Lack of Intent

In the recent discussions of Edward Feser’s work and Gunther Laird’s criticisms of them, Feser’s comment that he thinks that all of the ills of modern society follow from rejecting Aristotle has been brought up a few times.  Let me make my own statement of what I think is causing all the ills in modern times:  we’ve given up the idea that intent matters and so are trying to make moral judgements without noting the importance of intent to such judgements.

An example is the debate over hate speech, a topic that Jerry Coyne recently commented on, referencing a student article.  Coyne insists that free speech must be preserved and is at least skeptical about whether any so-called hate speech should be censored, while the student (Kelly Hui) supports the idea but ties her notion of what counts as hate speech is very much caught up in liberal and Social Justice views.  Which leads Coyne to ask her this one question:

“Who would you have decide which people are allowed to speak at the University of Chicago, and which should be banned?”

While it isn’t certain that she really holds this view, the issue from her side is that in general she would want the speech banned from campus that she finds hateful, while views that she finds acceptable or necessary she wouldn’t find hateful.  On the other hand, Coyne asks that question in line with his view that the only criteria that could really be used is whether or not it is offensive, and so based on that how do you claim that something is hateful, and hateful enough to be banned?  So Hui likely will judge what does or doesn’t count based on whether or not it offends someone that she thinks it unreasonable to offend (usually based around ideas of power or privilege) while Coyne will say that simply offending someone isn’t sufficient to get it banned.

What both of them miss here is that we can define a pretty good definition of hate speech based around what the clear intent of the speech is, which allows us to ban hate speech in a way that’s objective enough to work.

As all of us know — and Coyne as well — free speech is not absolute.  The most famous example of a restriction of free speech is the classic “You can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded building”.  But, of course, you can do that.  If there really is a fire in the building and you think that’s the best way to get people away from that fire, you can do so and will be exempt from most consequences even if the action results in a stampede that injures or kills people.  The reason we say that in that case it was okay is that if you couldn’t reasonably foresee that your action would have that result and your intent was good, then we might say that your action was a mistake,, but we would still say that it was at least morally defensible.  So in that case, you indeed can yell “Fire” in a crowded building.

However, that’s a case where we think the action is correct, or at least reasonable.  What if we think it unreasonable?  As it turns out, intent matters there, too.  If someone decided that it would be a fun joke to do that and scare people, and legitimately didn’t believe that it would have such a terrible impact, then we’d be more forgiving of them than if their intent was to start a panic and get people trampled.  The former is stupid, perhaps, while the latter is malicious.  We can more forgive innocent stupidity than malice.

And this is what we can use to judge what is and isn’t hate speech.  If the intent of someone’s speech is to incite hatred and discrimination against an identifiable group, we can identify it as hate speech and we can make a pretty good argument that such speech should not be allowed.  There is no reasonable exchange of ideas possible, nor does it seem to have any useful purpose in a society.  If the only purpose of the speech is to generate hate, then what purpose does it have?  It doesn’t seem to fit, then, the purpose that free speech protections grant to speech.

Note that this doesn’t apply to speech that might end up having that effect.  If someone says that, say, the wealthy are hoarding resources or that the poor are demanding that the state provide for them instead of working for themselves, some people might come to hate that group, but the purpose of the speech would be to point out the situation, not incite hatred against that group.  The hatred, then, comes purely from the interpretations of the listeners, and is not the intent of the person putting forward the ideas.  If that person could reasonably foresee that it would generate that reaction, we can judge them based on that intent, but then we would judge whether that speech was reasonable or not based on how necessary it was that the ideas be expressed, just as we would in the crowded building case.

To use a progressive example, it might be hate speech to say that white people are evil oppressors, but it wouldn’t be to say that they are privileged.  The latter may be incorrect, but its purpose is not to make people hate white people, but to outline what they see as an important point that needs to be understood to keep society working and fix its problems.  The former is a case that is not just wrong, but seems designed to generate hatred.

Now, in my experience most people who reject making these judgements on the basis of intent are worried about is judgement, and the ability to punish people who do “the wrong thing”.  They note that intent exists in the minds of the people we are considering, and so how can we be sure what their intent was and so how can we be sure that they did something wrong?  They could always just say that they had an innocent intent when they really had a malicious one, and since we can’t get inside their heads how could we gainsay them to punish them appropriately?  This concern is what drives the move towards consequentialism, because we can always look at what actually happened and then determine whether what they did was right or wrong.  This, then, leads to the idea that if it offends someone or makes them feel unsafe then it’s bad, because we can in theory judge whether or not they were offended.  But then we know that some people might fake being offended, and also that some things might need to be said whether or not it offends someone.  However, instead of working to classify the speech based on intent or purpose, instead they move to use concepts of power and privilege to divide up the groups into ones where it is reasonable to avoid offending them and the groups where we don’t need to worry about offending them.  And thus we get to the progressive idea of things like punching down and privilege which dictate what hate speech and discrimination really is, with perceived powerless groups ironically gaining power through society’s protection and the perceived powerful groups being excluded from such protections.

But this is a mistaken analysis.  First, while they throw up their hands at assessing intent, it turns out that we as humans assess the intent of other humans all the time, and quite successfully.  For example, if you’re walking to a crosswalk and you see a car coming, you will look at various signs to see what the intent of that driver is to determine if you should cross and where you should stand, and they are looking at you to determine that.  This works most of the time.  We also do it for other drivers when we’re driving.  In fact, conversations rely on assessing intent because the language is often ambiguous, so we assess what we think the intent of their words are in order to determine what they mean.  And this even applies to negative speech, like insults and other attempts to make someone feel bad.  We can tell the difference, in general, between joking and teasing versus real attempts to insult someone, and even between someone being insensitive and someone trying to deliberately make someone feel bad.  This ability is all we need to treat hate speech according to my view.

But second, we can abandon the need to find out if their intent was bad so that we can punish them and consider them bad for that.  In most cases, it will be fairly clear.  In the cases where it is ambiguous, we can let it go and accept that we aren’t sure that their intent is malicious and give up our need to punish them for an uncertain malicious intent.  After all, we still can chide them for being irresponsible if their speech has harmful effects, especially if they can’t show a real value from the speech that’s necessitated those harmful effects.  And we can actually post-judge their actions if they show a consistent pattern that reveals their intent.  If in one instance they straddle the line of being malicious, we can point out their straddling and advise them to stay further away from the line.  If they continue to straddle the line, then at best they’re being irresponsible and at worst we know that their intent is to cross the line in a way that gives them some plausible deniability that that is what they are doing.  And in those cases we can point out that their continuing to do so really does make their intent to be malicious clear.  Once we give up the need to punish every purportedly bad behaviour, we can consider intent and punish the behaviour that is clearly bad.

Society has mostly abandoned intent, but this has left it unable to properly handle societal and moral judgements.  And since many in society seem to really, really want to punish bad people for bad behaviours, this has left them only able to punish them on the basis of the consequences.  But sometimes good actions have at least some bad consequences, so they need to delineate the two cases somehow.  And so they do it based on personal and political considerations, not moral ones, because their moral system has no room in it to delineate those cases.  So they elevate personal and political considerations to moral ones, and it all falls apart when they have to deal with people who have different personal and political considerations.  And that’s why things are as screwed up as they are,

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