Impact vs intent

He was hurt by someone, and he’s mad about it. How could this have happened? They must have done it on purpose, they deserve to be punished.

She was just trying to be funny. Yes, someone’s feelings got hurt, and she’s sorry about that. But why can’t they just accept her apology? It was a simple misunderstanding.

When harm occurs, we look at things quite differently depending on whether we caused the harm or received it. Or maybe, whether we more easily identify with the victim or the perpetrator. We also tend to think that actions and effects should be proportional; if I have been seriously harmed, then there must have been serious malevolence behind it, and that should warrant equally serious punishment. Similarly, if I just make a small mistake, how can that be such a big deal? Someone must be blowing something out of proportion. 

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a proportionate world. We live in a world of leverage in which tiny actions can have huge consequences. Your body controls more than just the strength of your muscles: a push on a pedal can channel thousands of pounds of force. A change in a line of code can affect the lives of millions.

We also live in an increasingly complex world. As the population grows and becomes more global, we encounter a wider range of strangers, and even the people we think we know have had experiences we could never guess at and don’t fully understand. Not only are the people we meet more varied and inscrutable, but so are the human-created systems that surround us, as they intertwine and interact in non-obvious ways. In this increasingly unknowable and unpredictable world, it’s getting harder to act without unintended consequences. 

All this adds up to the fact that that it’s easy to unwittingly cause harm that is out of proportion to the action. The intent and impact of our actions are becoming uncoupled. So what does this mean for how we judge harm, once it has occurred? 

Some say harm should be measured only by impact. In every HR harassment training (presumably, harassment prevention training) I’ve attended, it’s been emphasized that harassment is measured by the impact, not the intent. You can see why this would be: if you judge it by the intent, then you allow damaging behavior as long as it isn’t intentional. It ignores the person who is meant to be protected – the victim – as long as the perpetrator says they didn’t mean it. That doesn’t seem right. 

On the other hand, we know that intent matters, don’t we? There’s a difference between a car accident caused by a momentary distraction vs. driving drunk vs. intentionally driving into a crowd. We need to take intent into account in some way.

The problem is in framing the impact/intent question as a binary choice. Looking at it like that, we always create a win-lose situation. Focusing only on the impact means we completely ignore why the harm occurred and we may deal inappropriately with the perpetrator. On the other hand, if intention is all that matters, then we ignore the very person who needs the most assistance – the recipient of the harm.  

We don’t have to choose one side or the other. It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a prioritization; it’s both impact and intent, and more besides. Impact is, however, the first priority. The injured party needs the initial attention to heal, recover, and be protected from additional harm.

The second step is to look at the action, behavior or situation that led to the harm. Between intent and impact there must be some connection, and this has to be severed to stop further harm and prevent other incidents.

Last comes intent. Intent matters because how you manage the perpetrator of the harm should adjust according to the intent. Since we live in a complex world with lots of leverage, the degree of harm and the degree of intent or negligence may be quite different. The intent cannot be judged by the harm.

Too often we simplify things down to right and wrong, punishment or forgiveness. We like straightforward stories in which the hero wins, the falsely accused are redeemed, and the villain is punished. Too bad our world is too complex for such simplicity. 

In the near future, especially if you watch or read the news, you’ll be presented with a story of harm: a crime, a shooting, or an insult. That story and any surrounding social media commentary is almost certainly going to be oversimplified, compelling you to choose between extremes of punishment or forgiveness. Don’t take the bait. You don’t have to rush to choose a side. 

Instead, try to mentally step through the priorities: Is the harmed person safe and cared for? Can we stop the action or conduct, or change the situation that caused the harm? What was the intent of the perpetrator, and how do we know? How does complexity and leverage play a part? 

When the story is clear, the solution obvious, and you can’t imagine how anyone might see it differently, that is exactly when you should be asking more questions. It’s never as straightforward as it seems. 


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