Friday, May 20, 2005

Ethics: Intent and Objective Character

It's odd when two different discussions with different people turn out to hinge on the same point. I think I'll get to those individual topics later; what I want to talk about is the point that connects the two.

In ethics, it is very easy to become enthralled by the psychological drama of intent. When I was younger, I spent much time thinking about whether a person who attempted murder, only to see his gun misfire, was morally culpable of murder although his target was unscathed. The great questions in ethics, it seems from this sort of perspective, are really issues in psychology and epistemology.

But of course, the philosophical traditions of the past- and the Church- hold to the importance of the actual events and to what I call the objective character of the act. Perhaps a helpful way of defining this objective character is "the set of all valid descriptions of the action". So the objective character of my current action includes such things as "typing on my keyboard", "writing something for my blog", "spending time alone", "thinking about ethics", and the like. (Perhaps this is a bad definition, but I hope you get a general idea of what I mean to describe.)

Intent is included in this, but it is far from all that influences the morality. For example: say I have a paper due on campus in fifteen minutes, and there's no bus. I take my friend's bicycle to campus, in order that my paper won't be turned in late. Now, I have a nice intention here, not unethical. But it makes all the difference whether I have permission to ride that bicycle (whether explicitly or implicitly given). That factor belongs to the objective character of the act, not to my intention (which is the same in either case: to get to campus in the next fifteen minutes).

One reason that, I think, the importance of intent takes a disproportionate role in many people's ethical understandings is that intent is more important in determining a person's culpability for wrongdoings than in determining moral precepts. In other words, when we say that bullying is wrong we are not very concerned with the motives of bullies; when we are deciding how to punish a bully we may be quite concerned with establishing his motives. We live in a culture with a great deal of litigation (and fear of litigation), and also in a culture where we are supposed to "fit the punishment to the crime" in other matters (like education and child-raising). This has made people spend more time thinking about culpability, and thus much more time thinking about intent. (Forgive my overgeneralization!)

So what points do I want to make at his stage?

(1) Whether an act is right or wrong depends on the objective character of the act, not just the actor's intent.

(2) Actions with similar intent but different contexts are not necessarily morally equivalent.

(3) Different actions with similar intents are not morally equivalent.

(4) In some cases, different intents change the moral status of an action.

(5) In some cases, different intents do not change the moral status of an action, but can affect how culpable/how laudable is the actor.

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