Should intent be taken into account when determining moral or legal responsibility? My answer is yes in both cases. Although I find it more obvious that intent should play a role in the case of moral responsibility, I believe intent should also play a role in terms of legal responsibility.
Morality implies a sense of individuality. Each person has his own sense of morality, of what is right and wrong. If you ignore intent after one has caused harm to another, he will always be deemed responsible, regardless of whether it was an unintended consequence of an otherwise right action.
For example, a volunteer at a homeless shelter gives a man a peanut butter sandwich and unbeknownst to either, the man has a peanut allergy. He eventually dies of a serious allergic reaction to the sandwich
While this example is trivial, if we ignore her intent she is morally responsible. Ignoring any legal responsibilities, the woman’s desire to feed the man plays no part in other’s determination that she caused his death. Moreover, the guilt she feels afterwards because she did not want to harm him means nothing. However, I can think of no occasion when this would actually happen, since given the facts it is obvious that it was an accident. Intent will always play a part in determining moral responsibility. I believe we aren’t hardwired to want to cause harm to others because we are ultimately dependent upon each other for viability. We are naturally inclined to differentiate between moral guilt and moral innocence, which is why we are willing to forgive when accidents occur and apologies are exchanged. Furthermore, that we recognize regret and remorse proves we acknowledge the link between intent and moral responsibility.
However, in terms of legal responsibility, intent plays a lesser role. What is legal and what is not legal is universal and objective. Laws are spelled out and for the most part we can cite specific laws that say what is wrong. Ignoring intent, we can objectively determine whether an action is right or wrong, making us each legally responsible all of the time. Laws don’t say, “It is legal to hit a person while speeding to the hospital because you wife is in labor.” You are legally responsible to obey the traffic laws, as well as maintain control of your vehicle at all times.
But there is a caveat- intent may not matter when determining whether an action is legal or not, but it does impact legal responsibility in the sentencing phase. Whereas the laws are objective, the sentencing phase, being subjective, allows the inclusion of intent. This congruency is apparent within the legal system because we have created classifications of responsibility. Vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter- these both mean that you killed a person with your car, but the latter implies that you did not intend to do so. Moreover, we have even further quantified exactly how responsible a person is by creating the ideas of gross negligence and simple negligence. It has become vital for one’s intentions to play a part in the sentencing phase because it is avoids distributing overly harsh or inadequately harsh punishments.