I came across a news article that discussed a new policy of a particular university I've never heard of. In it, administrators are quoted as saying:
"While the University recognizes the aspect of intent versus impact, we must recognize that regardless of the intent, if an individual is impacted in a harmful way, action could be taken if a complaint is filed..."
It seems that this language (intent vs. harm) has come into vogue in universities other than just the one referred to. I suspect that this language is also being used increasingly in the corporate world.
I think that consideration of harm and intent are important when weighing the worth of ideas and actions. I agree completely that the actual outcome of ideas and actions matter far more than intent.
I wonder, though, if there is ever a case when those who use these phrases are being inconsistent in when they apply them, or dishonest in the words they are using. I also wonder if it wouldn't be wiser to be more measured in one's assumption of accuracy in their assessment of harm vs. benefit.
Harm vs. benefit
The calculation of harm must be a net calculation. You have to assess the benefit, assess the cost, subtract the cost from the benefit, and see what remains. In a single-option decision, the choice is between action and inaction. In a multiple-choice decision, the choice is between several actions (including inaction). In both cases, the optimal option is the one which yields the greatest net benefit.
This is all very simple, but it almost never happens. One reason, highlighted in this university's policy, is that we conflate the presence of any cost as something that is harmful. This is downright silly, at best. We are surrounded by examples of things that can be good while having tremendous costs, like having babies, buying houses, or going to college. Sometimes, those who conclude an option to be harmful just because it has a cost are not just being simple, but are knowingly being deceitful. In this case, they are ignoring the benefits they are aware of and falsely presenting the option as harmful by focusing on its cost just because they have irrationally decided to support another option, and this happens to be the best way they can support their predetermined outcome.
What should be the biggest problem in calculating harm (which isn't, due to our general failure to calculate the net benefit) is the fact that reality is extremely complex. This is not to say that we shouldn't try to model reality and make decisions to the best of our understanding. We absolutely should, and I would argue we must. But, in doing so, we ought to exercise caution with the heavy handedness with which we act, being aware that whatever our understanding may be, it is likely to be incorrect or incomplete.
Many have argued that, in the presence of so much uncertainty and such high stakes, decisions ought to be left to the individual--who ultimately must bear the consequences of their actions--except in the clearest of cases.
When actions are taken, we ought to first understand that not everyone has the same level of understanding. Some people have a very poor model of reality. Some few have an exceptionally accurate understanding of reality. Most people are somewhere in between, and one's accuracy tends to be uneven across domains or situations. We need not guess where someone stands on the continuum--the consequences of their past actions in a certain sphere suggests (though does not perfectly predict) their future actions in said sphere. This is why, for example, we hire people based on resumes and references. This is a very different approach than assuming that most people have an equally accurate view of reality, and therefore the majority viewpoint is most correct. It would be foolish, indeed, to entrust issues of import to those with the poorest or shortest track record. However, most modern issues seem to be driven by people under 30--people who hardly know the cost of things, (having never had a job and still being fully funded by their helicopter parents), who hardly know how to judge things (having come through a new education system where they were never taught how to think critically or impartially weigh differing perspectives), who have never really experienced anything (having never been allowed to go outside and play), but in spite of all of this, who think (thanks to social media) that they know everything there is to know about anything.
It is (or should be) very simple to understand that the issue of harm or benefit cannot be reduced to the feelings of the parties involved. I say again, weighing the harm of a potential solution doesn't mean assessing whether it will cause someone (anyone) negative emotions.
We really require a higher-order ability to assess cost and benefit that transcends above whether feelings are hurt. There are all sorts of follow on consequences to decisions. Often, the most important consequences are not immediate, but occur at the principle level.
What principles are being supported or broken by each potential action? Even if the intent of a policy is good (let's reduce bad feelings), if that policy causes the violation of a principle with much greater benefit (free speech), then the policy harms more than it helps, and should not be implemented.
For example, in the 1990s when advocates of homosexuality pushed hard to legitimize homosexual marriage, the opposing groups argued that there would be consequences that extended far beyond the bedroom of the parties involved or tax, health, and life insurance benefits. They argued that the change would also bring about a slippery slope, leading to other changes that would be even more harmful. Time has shown that they were absolutely correct.
Of course they have done none of these things, and they would fight any initiative to do so. And yet, it is objectively demonstrable that each of these things--and many besides--causes far more harm (net cost vs. benefit) than any of the things they do citing avoidance of harm as the motive.
In the quoted article, what the administrators really mean is that they consider harm to include the feelings of individuals only when they are of a certain ideological perspective. No one cares about the bad feelings experienced by the white male who doesn't get the job because he was judged by the color of his skin and his genitals rather than the merit of his work. No one cares about the bad feelings and other harm done to the students and faculty whose academic or vocational careers are summarily ruined without due process through the kangaroo court edicts of administrators in response to often-invented witch hunt accusations (referred to as being "title nined"). It used to be that people were only "title nined" over allegations of rape, but now the bar has dropped so low that people get "title nined" just for saying things that make someone--anyone--uncomfortable in any way.
Perhaps it would be more honest to tell the truth: Policies like this presuppose that some peoples' feelings are more important than others. No one says that because we are not yet so far gone in our societal senses that we can say or hear that directly without cringing. Maybe that will change.
The cancer has metastasized
Unfortunately, this in no way is a phenomenon limited to campus culture. One consequence of pumping nearly everyone through universities which are nearly all this toxic for so many years now is that nearly all people under 30 are infected with these ideas, and they have spilled over into corporations, media, politics, and even churches. You can't find an institution in America that is not terminally afflicted with this disease.
If you don't get the implications of this problem, let me explain it to you: This idea of "harm avoidance" being sufficient to end your career makes everyone who does what is right a criminal who just hasn't gotten caught yet. If you live you life according to your conscience, you will most assuredly commit many offenses worthy of execution in the eyes of the woke. All it takes is someone with a vendetta against you to activate the mob who hasn't come for you yet, and they will take your livelihood (and, increasingly, your life itself) away from you. This isn't something that is coming. It's already deeply embedded within American culture.
Now that you understand the magnitude of the problem, I hope it affects how you respond to people the next time you hear them refer to "harm" in justifying a particular course of action. I hope you react to them the same way you would to a nefarious-looking person with a few pounds of fentanyl headed for the public water supply, because their intent, means, and capability are similar.