The Consequences of Intention, A History Boy, 18/07/2013

In writing news, I finished my edits of the first chapter of my ecophilosophy manuscript, and it didn’t require quite the radical changes that I worried I’d have to make this summer. I still couldn’t find a place to put that orphaned paragraph, but maybe I can find one for the idea elsewhere in this book, or in another project.

One of the typical divisions in contemporary moral philosophy is between deontological or duty-based and consequentialist moralities. These are often held (at least in mediocre undergraduate introductory courses) as the two pillars of moral thinking. Evaluating the goodness of an act will depend on what benefits or pains it produces as a consequence, or as well as it follows some moral duty arrived at through reasoning on moral intuitions or principles. In duty-based thinking, one’s intentions play a key role in determining the rightness of an action. If you did a beneficial or morally right act, and you intended to do so or you intended to follow a moral duty, then that counts as more upstanding than if you’d done it by accident. You can see how our legal systems work as combinations of intentions and consequences. Accidental harms engender lesser punishments than intentional harms. 

But I’ve always thought there was more to morality than this. It makes me something of a virtue ethicist, but I’m hesitant to identify as a virtue ethicist either. See, most of the discourse in virtue ethics today is on trying to figure out what the true virtues are. The discussions try to isolate the virtues in the same way, in deontological moral philosophy, thinkers try to isolate what the true moral duties are. And the expectation is that the virtues, like the duties, will be simple character traits that are unerringly and universally virtuous. 

My own thinking about moral virtue is more complicated. (Do you see why I don’t usually write straight articles about moral philosophy?) Because I don’t think virtues are necessarily universal across all situations of action, or that the virtuousness of particular character features can be considered in isolation of the biological and psychological nature of humans. And when it comes to considering individual acts, I still think the psycho-biological context of human nature is important to consider ethically.

George Zimmerman, smiling
This murky ground between intention and consequent was floating in the back of many of my own reactions to the Zimmerman trial. Because ultimately, I can’t judge how ridiculous Florida’s self-defense and stand-your-ground laws are. Law isn’t my area of expertise. The case was decided on the matter of who provoked the fight, and what constitutes provoking a fight. Throwing a punch? Or stalking someone down a dark, alienating suburban street? And some key jurors seemed to live in a state of reasonable doubt about reality, let alone the malicious intent of Zimmerman’s actions.

What enrages me about Zimmerman is even more horrifying than the fact that he killed a 17-year-old young man, and that his racial prejudices probably motivated his suspicions of him. It’s that he never seemed to feel bad about what he did. His brother’s nonchalant dismissal of Trayvon’s life in his Piers Morgan interview was a key sign. Killing someone shocks you; it’s a destabilizing, terrifying, traumatizing event. It’s a sign of your emotional health that if you kill someone, whether or not in self-defense, the event haunts you. Or at least upsets you. 

Fred Allen, former supervisor of executions for the state of
Texas, and in many ways a broken person.
Zimmerman seemed calm. The act of killing never upset him or made him sad. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss, one of the most powerful interviews is with Fred Allen, a former officer in charge of executions in Texas. He would strap down inmates and supervise the doctors administering lethal injections. He dealt every day with death that was entirely legitimated by his country’s laws and his society’s morality. One day, playing a part in so many deaths weighed too much, and he snapped. He had a nervous breakdown and had to leave his job, giving up his pension and financial security because he couldn’t take part in killing anymore. I contrast Fred Allen with George Zimmerman, and I see something missing in Zimmerman. There’s an obliviousness to the gravity of his actions. Leaving aside questions of legal accountability, killing a human is a weighty act. 

And I think this aspect of human ethical life isn't considered by a lot of contemporary philosophy. The question always seems to be a matter of conformity to a moral principle to determine rightness, investigating the effects of an action to determine its benefits and harms, or whether it was motivated by virtuous or vicious character. The ethical weight of trauma does not seem to be widely considered, at least by the moral philosophy in which I've been educated over the last decade. Trauma ethics I think can be far more insightful than the tried-and-believed-to-be-true conceptual frameworks of the rest of moral philosophy. While I'm not yet sure where to start such an inquiry, I think it could be very intriguing for some philosopher out there to consider.

Zimmerman seems to have no personal remorse, no sense that he did anything wrong or even out of the ordinary. Philosophically and personally, that disturbs me.


  1. I once again feel the impulse to respond...

    You wrote earlier about skepticism toward retributive or punitive justice, if memory serves. I'm curious how this links up with your discussion here, although I realize that your goal seems more to be to refine the concept than to connect this to the political realm.

    What we seem to be confronted with here is a death caused by a man with minimal capacity for empathy and higher-order emotional experience (let us say for argument's sake). He killed a kid within the letter of the law (let's say) but wouldn't have done so had he had a normal or even minimally accepted level of empathy for the kid. This lack of empathy was likely the result of socialization processes (racism, a sort of generational gap re fashion, moral panic concerning crime) but may just be an internal condition of this guy.

    I get the social side of the story, which is really civil-society work: legal sanctions need to be supplemented with interventions in social contexts where we see barriers to the sort of good will that is needed in this legal context.

    So what are we to do with this guy in your perspective? I often detect what I think is a desire in your writing for higher standards of citizenship or humanhood or whatever, especially on this point of empathy. But how we cultivate this without creating a far vaster (and unrealistic for the US) system of punishment is unclear to me. Or in other words, help people see that kids in hoodies shouldn't be treated with hostility and suspicion.

    What I see you saying here more specifically is that Zimmerman should be "punished" (however that gets defined, which you leave open) for failure of intention, failure of good will, failure of compassion and empathy.

    This is a more pragmatic than conceptual approach and I don't know enough to know where trauma ethics would come in, but as always would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    1. It's not that I ask the state to punish Zimmerman somehow as much as I think an act like killing someone should provoke a thought process in the actor that changes someone simply from recognizing the weight of the act. Trauma ethics is a vague gesture to what might be something like a new approach. That last sentence was the second time I'd used the phrase.

      Moral philosophy today thinks largely in frameworks of duties, laws (whether moral/universal or temporal/partial/legal/customary), consequences, and virtues. This idea about trauma doesn't really fit into any of these frameworks, but I think it can have very interesting philosophical results.

      I think my next History Boy post will be about Spinoza, and his distinguishing ethics from morality.

  2. I wonder whether parole hearings include the type of moral conditioning that seems to be your concern. In making its decision, a parole board measures the probability of harm to society based on, among other things, indicators such as observed remorse. All things being equal, a prisoner who elicits credible remorse is more likely to be released on parole sooner than a prisoner who is judged to be feigning or not eliciting remorse. The ethical weight of, say, taking a life is, in this context, considered. "Because you do not feel remorse, and probably lack empathy, you present an unacceptable risk to society and cannot be released." The extent to which a person feels (and indicates the feeling of) the ethical weight of taking a life is a morally relevant fact in a consequentialist assessment.

  3. Of course, in real life, all philosophical moral theories are true and overlap all the time. But no one to my knowledge has put remorse at the centre of a moral philosophy without reading it as a kind of conscience or intuition of an abstract moral principle. I'd be interested to see an immanentist version of a morality based on remorse.