An Epiphany About Intentionality
Bill Cottringer

“All things considered, the concept of willfulness loses sight of too many of them.” ~The Author.

I am proposing that our entire justice system is built upon a highly questionable basic assumption—that all wrongdoers are totally responsible and accountable for intentionally doing wrong on purpose. This highly questionable assumption compounds the wrong-doing into being worse and deserving harsher punishment, because the wrong-doer not only did wrong, but did so on purpose from a free choice they had between being good or being bad.

This invented “add-on” judgment and belief makes up a vicious circle to no-where, very similar to worrying about worrying, being depressed about being depressed, or feeling bad from pain and then more so from not being able to get rid of the pain and even feeling worse yet about that inability. Here, our judgments and the worlds we are using to communicate those judgments are creating a separate reality and an artificially false one at that.

From what we currently know from sound research about the brain, thinking and human motivation, we can never accurately or completely “prove” that someone did wrong intentionally, fully exercising their will and controlling all the relevant variables. That is because, in reality, the futile attempt to explain the virtually unexplainable or incomprehensible. We have a brain with a full database of unconsciousness not easily translatable to the conscious mind. And then, we have some limited conscious awareness, but in the average person it is very limited. So what are we really in control of and how much of our thinking actually captures reality? Not much, but at least it is evolving in the right direction.

Maybe a computer someday will become capable of scientifically determining the degree to which a person actually intends to behave in a specific way to get a particular outcome by calculating thousands of relevant interacting variables; but in the meantime seeking such an explanation is a futile waste of time and virtually impossible. Not only that, but it is irrelevant and unnecessary to mete out any form of sensible, meaningful, and effective justice in response to any form of undesirable, harmful behavior, in violation of social norms.

This questionable assumption spills over to a milieu most of us who aren’t part of the criminal justice system, are a part of—the workplace. Take the situation with an employee’s work misconduct. If the employer takes the wrong-doing too personally, in assuming the employee is intentionally trying to disrespect or deliberately disregard the employer’s interests and standards, then the whole situation becomes much worse (a whole new reality all in itself) and surely needs the maximum punishment to restore balance in the workplace, necessary to be successful—being able to righteously fire the employee and keep him or her from being falsely rewarded with unemployment or other government benefits. The same is true in personal relationships. Same cause and effect and same useless tendency to make matters worse than they need to be.

We know from studying nature that there are predators and prey, but assuming that the leopard is intentionally trying to kill the gazelle out of pure meanness is not at all necessary to understand this event and outcome. Both are blessed with great speed, but the leopard with just a little more endurance to be able to finally outrun its prey, eat and enjoy it and avoid starvation. That is all there is in play here. No evil or mean intention is involved.

But back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve passed their curse of self- consciousness and sense of separation onto all humans. Along with this was born our insatiable drive to explain the unexplainable by dividing the whole universe into opposites, especially good, right and desirable vs. bad, wrong and undesirable by artificial abstract judgments and the words and their definitions and connotations used to create their separate realities .If there ever was a core cause of all problems this was it!

The point being that the criminal justice system, employee discipline and all of humanity would do well leaving the whole ideas of intentionality and judgment out of their thinking, because we can never prove them to be true one way or the other and they are irrelevant. To determine how to respond to anyone’s wrong- doing, all that really needs to be considered is the actual act itself and the amount of harmful consequences it delivers to others. Leaving the intentionality out of it, makes things much less subjective and much more objective, as they need to be.

But, here is an interesting outcome—if wrong-doing can’t be assumed to be intentional than neither can right-doing. Right-doing is usually only done because of a strong belief in a higher power and this being the only way to eternal life after death. Or, with slightly more mature morality, right behavior becomes a habit from the consequences of what we get from it, simply feeling right or not, and continuing or discontinuing it accordingly. The latter is the prevalent trial and error method that guides our journey.

The bottom line here is that we don’t need to continue the discussion of intentionality, because it is not even a necessary means to an end. All we need to do is to determine the seriousness of the behavior (not making it worse by adding false intentionality) and the harmful consequences to others in a disabling rather than enabling manner.

Deleting the intentionality word from our vocabulary doesn’t really take away anything important from our lives, but may restore some fairness in our system of justice whether it be in criminal, labor law or divorce court.

“The assumption of someone else’s intentionality is always risky since we can rarely know our own even in the simplest of matters.” ~The author.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice-President for Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security, Inc. in Bellevue, WA, along with his hobbies in being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the scenic mountains and rivers of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, “You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too” (Executive Excellence), “The Bow-Wow Secrets” (Wisdom Tree), and “Do What Matters Most” and “P” Point Management” (Atlantic Book Publishers), “Reality Repair” (Global Vision Press), and Reality Repair Rx (Authorsden). Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or