Intent vs. Motive

There is always a tension, as it relates to law, between an act committed and the reasons it was committed, and whether to judge the active agent of the crime by which of these. In the second chapter of Orson Scott Card’s novel Speaker for the Dead, there is an interesting tidbit about motivation versus action. Says Card,

It was the fashion of Calvinists at Reykjavic to deny any weight to human motive in judging the good or evil of an act. Acts are good and evil in themselves, they said; and because Speakers for the Dead held as their only doctrine that good or evil exist entirely in human motive, and not at all in the act, it made students like Styrka quite hostile to Andrew.

I don’t know whether to be impressed that Card grants, in this universe, that Calvinism will have lasted over 3,000 years, or to be offended at his description of its adherents. But I digress. The question of motive is an important one, I believe, in judging the morality or immorality of an action. Was it done with the intention to hurt or help? Did the agent know what he was doing and its ramifications, or did he or she act in ignorance, or with the expectation of different results? These, it would seem to me (even as a Calvinist) bear upon the question of how good or evil an action was. However, I do sympathize with the Reykjavician Calvinism of the future in this: that I do believe–I am sure, in fact–that wrong things can be done with the highest ideals as their impetus, and remain wrong things. That is, even sincerely done for good, the act is wrong. It is independent of the motivation behind it, in some way. Only this belief is respectful to the victim of the action in question. I suppose, then, that I lie in between Andrew and Styrka in this debate. But, if you will allow, I will move on.

I wanted to discuss the difference between intention and motivation, and to comment on their relevancy to the administration of justice. I believe, and I believe strongly, that intent is extremely germane to the question of justice in any given case. I believe just as strongly that motive is not. What I mean is this, that in court, intent must be judged, it must be weighed, in making a ruling, but motive must be ignored. We understand this already, and generally, this is how judgments are determined. For example, in the case of one person killing another. We have words like “involuntary manslaughter” and “premeditated murder” to help us distinguish between intentional and unintentional killing. Indeed, in there are degrees of murder, in which the extent and degree of a person’s intent is weighed. A killer receives a more severe sentence for committing murder in the spur of a heated moment (this is a crime of passion) than for accidentally hitting and killing a pedestrian in his car. And again, a more severe sentence for planning in detail, months ahead of time, to kill someone, and how to do it, than for the unplanned crime of passion. This is appropriate. However, it is not appropriate to decide a sentence based upon motive. That is, if you have two cases of first degree murder, in which one man committed a premeditated murder for one reason, and another man for another reason, they should not receive different degrees of punishment because of it. Intent deals with whether a person wanted or planned to commit an act. Motive deals with why he wanted to commit it.

Determining the motive of a crime is sound detective work, because it will help discover who the criminal was. But it has no place being factored in behind the bench. To do so is to do two things. First, it is to punish not only a crime (an action), but what a person was thinking when committing it. I do not want to live in a country in which thoughts are criminalized. That is thought control. It means that, although some actions are rightly regulated, I am no longer free to believe whatever I want. I want to live in a country where people are free to believe whatever they choose, and are not judged for their beliefs. This is why I am so disturbed by the designation of “hate crime,” not merely to assault, but to assault with a presumed motive. This is the beginning of thought policing. Second, judging motive apparently makes some of the victims of a crime less important, or less victimized, than victims of the same crime (done with different motives). This is because, as I see it, the measure of punishment a criminal receives is a measure of how much his victims were hurt. (Hence pick-pocketing receives a less severe punishment than identity theft, and murder is capital.) To use the example of severer punishments for “hate criminals,” it would it would imply that one innocent victim of battery is less valuable, or was less hurt by it, than another, because the victims were beat up for different reasons. That’s unfair to the victims and deplorable to justice.


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