Are intentions of equal importance to actions? For example, if I were to be deliberately harmed by another who claimed they had no good reason for their action, or was equally harmed by someone who claimed to hate me because I am a woman why could the latter be more harshly punished, if deemed a hate crime, than the former?

There are some interesting and deep questions here about the relevance of motives to duty, blame, and punishment. For starters, we might want to distinguish the legal question of the relevance of motives to punishment from the moral question about their relevance to duty and blame. We should also distinguish the descriptive question about how the law actually treats these issues and the normative question about how it should treat these issues.

As a descriptive matter, there are two ways the criminal law can acknowledge the relevance of motive. It can make motive an ingredient in the offense, or it can treat motive as relevant as a mitigator or aggravator at sentencing. For instance, some crimes make a motive an ingredient in the offense, as when murder is understood, at common law, as killing with malice aforethought. In this way, one might define separate crimes that are like other crimes but involve the additional element of a bad motive. This is what is done with hate crimes. Alternatively, one might not have separate offenses for familiar crimes from bad motives, but one might allow bad motive to serve as an aggravating factor at sentencing. A criminal trial has two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. If there is discretion at sentencing or a sentencing space or window for a given offense, then motives, whether good or bad, can function as mitigators or aggravators to determine where within the sentencing window a guilty offender should be sentenced.

The practice of allowing bad motive to be an ingredient in an offense is sometimes controversial. Some see this as punishing people for their thoughts, as well as their actions, which they think is problematic.

The right view here is controversial and really depends at least in part on the best answer to the moral question about whether motives are deontically relevant, that is, relevant to whether an action is permissible, obligatory, or forbidden. Though everyone agrees that we can assess people motives, it’s a different question whether they are deontically relevant. A surprisingly large number of philosophers, from different ethical traditions and including prominent contemporary philosophers, have been skeptical about the deontic relevance of motive. One reason for this skepticism is that we want to allow that people can perform their duty (or fail to do so) from both good and bad motives. That suggests that often motives are not deontically relevant. However, that doesn’t mean that motives are never deontically relevant. There are examples that make the idea plausible. According to the doctrine of double effect, it is morally worse to intend harm, as in the case of a terror bomber, than merely to foresee it as a consequence of one’s actions, as in the case of strategic bomber. Also, if we are both ambassadors, it seems plausible that it might be permissible for you to fail to greet a foreign dignitary because you do not feel well, while impermissible for me to fail to greet him due to racial animus. This last example is adapted from a recent book by Steven Sverdlik, called Motive and Rightness, that defends the moral relevance of motive.

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