Amit says “it’s common sense that you have to judge actions on the basis of their outcome, and not their intent.”
No it is not common sense and it is not even true. It is one thing to say that policies should by judged by their outcomes rather than by the intention of their proponents. It is quite another to say the same when you are judging culpability for an individual’s actions. Unless you want to prosecute a driver on the Mumbai-Pune expressway who inadvertently kills a pedestrian running across the road for murder, you have to take the intentions of people into account.
The reason why we take intentions into account is obvious. We punish crimes so that there is less of them in the future. Punishing someone who had no intention of committing a crime will neither deter him nor deter others.
I realise that the previous sentence is simplistic. Between an honest mistake that anyone could have committed and cold-blooded, premeditated murder, there are many gradations. At one end lies the Mumbai-Pune expressway case I gave where any just system will simply let the driver go free after taking down a statement, because there is absolutely nothing he could have done without putting his own life, that of his passengers and probably other cars too in jeopardy, and even if there was, it is too much to expect a person of reasonable driving skill to take that action in the split second he had. But a person who drives too fast in a pedestrian area and ends up killing someone, should be punished, though depending on what exactly he did, the punishment should certainly be less than that for murder. You need to apply a “reasonable person” test, i.e. whether a reasonable person could have avoided the tragedy by acting or not acting. There are also situations where your position gives you a special responsibility to take greater care than an average person would have taken – the obvious case is where you are a doctor and a patient entrusts his life to you. It is not enough to plead ignorance of the fact that your treatment had a high chance of killing the patient. You have a responsibility to be well-armed with the facts. Once again, the situation is different, if, say, you are on a battlefield and you are treating a large number of patients within a short period.
The last difference we make is between hot-blooded and cold-blooded actions. Sidhu’s crime is supposed to be a hot-blooded one and not cold-blooded murder. Usually we punish the latter a little less than the former. Come to think of it, I don’t know why. If we want to deter crimes, I’d expect that heavy punishment is more likely to deter you in the heat of the moment than when you have time to think of it. Personally, if I were planning to murder someone, the prospect of even one year in jail would seem unbearable at this point in life for me. But if I am in an argument, have access to a weapon and I am have lost my mind, I am more apt to just make light of a year in jail while the prospect of a hanging will probably cool down my ardour. But I guess punishing people severely for acting in the heat of the moment will offend people’s sense of justice – and, well, it is ultimately pointless to make sense of our theories of justice.
Amit also says that it is difficult to gauge intentions. Well, perhaps, but it is no more difficult than proving murder. If you took your wife out on a trip, carried a gun with you and it turns out that you had not bought a return ticket for her, then it is reasonably certain that your killing her was premeditated and not hot-blooded.
Finally, what about blaming people for bad policies? Should we do that if their intentions were good? (Please note that this is different from the question of whether we should adopt well-intentioned, but bad policies. The answer to that is clear. We shouldn’t. The question is what view we should take of people who espouse those policies for honest reasons. )
I think that by and large, we should criticize such people. Policies aren’t adopted in the heat of the moment. You are supposed to think through them. The question is not just what you knew, but also what you should have known if you had kept your eyes open. Even there I try to be reasonable. I don’t blame Orwell for advocating central planning in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn written in 1942. At that time, it was possible for a reasonable person to believe that socialism did a better job than capitalism. Also, policies tend to have both good sides and bad. It often takes time to process all the information and make up your mind about whether, on the whole, the policies are doing good or bad. You also tend to think that your policies may give bad results initially, but start giving fruit later on. But there is a point beyond which your support for bad policies moves from being an honest mistake to being a wilful crime. I cannot absolve Nehru who lived through Hayek, Friedman and B R Shenoy, saw the consequences of his policies and still continued to implement them. And anyone who remained a communist after the Hungarian revolution of 1956 has blood on his hands.