Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient Western tradition.

Contemporary Western intellectuals embrace secularism as ‘modern’, and they often perceive Eastern and African cultures as ‘traditional’ cultures that are steeped in ancient religious practices.

Many Westerners even describe Japan, an arguably more technologically advanced nation, as an interesting blend of the very old with the very new. A white man told me that he visited Japan to meet the parents of his Japanese wife. He said that Japan’s technology makes Canada look like a developing country. However, he insisted that Japan’s culture is very ancient in addition to being futuristic, because ancient cultural beliefs and practices are still part of contemporary Japanese culture.

I found it odd that Western culture is rarely perceived as ancient, even though so many of our beliefs and practices can be traced back to ancient traditions. It is difficult to look at Western culture directly, when we are so accustomed to looking through Western cultural frameworks.

An example of an ancient Western cultural artifact is the Christian tradition of considering intention when judging the morality of an action. This Christian concept is institutionalized in our legal systems as mens rea. For a very recent example of factoring in intent, Clay Shirky claimed that the filtering out of LGBT books from Amazon.com was only a “perceived injustice” and an “injustice that didn’t actually occur” since the delisting was done unintentionally.*

The overemphasis on intent is so pervasive that the effects of an entity’s actions is now considered less important or even unimportant. Furthermore, a culture that trivializes the importance of effect encourages people in power to prioritize image management over correcting bad behaviour. If intent is more important than action and effect, then showing that you had good intentions absolves you from your bad behaviour and your responsibility to correct your behaviour.


Related articles:


* For the record, I was unaware of the #amazonfail twitterstorm until I read Shirky’s article, as I had Internet troubles during that time. Although he makes a good point about people’s tendency to rationalize their actions, because I wasn’t involved, I have no emotional investment in maintaining that an injustice did occur.

13 Responses to “Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient Western tradition.”

  1. Jack Stephens Says:

    Nice one. :-)

  2. Alston Says:

    Just a thought on Ani’s hypocrisy article. She says:

    “To be concerned with one’s image as opposed to one’s self is a European characteristic.”

    That may be true, but certainly not unique to Europe. Just look at the Japanese concept of “face”. “Face”, or “saving face” is closely related to the hypocrisy and dishonesty described. The thing is, Europeans or North Americans that go over to Japan and other Asian countries with strong concepts of “face” often return complaining of it, while not acknowledging that it happens all the time back at home.

  3. Restructure! Says:

    Alston,

    Yes, I agree. I also tagged this post with “saving face”.

    I read an old blog post, I think by a Canadian, who was boycotting the Beijing Olympics because she hated the concept of face. I tried to find it again, but to no avail.

  4. Making a difference is not about creating a heroic image. « Restructure! Says:

    […] Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient Western tradition. […]

  5. Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! Says:

    what an excellent thought. However, I am sorry that this post is too short, there are so many more points and ideas to explore.

  6. Restructure! Says:

    @deafmuslim: Yes, there are too many. I could go off on so many different directions with this, but it’d be all over the place: ethics, psychology, law, etc. that may be only remotely related to anti-oppression.

  7. St. Anarchy Says:

    There isn’t a “Western culture” anymore so than there is an “Eastern culture”. To make assertions about “the Western mind” or “the Eastern mind” is to engage in essentialism and orientalism (or occidentalism, since your object of inquiry is a constructed “West” rather than a constructed “East”).

    If you insist on referring to “the West”, then you must at the very least admit that there are competing narratives within the structure of “Western culture”. Some of these narratives place emphasis on intention (i.e. virtue ethics), while others place more emphasis on results (i.e. pragmatism). Both approaches are equally “Western”, with a long tradition rooted in “the West”.

    Moreover I don’t think you can even say that emphasis on intention is exclusively “Western”. Buddhist Ethics also emphasize intentional states, but I rather doubt you would describe that framework as being “Western”. I would argue the same is true about the concept of “face”, which is neither exclusively Japanese nor exclusively “Eastern”.

    Lastly, in particular I think the “Western” practice of focusing on an agent’s intentions significantly predates Christianity. Ancient Greek ethical thought, in particular the work of Aristotle and Plato, saw the intentions of agents as being fundamental in the evaluation of human action. Ancient Greek thought was at least as influential on “the West” as Christianity; indeed, arguably more so since Christianity was classically interpreted through the categories of Greek philosophy (which is why Nietzsche referred to it as “Platonism for the people”).

  8. Restructure! Says:

    St. Anarchy,

    The so-called “West” refers to itself as “the West”. The land mass of Eurasia was divided by white people into the continents “Europe” and “Asia”, even though there is no geographical reason for this division. “Europe” contains mostly relatively light-skinned Caucasians, while “Asia” contains light-skinned Japanese to dark-skinned Sri Lankans, who have little in common with each other except that they are the Other to these light-skinned Caucasians.

    Even today, “the West” basically means the white-majority countries. “The West” includes not just Europe, which is west of Asia, but also the United States, Canada, and Australia. Again, there is no geographical commonality between these countries. There is only the racial commonality, whiteness.

    I did not create this essentialist categorization; I am just using the Western vocabulary. If you know of how I can talk about this without enforcing Orientalism, let me know. Perhaps it should be rephrased as “Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient white tradition.”?

    Thanks for the link to virtue ethics. I forgot that the ancient Greeks also had a huge disconnect between “being” and action. However, did Plato or Aristotle write about “intention” specifically? I have taken a course on ancient Greek philosophy a long time ago, so I may not remember. I still have Plato and Aristotle textbooks, so if you know where they wrote about “intention”, I would like to revisit it.

  9. Lxy Says:

    St. Anarchy’s idea of “Occidentalism” or “essentializing the West” is like the idea of reverse racism: it’s a contrived political attempt to deflect blame from the West by pointing the finger in the other direction.

    If there is no such thing as the West then the very ideas of “Western Civilization” or “Western values” or “Western Democracy” (sic) are lies.

    And as noted above, these ideas about the West have been promoted by Western nations, media, and institutions for centuries if not millenia–primarily to rationalize Western moral and political supremacy in order to colonize and rule the world.

    Yet when criticism of the West as an entity is leveled, all of a sudden there is no such thing as “the West.”

    This is the manipulation of “anti-essentialism” at its most cynical worst.

    Ultimately, this tactic reflects the not-so-benign interests of the Western(ized) intellectual classes, whose privilege and power ultimately derive from continued Western dominance–which of course doesn’t exist since “the West” doesn’t exist, they would assert.

    If there really is no such thing as the West, then the “Western” tradition of liberal democracy should be declared a fraud and one of the greatest political deceptions in human history no less.

  10. St. Anarchy Says:

    Restructure: I know what “the West” refers to, and I’m well aware that this isn’t something you invented. What I am questioning, however, is whether by adopting the categories of “West” and “East” we aren’t also buying into the mentality of the “White Man”, and whether doing so is ultimately helpful.

    It’s important to understand that rather than being static, closed off entities, interaction between “the East” and “the West” has been continuous throughout history. As you point out, there aren’t any geographical barriers between them. Many “Western” ideas originated in “the East” or were profoundly influenced by “Eastern” sources, and vice-versa.

    The Greek word that best corresponds to “intent” is telos (τέλοϛ). Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics is probably a good place to start, although you could look through Plato’s Republic as well.

    If you’re interested in mapping the history of dualism in European philosophy, Plato’s “divided line” is a good place to start since it prefigures all later dualities, including the one between “being” and “action”, “theory” and “practice”, etc.

    Lyx: I generally find it helpful to understand what somebody is saying before accusing them of “reverse racism” or a “manipulation” or an attempt to “re-direct blame”.

    For your information I am not a proponent of “Western values” or “liberal democracy”, so throwing these terms in my face really doesn’t make much sense.

    I am not denying the reality of imperialism, racism, white privilege, etc. What I am denying is a construct which is used to advance these agendas, namely the construct which divides the world into “West” and “East”.

    Why should we buy into the White Man’s categories?

  11. Restructure! Says:

    Restructure: I know what “the West” refers to, and I’m well aware that this isn’t something you invented.

    Yes, and I’m well aware what “orientalism” refers to. In fact, the post is tagged with “orientalism” (although it’s because of the white-man-with-Japanese-wife’s perception of Japan).

    What I am questioning, however, is whether by adopting the categories of “West” and “East” we aren’t also buying into the mentality of the “White Man”, and whether doing so is ultimately helpful.

    It’s important to understand that rather than being static, closed off entities, interaction between “the East” and “the West” has been continuous throughout history. As you point out, there aren’t any geographical barriers between them. Many “Western” ideas originated in “the East” or were profoundly influenced by “Eastern” sources, and vice-versa.

    Yes, I find it very difficult to write in English without invoking the categories of the White Man, but I’m literate in English only.

    “The Near East” becomes “the Middle East” becomes “West Asia”, and “the Far East” becomes “East Asia”, but the concept of “Asia” is still “Euro”-centric. It’s unfortunate that there is also no alternative English term for “the West”. I don’t want to call “the West” “the white countries”, because it implies white ownership.

  12. Lxy Says:

    Lyx: I generally find it helpful to understand what somebody is saying before accusing them of “reverse racism” or a “manipulation” or an attempt to “re-direct blame”.

    The very idea of so-called Occidentalism itself (that you cited) is precisely a political attempt to deflect blame from Western Orientalism by suggesting that the West is being unfairly being “othered” or “essentialized” in the same way that it has done to the Orient for centuries.

    This is like a geopolitical version of the reverse racism charge that Whites increasingly use today.

    For your information I am not a proponent of “Western values” or “liberal democracy”, so throwing these terms in my face really doesn’t make much sense.

    The point is this: if one want to dissolves the idea of the West, then everything that is built upon it must be negated also–including Western civilization and Western liberal democracy as ideas.

    I have found that many people who question the idea of the West, often primarily do so in order to discount criticism of the West as an entity and do not follow their arguments to their logical conclusion.

    When someone criticizes the West as an entity, their response is to say, “You are essentializing the West. The West is so heterogeneous and diverse that no real *general* description–or criticism–of it can be made.”

    This point may or may not be true, but its concrete political application is designed to deflect blame from the West–not to question the legitimacy of this existence.

    I am not denying the reality of imperialism, racism, white privilege, etc. What I am denying is a construct which is used to advance these agendas, namely the construct which divides the world into “West” and “East”.

    Why should we buy into the White Man’s categories?

    In order to end Western oppression, one must first name it as such: WESTERN oppression.

    And denying the “construct of the West” will not end its power or tyranny.

    In fact, it may actually aid and abet it because Western hegemony (akin to White hegemony) is normalized as an invisible universal standard.

    Many “progressives” who make this argument about dissolving this category of the West wish to do so only at a *rhetorical political* level and not where it counts: ending Western wealth, control of resources, and power.

    Whose interests does this really serve?

  13. Restructure! Says:

    Manual trackback: White people think they’re so special and modern by Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist!:

    […] No, white people, you are not the only modern civilized groups on Earth. So sorry to shatter your illusions. All cultures are ancient and have somehow embraced modernity in one way or another. Yes! Even Iran and Saudi Arabia are considered “modern” whether you like it or not.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: