If you are a philosopher of action, it is not everyday that your research interests are at the core of current affairs, talked about in the news as if it were knife-crime. So I must admit to be quite amazed by the whole of Scotland talking about ‘intentional wrongdoing’. Wendy Alexander has chosen it as her catch-frase to justify remaining in office notwithstanding her admission of having broken the law.
I have broken the law, Alexander admits. But I have not done so intentionally. What does that mean? It means that Wendy admits to having taken an illegal donation; and she admits to having taken the donation intentionally; but she denies that she intentionally took an illegal donation.
Alexander, philosophers of action would say, has only done one thing, ‘accepting Green’s 950 quid’. That was her action, and she concedes as much. But Wendy’s action can be described in more than one way: it can be described as ‘taking a donation’. Under that description, Wendy admits to her action being intentional. But it can also be described as ‘taking an illegal donation’. Under this description, Wendy says that she did not act intentionally.
But how can the same action be both intentional and unintentional? Suppose that you are waiting for the bus #29; suppose you board the bus #37 thinking that it is the #29. You have intentionally boarded the bus; but you have unintentionally boarded the #37 – your intention was to board the #29.
Similarly, Alexander claims to have taken the illegal donation unintentionally – her intention was to take a legal donation. Had she known that the donation were illegal – she is implying – she would not have taken it (and here her position gets difficult, given that she wrote to Green at his Jersey address, and given that she must have known – or, at least, ought to have known – that only registered voters can make donations).
Why is Alexander stressing that she did not brake the law intentionally? That won’t help her much in the courts because, as people say, ignorance is no excuse. She is doing so to defend her personal and political integrity. She might be the sort of person and the sort of politician who brakes the law, but she is not the sort of person and politician who does so deliberately. She is, in short, asking the public to judge her by her intentions rather than her actions; given that she is not disputing her having acted illegally, only her having intended to do so.
Indeed, politicians’ intentions matter. Consider a politician who sets out to rip us off by selling our personal data – say national insurance number and bank details – to fraudsters. Consider, on the other hand, a politician who simply loses such data (they might be called Alasdair, for example). The outcome might be the same; still, our opinion of the corrupt politician might be lower than our opinion of the merely incompetent one.
Does that mean that we can live with Wendy Alexander’s incompetence, just because her intentions are good (assuming that they are)? No, it does not.