Patri “The Craziest Friedman Yet” Friedman recently tossed up a post titled “The San Francisco Bay Area Survival Guide” which, apart from reminding me how happy I am to be in Boston, contained this little gem:
Intention, n. Your purpose, stated at the beginning of any endeavor, in order to free yourself from the responsibility of the consequences.
Example in conversation:
“I let you crash on my couch and you went and slept with my boyfriend and my therapist.”
“That wasn’t my intention.”
This more or less exactly sums up my view of intention, and of the increasingly hilarious notion of “unintended consequences”.
Every time some political time bomb blows up, predictably, from some past policy error, the response is always to characterize the outcome as an “unintended consequence.” There are a number of theoretical problems here (eg, is it even meaningful to speak of the intention of a political process? Surely if Arrow and Chomsky both agree that good intentions are not a property of states, should we not agree with those odd bedfellows? What if different members of a political coalition wanted different things?) that already justify shunning any media outlet that drags out this old trope. But all of that leaves untouched the underlying notion: That it even makes sense to treat a foreseeable outcome of a voluntary action as “unintended”.
In fact, I will be stronger. “A reasonably foreseeable result of a voluntary choice” is the best available definition of “intended consequence”. To say otherwise is to give intention an independent existence apart from actual human conduct that is not merely ridiculous but dangerous.
Moral choice is not an a la carte business. We do not get to choose, “oh, I will intend to take Bob’s laptop, but not intend to steal from Bob.” We do not allow people to say, “I shall detonate a bomb into this neighborhood, but only intend to kill the bad people there.” Is the intent there that the laws of physics should be suspended, or the laws of logic? To treat reasoning without consequences as legitimate intent is to give too much credit by far to self-deluding casuistry.
It is true that there is a substantial specialist literature derived largely from a Catholic doctrine of “double effect” that is based on allowing people to pick which consequences of an act they will intend, and that among other things the laws of war are wholly predicated on this odd little quirk. But specialists will have their own jargons (my speciality, for instance, insists that “architect” and “platform” can be verbs); if they want to use “intent” in a way that allows them to “intend” incomplete, inconsistent, or incoherent worlds, the least they can do is avoid polluting the public discourse with this slavish nonsense.