Intentions and Outcomes

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.

35 thoughts on “Intentions and Outcomes

  1. Hi Ravikiran
    I agree with what you write. I think that Amit would too. What I think he meant to say was that we should not put any weight to what people say was their true intention after the crime was committed. Obviously anyone will deny that there was any intent after the fact. In the case of Sidhu, he clearly intended to assault the victim and the victim clearly died so it can be inferred that he intended to assault the man with nearly deadly force and that would be manslaughter at a minimum.

    The issue of intent is fuzzy because it is nearly impossible to prove in a court of law what someone was actually thinking at the time a crime was committed. I don’t think that should be grounds for “reasonable doubt” in the case of serious crimes like murder. In Sidhu’s case, he should have served his prison time long ago. When he finally does serve time, he will feel like a victim for being punished for a crime committed a generation ago.

  2. What about voluntary cannabalism ??

    (No relation to the post, but I am just hoping to see two cartelians disagree, it is monday and all that)

  3. Michael, I am sure Amit will agree – it is more probable that had not thought things through while making that statement. In fact, I am expecting most people to agree with all of this post (except perhaps the last paragraph). But I suppose they will do it intuitively, so it is good to clarify one’s thinking.

    Gaurav, not only do I support voluntary cannibalism, I also think that the government should give tax breaks on the sale of voluntarily cannibalised meat products.

  4. Well since you are bent on denying me satisfaction.

    “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”

    I think you meant otherwise [link]

    “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”

    I find it counter intuitive.

  5. Ravi, did you read the full paragraph from what you quoted? It goes on to say:

    “And while in some circumstances it can act as a mitigating factor — killing someone in self-defence should obviously get a lesser sentence than killing him to steal his watch — it can hardly be the sole basis of judging a crime, as Sidhu seemed to suggest.”

    It’s fairly obvious what I mean there, isn’t it? Michael states my case very well in the first comment, so I won’t go over that same ground. Congratulations, though, on thinking up hypothetical examples where intent can be proved — that must have been rather hard!

  6. reg. hot blooded vs cold blooded actions,
    some people, like me, believe that the subconcious is all there is, that the conscious self has no power and is merely a rationalization of what the subconscious has already decided — wouldn’t the subconscious, in its “hot blooded” decisions, take into account the higher costs, and decide not to kill?

    As such, if deterrence is our goal, then hot blooded heat-of-the-moment actions should be penalized very very severely as compared to planned premeditated actions. But this violates our sense of justice — deterrence is not our only goal, we want to have served the cause of “justice”.

  7. Amit, so you’re saying “intent” is a very fuzzy concept, and should not be relied upon for justice?

    But intent is the very basis of our sense of justice — we want to punish only those who deserve punishment. It is abhorrent, violative, unacceptable to punish those who do not deserve punishment.

    Every effort has to be made to find out intent, which is why we have courts of law, and judges and lawyers.
    Intent is the cornerstone of our justice system.

  8. Seven times Six,

    “subconcious is all there is, that the conscious self has no power and is merely a rationalization of what the subconscious has already decide”

    So you are in camp of moist robot theory (Scott Adams)

  9. “We punish crimes so that there is less of them in the future”

    Do we not also punish crimes as a natural outcome of justice being served? I feel a sense of outrage when the guilty get away for murders. That is why there is such an outcry over murders that happened close to a decade back.

    Secondly, in an over-worked judicial system, is it practically feasible to assess the intent behind every crime/action? Just looking at the scene of an accident will provide no clues on whether the culpable driver was in the wrong or was it truly an accident. To re-write your example, if his wife suggested a trip, he didn’t take a gun and they bought return tickets, but he still planned for a murder and went ahead with it, does not the killing appear hot-blooded?

    But, I completely agree with your last paragraph. Anyone with the liberty of having time to plan on his hand, and especially when framing important policies, should not be allowed to get away with the excuse of “hot-bloodedness” for a poor policy implementation.

  10. “Amit, so you’re saying “intent” is a very fuzzy concept, and should not be relied upon for justice?”

    Yes, to the first part of the sentence, no to the second. That is amply clear in the lines that Ravikiran ignored in my post, and that I’ve repeated in my earlier comment here. To repeat, “in some circumstances it [intent] can act as a mitigating factor.” However, since intent is so hard to establish — as in Sidhu’s case — we should be wary of using it to absolve a criminal, especially when we have only his word to go upon.

    And regarded this hot-blooded v cold-blooded actions stuff, I believe that all other things being equal, they should be punished equally.

    Btw, 7×6, agree with you about how we tend to rationalise at a conscious level stuff we’ve already decided at a subconscious level. I’ve been procrastinating writing a piece about that for months now. My intent has been good, but my actions have been amiss!

  11. However, since intent is so hard to establish — as in Sidhu’s case — we should be wary of using it to absolve a criminal

    Amit, but if we equate sense of justice with punishment commensurate to intent, then shouldn’t the wariness be on the other side — we should be wary of delivering punishment unless we can be reasonably sure of his intent.

  12. Let the judges decide.

    Let the law take its course.

    In the corridors of power.

    Where pelf talks most of the time.

    In the coat of a prosecutor.

    Let the intentions be buried for some time.

    Let us all kill our faith in the system.

    Law is different for everyone.

    It is how you understand.

    And how it treats you.

    If you haven’t been given a smack.

    Wait till you get one.

    Then interpret the black letters.

    To the old mother whose sons have been butchered.

    Land taken away.

    Sweet home burnt before her very eyes.

    This is not bollywood.

    Darling this is my country.

    Better than any other.

    Where the mai-baap decides.

    How Kaalia has to be treated.

    This is winter and in the wooden bench.

    The fragile middle-aged widow sobs.

    To let go her only son.

    Let the law takes its own course.

    Let the tears take their own course.

    Have faith in the Lord.

    Have faith in the hope.

    Have faith in the law.

    Bull-shit.

  13. “Amit, but if we equate sense of justice with punishment commensurate to intent, then shouldn’t the wariness be on the other side — we should be wary of delivering punishment unless we can be reasonably sure of his intent.”

    Are you saying that Sidhu should be let off? After all, we certainly can’t be sure of his intent.

    And who’s equating justice with “punishment commensurate to intent”? That would be immensely silly, because intent is always hard to establish, and can be rationalised.

  14. Amit, a quick note to point out that you are arguing with fairly well-established legal theory and practice. The penal code of most countries define as murder only those things that was done with the intention of killing. If you bash up someone without intending to kill him, but he happens to die anyway, you will be charged with “Culpable homicide not amounting to murder”. No you won’t be let off, but you won’t be punished as severely as a murderer. So your point that we would take intent into account only rarely is simply incorrect. Any prosecution for murder has to prove intent to murder.

  15. Ravikiran, like Gaurav commented earlier I think you got the hot-blooded/cold-blooded thing reversed in youir post. What you have said doesnt make sense. If that was not a typo, then clarify

  16. To folks who are puzzled, here is a pragmatic reason why hotheaded crimes should be punished as severely or more than premeditated murders:

    The idea is based on the Broken Window theory (not Broken Window fallacy.) A cold-blooded murderer does cold-blooded calculations or potential gain vs. loss. A hot-blooded killer might not think clearly of the consequences of his actions at the time of killing, but his sub-conscious mind is nonetheless influenced by the cultural atmosphere about the acceptability of murder. If society has made it clear that murder is Just Not Acceptable, then a lot of hot-blooded situations will not even get into the violence stage, let alone the killing stage. So that is one good reason for punishing hot-blooded actions more as severely as premeditated murder.

    I am not seriously suggesting that we should There are many reasons why we should not do it, including the injustice of the thing, the possibility of misuse etc. But I just wanted to present one reason to do it.

  17. Shreyas,
    “Do we not also punish crimes as a natural outcome of justice being served? I feel a sense of outrage when the guilty get away for murders. That is why there is such an outcry over murders that happened close to a decade back.”

    I agree with you. That is another reason.

    “Secondly, in an over-worked judicial system, is it practically feasible to assess the intent behind every crime/action? Just looking at the scene of an accident will provide no clues on whether the culpable driver was in the wrong or was it truly an accident.”

    That is also a good reason to punish people without trial, isn’t it? It is just as good a reason to let them off if there is the slightest doubt, or err on the side of lower punishment. There is a reason why the accused are treated as innocent until proven guilty. In any case, it is a burden on the police to carry out investigations, not on the courts that has to just hear the evidence.

  18. I believe Intent is very Subjective term which is very difficult to Prove. If a Guy has a argument and pushes his opponent (maybe due to he using foul language) and the said Opponent slips, falls and dies or has a massive heart attack (which Siddhu claims in his own defense), how does the Guy prove that there wasnt even a hint of him wanting to harm the other guy. Maybe all he wanted was to just wanted to get away.

    Cheers

  19. it is interesting how far many people here seem to veer towards guilty until proven innocent rather than the other way round.

    I wonder if this view could be a product of a dysfunctional (or close to one) justice system. I also wonder if they are actually right — that in a close to dysfunctional system, the cause of justice would be better served if we do not insist obsessively on guilt without doubt, and be a but more “cruel”.

  20. While i understand that intentions should be taken into account while awarding punishment for a crime, there is a danger that some people would use it to get off lightly. Amit talked about sportsman doping as one example. The other ex I can give is film wallahs from Bollywood defending salman and sanjay. They dont even talk of their ‘intentions’ durinng the crime, but defend tem saying they should be let off lightly because they are “nicest people in the world”. In other words they are sayinng that since they are so nice, it cannot be or could not have been their intention to commit those crimes. Gauging whether the intention existed is a tricky business. If there are clear cut evidences to gauge intentions, fine. But if not, the accused need to be punished regardless.

  21. 7×6, you write: “it is interesting how far many people here seem to veer towards guilty until proven innocent rather than the other way round.”

    I don’t see where anyone’s done that. We’re talking about intent in the context of the outcome (ie, the crime) being established, and the intent being in question. If the crime itself isn’t established, then the question of intent doesn’t come into play, so we’re not even discussing those cases.

  22. Ravikiran,

    I liked the way you articulated this point. I have been arguing on other blogs as well that Sidhu’s crime (whether you like him or not) cannot be compared with say, Soren’s. Unfortunately, since the verdicts came a day after each other, the two are being lumped together. Soren is a habitual multiple-murderer while Sidhu’s was a case of a loudmouth gone out of control!

  23. Ravi,

    I’m not too sure about this :

    >>>>>>> A hot-blooded killer might not think clearly of the consequences of his actions at the time of killing, but his sub-conscious mind is nonetheless influenced by the cultural atmosphere about the acceptability of murder.

    in a sense that this ‘may’ or ‘may not’ be true.

    If you take the example of the poor farmer driven to emotional break point by the moneylender and therefore forced to ‘killing’, there is no acceptability at any level.

    Whereas Sidhu may have at some subconscious level, thought that he had enough clout to get away.

    Unfortunately hauling the subconscious is not an exact science.

  24. Do any of us do anything? or do we try to do something and have an outcome, desired or not, surely we do physically move and do an action but we are doing one thing and attempting another, if they are the same then it is a bonus

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