When Intentions Don’t Matter

Paul Bloom: Times columnist Bret Stephens — in a piece rejected by his own paper but then published in the New York Post — wrote, “Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention … It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage. A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference.” This rings true for many people, and I think it’s sometimes right. But as a general claim, many philosophers, legal scholars, and moral psychologists will tell you that it’s mistaken. There are all sorts of cases where we ignore intention, or at least don’t see good intention as fully exculpatory — and we are right to do so. By thinking hard about what goes into a moral judgment, we will find ourselves in a better position to debate the merits of any particular case. 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.

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