeaning language as a personal attack on Jamie.

Thus, what had started out as an inadvertent slight becomes a harmful exchange, as Jamie refuses to acknowledge that the effect of the action irrespective of its intent was hurtful to Alex, and deflects accountability by casting Alex as unreasonable.

The first thing we need to do here to make this a fair example is drop the “condescendingly”. Being condescending, especially since in the example Jamie knows that Alex is, in fact, well versed in Subject is a case where there is a bad intention. Jamie intends to condescend to Alex by using that tone, or at least is being negligent in using a tone that reflects that. This, then, is a far cry from a case where Jamie simply explains basic principles to Alex without having an intent to condescend at all. So, instead, imagine that Jamie is talking about the subject and simply goes into those basic principles, but not in an objectively condescending way, but simply in an explanatory or even lecturing way, the way they explain everything. Alex, quite rightly, would be annoyed at having basic concepts explained to them as if they didn’t know it, but it is clear in this case that Jamie doesn’t intend to do that, but is just talking. Alex should lightly remind Jamie that they do know all this as they do know Subject, Jamie should either apologize or, perhaps, explain that they are just saying it so that Alex can correct them if they make a mistake, Alex should accept either graciously, and then they can move on.

The problem with it as cited is that when Jamie explains that they weren’t trying to insult or annoy Alex, Alex basically reacts as if they were, by continuing to explain why they found it annoying, when Jamie has given no indication that they don’t understand that. The problem with text examples is that tone says so much here. If Alex’s tone is accusatory, then Jamie will feel defensive, and rightly so, since Jamie didn’t actually do anything wrong; it was just a miscommunication. On the other hand, if Jamie’s reply is dismissive or overly hurt, then Alex will rightly feel that Jamie is trying to, essentially, claim that Alex wasn’t really hurt, or that their feeling was invalid. But in this case, Alex’s hurt feelings are valid, and yet at the same time Jamie did nothing wrong because their intent was not to cause that feelings, nor was Jamie intentionally negligent — ie going on about this despite being well-aware that this was likely to cause hurt feelings — in their actions. The main problem in this whole thing, as I see it, is in getting into this dichotomy that either A’s feelings are unreasonable or B has a moral responsibility for causing those hurt feelings. This is a false dichotomy, as it is quite possible for A to reasonably feel hurt by something B said or did while B did nothing wrong. This, in fact, was my reply to the whole Rebecca Watson thing: yes, her feeling uncomfortable was reasonable but, no, EG didn’t really do anything wrong in what he did. These are the sorts of things reasonable people need to work out.

The second example:

Example Two: Kelly and Terry are friends. Kelly is fat; Terry is thin. Terry routinely expresses disgust with hir body by saying things like, “I am so fat” and “This cellulite is disgusting.” Kelly tells Terry that such expressions are hurtful and make hir wonder what Terry must think of hir, since zie is much fatter than Terry. Terry, whose intent was actually to solicit support and validation from Kelly, insists that hir intent was not to make Kelly feel that way. Kelly makes a valiant attempt to point out that even if it was not intended to make hir feel bad about hir body, it does, because Terry is associating fatness with something bad. Terry reacts defensively, reiterating that the intent was not to make Kelly feel bad and accusing Kelly of being jealous and oversensitive.

Thus, what had started out as a misguided attempt to connect becomes a harmful exchange, as Terry refuses to acknowledge that, despite a lack of intention to be hurtful, zie was hurtful nonetheless, and deflects accountability by projecting hir void of sensitivity onto Kelly as an abundance of oversensitivity.

Here, you might be able to get Terry for being insensitive, and in some sense negligent. So there is an undercurrent of intent here that places a bit more responsbility on Terry than in the first example. However, Terry’s intent was clearly not to make Kelly feel bad about their body, but instead likely mostly to complain about what Terry complains about a lot (which might be a problem in and of itself). That Terry associates fatness with something bad is, in fact, beside the point; Terry may well do so and that would be potentially a difference of opinion, and one that Terry can express as long as Terry is not using it to make Kelly feel bad. For Kelly, then, to insist that it really does make Kelly feel bad does seem to be crossing the line, as Terry in no way denies this, and Terry’s comment is likely to be an explicit acknowledgement of that, which is basically “I understand why it does, but that’s not what I was trying to do”. Again, we can see from the very argument that the debate is over Kelly thinking that Terry thinks Kelly doesn’t feel that way — or at least ought not to — while Terry thinks that Kelly is saying that Terry did wrong in saying what Terry said. Getting past this and acknowledging both sides is the solution, not a claim that intent doesn’t really matter.

The third example:

Example Three: Jesse has a habit of casually using the rhetoric of sexual violence (“I got raped by that ATM fee”), even around hir friend Jordan, who was raped. Jordan has asked Jesse not to use those phrases around hir, explaining that they are triggering and make hir feel unsafe, to which Jesse agreed. Jesse nonetheless slipped up, and Jordan expressed hurt both over the use of the phrase and also over the disregard for hir previous request. Jesse, whose intent was not to hurt Jordan, responds belligerently and insists zie just forgot and hir intent wasn’t to hurt Jordan and doesn’t Jordan know that? Jordan says zie does know that, or else they would not still be friends, but adds that it was hurtful all the same. Jesse storms off in a huff, but not before hurling another accusation of bad faith at Jordan.

Thus, what had started out as a hurtful mistake becomes a harmful exchange, as Jesse refuses to own hir mistake or acknowledge that the effect was to disregard the feelings of an ostensibly valued friend, then further escalates the situation by attributing to Jordan accusations of ill will that Jordan did not make.

And this one is a clear case where we can say that Jordan really is trying to make it out like Jesse did wrong, and so is indeed being unreasonable. Note the part that Jordan “expressed hurt both over the use of the phrase and also over the disregard for hir previous request.” [Emphasis added]. But in order for Jesse to be actually disregarding the request, Jesse would have to be intentionally doing so, deciding to use that either deliberately or at least negligently enough to be making little to no effort to avoid using such phrases. It doesn’t seem, though, like Jesse was doing that. It seems like Jesse was indeed trying to avoid that, and one slipped out. Additionally, Jordan seems convinced that Jesse is trying. Yes, the phrase might trigger and hurt Jordan, but even Jordan accepts that it was simply an accident, and so an accusation that Jesse is disregarding their previous request is unwarranted. That requires intent, and no one involved thinks that Jesse has any such intent.

So, yes, in some cases intent trumps hurt feelings. These are cases where the hurt feelings are based on an assessment of the intentions of the speaker/actor. In this case, the accusation of disregarding the request depends on the person consciously deciding to take the action regardless of the request. But no one believes that that’s the case here. So, here, intent clearly trumps hurt, and Jordan is wrong to persist in the explanations and accusations when Jordan is convinced of what Jesse’s intention was.

What I do find is that a lot of this sorts of situations do indeed turn out like this: where one person is making an accusation of what the other person intended, and then the other person denies that intention, at which point the first person comes back with the claim that either intention doesn’t matter — when in this case the whole offense is based on intention — or that they know unequivocably what the other person’s intention was just from what was said. Neither of these are reasonable ways to foster communication.

She finishes with this:

That’s a difficult notion to accept for most of us, because most of us have engaged in this type of harmful communication at some point in our lives, even if it’s not a regular habit. Even being presented with the idea that common defensiveness can be abusive is likely to elicit, in some readers, a magical intent response: I don’t intend to abuse or manipulate people, so there’s no way I’m doing it!

But that’s why this conversation is so important—because a lack of intent to harm doesn’t guarantee that one will never harm.

The convention of magical intent seeks to oblige a harmed person into accepting accountability for our ****-ups. It asks them to accept that their feelings are irrational, because what matters is what we intended them to feel.

Well, you can see from my analysis that that is precisely the dichotomy that causes the problem. Someone can have rational hurt feelings with it being the case that the person “causing” them didn’t really mess up in any big sense. Because people have differing perspectives, someone might do something that hurts someone without even thinking that it could do that. In that case, both are in the right, and ideally they would work it out like reasonable people and learn something about each other that they can use to avoid such problems in the future. But perpetuating the dichotomy by in general insisting that we should judge by harm and not by intent is not the solution.

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One Response to “Intent IS Magical …”

  1. Apology of Intent … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] about intention and magic. She referenced it again in talking about Sam Harris recently, and since Iwrote a post a while back talking about intention as well, I thought it might be good to talk about […]

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