When is Intent ‘Magic’?
Justin Vacula has written about blame and intent in a recent post titled “Blame and Intent“. His purpose is primarily to argue against the claim that “intent is not magic”, the meaning of which is, according to him:
that the feelings and beliefs of a person who is a recipient of a message, rather than the intent of the individual, takes priority.
I gave this phrase a quick google (as I don’t recall ever seeing it in any philosophical literature) and it appears to have it’s origin in 2010 in post called “Intent! It’s Fucking Magic!” on a blog called ”Genderbitch: Musings of a Trans Chick”. As fascinating as the blog sounds, rather than argue specifically against it I’ll use it to spark some thoughts about the role of intent in meaning, and argue that while intent is not magic (and as far as I can tell, nobody is claiming that it is), at least according to one plausible theory it is an important part of the analysis of meaning.
So what is being claimed? It is difficult to know from the Genderbitch article, since it seems to be more of a sarcastic rant than a coherent argument. Another article, this time from Shakesville puts it rather better:
Magical Intent is the principle by which someone who has said or done something offensive, hurtful, rage-making, marginalizing, and/or otherwise contemptible argues that the person to whom they’ve said or done it has no right to be offended, hurt, enraged, alienated, and/or otherwise disdainful because their intent was not to generate that reaction.
In other words: “I didn’t intend for you to feel that way, so if you do feel that way, don’t blame me! My intent magically inoculates me from responsibility for what I actually said and how it was received!”
Talk of ‘magic’ seems to be a straw man; the ‘intender’ in question seems to be saying that since the other person now knows what the intent behind the statement really was, it is a mistake to continue being hurt by it. Now, I think that this could be right or wrong, given certain conditions. So when might the listener be justified in remaining hurt, even if the intention of the speaker comes to light? Take the second example on Shakesville for instance. A thin person keeps calling themselves ‘fat’ and ‘disgusting’ in the presence of their friend, who is fatter than they are. The thin person did not intend to hurt the fat person. Nevertheless, we can agree that the fat person isn’t unreasonable in being hurt even knowing the thin person’s intent, since the thin person’s statements betray a willingness to see anyone of at least their size as fat and disgusting. Another similar example might be if someone tells me that studying philosophy is pointless since philosophy itself is just a load of bearded men in togas making things up. If they later find out that I’ve studied it and exclaim that they never meant to offend me, I am still perhaps justified in being a little peeved since their statement still betrays what they really think.
Now the fact that the speaker isn’t out to hurt the listener might have some effect on their moral culpability. A drink driver hitting a pedestrian is morally responsible for the injuries they cause, but surely they aren’t as immoral as a sober driver who hit them on purpose. Similarly, someone criticising their own weight because they know it will upset their fatter friend is acting more immorally than the person in the Shakesville example. Still, they are in some way responsible for the hurt their words caused, and I don’t think their intent removes that responsibility.
So as a principle, if A is justified in taking offence at something said by B, B’s intent to hurt A (or not) does not necessarily neutralise that justification.
Intent as part of the analysis of meaning
So does this constitute complete agreement with Genderbitch and Shakesville? No it doesn’t. Neither leave room for the idea that intent might be important to the meaning of the speaker’s utterance. I don’t have space in this post, but I’ll do a follow up and try to argue (with H.P. Grice) that intent is important to speaker meaning. So let’s for now just assume for the sake of argument that intent is important (I feel that the burden of proof here is shared: for one to argue that intent has no bearing on meaning is a claim that requires strong philosophical arguments backing it up).
So when might intent be ‘magic’ (i.e. remove the listener’s justification for being hurt)? We might begin by observing that the word ‘niggardly‘ often causes offence because it sounds like the word ‘nigger’. I take it as uncontroversial among reasonable people that this reason provides no justification for being hurt by use of the word. Suppose if someone ignorant of the word’s usual meaning intends to use it in a racially discriminatory manner. Are they being racist? I think that it is clear that they are. But surely this works both ways. If someone uses a word that is commonly racially discriminatory but they did not say it with that meaning in mind, I don’t think they can be charged with racism. Instead, someone should politely inform them that if they keep using that word, many people are likely to take it the wrong way.
The principle is this: A is justified in being offended at B’s utterance only if that justification applies to B’s meaning, which is contingent on B’s intent.
This is compatible with the earlier principle, since the intention mentioned in that refers to the intention not to hurt, which is distinct from the intention important to speaker meaning.
Anyway, I’ll follow this up soon with a post about meaning in the philosophy of language, and outline Grice’s view.