The concept of intent often proves to create an interesting moral dilemma when we contemplate the instances of when bad things happen. Society tends to use a sliding scale of intent and morality when attempting to rationalize the judgement of a person, or a group of people, committing disagreeable acts. This sliding scale is most potent when something adverse transpires, but has some applicability in the instances when the executor strives to do a good deed.
For example, at the end of May, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a 75-year old man was unfortunately shot in his own residence after a police officer responded to call for a domestic disturbance. The owner of the residence, John Valluzzo, was a successful businessperson and a philanthropist; the officer, Jorge Valero, was a well-liked veteran of the force. For the sake of this post, the minute details of the encounter are irrelevant, but what is important is that Mr. Valluzzo happened to be white and the police officer happened to be a minority. If the tables were reversed this would represent the “expected” occurrence but what transpired in Connecticut shatters the norms of homicides involving police officers and common citizens.
But, did the race of the individuals involved in this incident really matter? In the eyes of the media, yes, it did—and they attempted to sensationalize intent on the grounds of race. In the end, a bad thing happened to a man, who was brandishing a gun, and was killed on his own property. A human being died, which is always an unfortunate event. Why would the intent of the officer be put on a sliding scale that alters the digestibility or the “badness” of the act of murder? Because Mr. Valluzzo was white? Because Mr. Valuzzo was a senior citizen? Why not simply because the officer felt his life was in danger? Whatever your answer is, does it change if the races of the men were now reversed?
Hate crimes are defined as “when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership of a certain social group. Examples of such groups include, but are not limited to a racial group, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender identity”. Hate crimes are mandated to be dealt with on the federal (not local or state) level and carry longer and harsher penalties than “regular” crimes.
In my eyes: murder = murder; rape = rape; assault = assault; theft = theft. Why then, does a law exist which alters the severity of a crime depending on the perpetrator’s intent? If John Doe kills a man because of money, or because the man is black, why is more weight placed on the latter instance? The egregious act remains the same. The true fallacy of this philosophy becomes evident when we move the sliding scale in the other direction, a tactic commonly used in this nation’s prejudiced past, and now correctly regarded as immoral and inhumane: If John Doe killed a man because he’s black, this does not make the act less evil.
In both of these scenarios, it is blatantly wrong to allow intent to cloud the reality of events, since they both divert attention, and therefore, appropriate punishment, away from the act itself and toward the mindset of the perpetrator.
The situation gets tricky when a negative outcome results from an attempt to do good, or when the existing law that classifies what is “wrong” is itself flawed.
Good, bad, or intent-dependant? A man kills a robber to save the life of his child. A woman kills a man brandishing a gun to save a friend. A man refuses to obey the law and accept second-class treatment on the grounds of his ethnicity. An adult chooses to save a child over an elderly person and “allows” the older person to die. A man refuses to deny that He is the Messiah when He is in fact God. The same man is then crucified as mandated by the “law”. Britain says, “Yes.” Gandhi says, “No.” Gandhi is then thrown in jail for “breaking the law” and doing what is “wrong”.
Pfc. Bradley Manning releases a vast archive of military and diplomatic materials to Wikileaks. Is he a rogue traitor who put his fellow soldiers at risk or a liberator who attempted to illuminate society and shred the veil of secrecy away from immoral government factions?
Did Edward Snowden break the law when he purposely leaked information about PRISM and the fact that the NSA was spying on innocent Americans, without warrant, or did he appeal to a higher moral and ethical law that he felt was being violated—in an effort to expose what he believes is excessive government surveillance of the American people? If his intent was to enlighten the minds of an otherwise ignorant and clueless public, are we now better or worse off as a nation if we know what goes on behind the scenes? And, what else is going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about? Could Mr. Snowden’s actions inspire other like-minded individuals who don’t wish to harm anyone but rather have the intent to disclose what exactly our elected officials are doing with our taxpayer money without us even knowing? Does this intent slide in the direction of treason or a liberty-seeking hero? Time will tell.
Dr. C.H.E. Sadaphal