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July 27, 2005

Paradoxes of intention

Teen Who Threw Up on Teacher Sentenced

July 27, 2005, 5:35 AM EDT

OLATHE, Kan. -- A high school student convicted of battery for vomiting on his Spanish teacher has been ordered to spend the next four months cleaning up after people who throw up in police cars.

Johnson County Magistrate Judge Michael Farley said during the sentencing Tuesday that he considered the boy's actions "an assault upon the dignity of all teachers."

The teen, now 17, vomited on teacher David Young as he turned in his textbook on the last day of classes at Olathe Northwest High School. His attorney, Brian Costello, said the student vomited because he was nervous about his final exams.

But two other students testified that the teen said he threw up intentionally. One girl said he told her in advance that he planned to throw up on Young on the last day of school. The girl wasn't in class when the teen threw up, but she testified that the boy later told her, "You missed it. I did it."

Young said the student, who was failing his class, made no effort to avoid throwing up on him. "I was just sort of stunned," he said.

No one disputes that the student vomited on his teacher. The issue is whether he intended to do so. Most people can't vomit at will and the student didn't stick his fingers down his throat.

But Morrison will argue that [Matthew] Haefele intentionally assaulted his teacher with vomit, and says he has the proof to bring a conviction.

"If this were an accident, we wouldn't have any interest in filing the case," the prosecutor said. "We intend to prove that he ate an extra big lunch, he made his intentions known to others, and went out of his way on the last day of school to vomit on his teacher."

Legal issues aside, this case presents an interesting philosophical problem. Can you intend to do something you have no reason to believe you can do?

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I have been following this story and can only imagine how it might play out were it to reach the Supreme Court. On the one side, people with a reasoned "strict interpretation" of vomit. On the otherside , people who are people.

Unbelievable.

I had a friend in college who could vomit at will. He learned to do it when he was really sick in jr. high school. His high school nickname was "gurge".

Generally when he vomited he made a big production out of it, heaving and covering his mouth, but the production was completely unnecessary for the process. He could, if called on, calmly expel the contents of his stomach through his mouth.

This answers no philosophical questions. I just wanted to share.

You should send this one to http://www.zerointelligence.net

Can you intend to do something you have no reason to believe you can do?

Obviously, yes.

Consider all the Christians who fully expect to be brought to heaven by their big imaginary friend, despite all evidence that the universe just doesn't work that way.

Also, James Randi reports that the large majority of claimants to his "Million Dollar Challenge" to produce parapsychological feats really do believe they have supernatural powers. Not one has even passed preliminary screening for the prize, but they are often shocked to fail even the simplest blinded/controlled demonstration test.

If what you meant was "can you intend to do something your yourself believe you have no evidence for thinking is possible", I suspect the answer is "No". A high degree of self-delusion seems to be a pre-requisite.

I believe precedent for this was set in City of Portland v. Davie "Lardass" Hogan.

I can't really intend to fly by flapping my arms, but that's because I believe (and know) that I cannot fly by flapping my arms. But this kid didn't believe that he couldn't vomit at will. At most, he didn't believe that he could -- he just wasn't sure one way or the other. His situation is like someone playing a mean prank on someone, without knowing that it'll work -- say, putting a bucket of vomit on a door that the person will walk through, not really knowing if the guy will push the door enough for the bucket to fall, or if the bucket will hit him even if it falls.

This kid should get jail time.

I've also known someone who could puke at will, and didn't have to do anything special to accomplish it. If people are assuming he could not know he would vomit because it's not possible to simply bend over and puke at will, well, they're wrong.

Lindsay Beyerstein:

Can you intend to do something you have no reason to believe you can do?

Many people intend to go to heaven, but have no REASON to believe they can do it.

And many can vomit on command.

I agree with the commenters who've provided counter examples. I didn't put the question properly.

I'm really asking whether anyone can intend to do something that they don't believe they can do. If you think you can vomit at will, then clearly you can intend to vomit on someone. But what if the teen in question didn't know, or even believe, that he had this ability?

Suppose I try to shoot a basket from centre court. I'm no good at basketball. I don't believe that I will sink the basket, but I also don't believe that I will fail to do so. I'm undecided. I give it my best shot -- I intend to throw the ball just so, judging this to be the best way to sink the basket. I really do intend to throw the ball just so, and that's enough for me to get the credit (or claim responsibility) if I sink the basket.

So I'd say that as long as you intend to do A as a means to B, then you're responsible for B if it happens, even if you were agnostic about whether A would succeed in producing B.

I'm not sure whether it's best to describe this by saying that I intended to do A, HOPING it'd produce B, or that intended to do A, INTENDING it to produce B. Either way, I think I'd be responsible for B if it resulted.

If the kid intentionally did something that he hoped would result in his vomiting then he's responsible, regardless of whether he really believed he'd succeed in vomiting. But if he believed that he would not vomit, then he's not responsible.

Is "intention" the same as "desire", in this, uh, study? Making the attempt, whether one believes it's possible (or not) is, to me, "intention"
(and this gusher of 'oil of Olathe' just goes to show that "Something's the matter within Kansas")... ^..^

I think unless you absolutely 100% know you can't do it, you can intend to do it. if you think there is almost zero likelihood you'll be able to do something, but you try anyway, you can't say you didn't intend the end result.

incidentally this is also how the law would work on intent. for the law acting with "intent" can be pretty generally defined as "doing something with the desire to achieve a particular objective."

Njorl--

I'd never heard of "Lardass" Hogan, so I googled him. The first hit crashed my browser. Did you do that to me intentionally?

On a more serious note, I think it's easy to get bogged down by improperly imposing terms from another field on a legal case. In psychology, "insane" means something very different than it does in the legal arena, which is why Jeffrey Dahmer could be legally sane.

Similarly, "intent" means something different in a courtroom than it does in philosophy. For example, a juvenile was convicted in L.A. of first degree murder for the killing of his crime partner. They intended to rob a bunch of drug dealers at gunpoint, but in the ensuing melee his partner was killed by one of the dealers. Neither he nor his partner fired a shot, so in a philosophical sense, it would be hard to say that this killing was intentional on the part of the youth in question (this case is recounted in "No Matter How Loud I Shout" by Edward Humes).

It looks to me like the judge in the vomit case did a good job of sifting through the evidence and coming up with an appropriate punishment.

But I wasn't asking a legal question:

Legal issues aside, this case presents an interesting philosophical problem. Can you intend to do something you have no reason to believe you can do?

"I'd never heard of "Lardass" Hogan, so I googled him. The first hit crashed my browser. Did you do that to me intentionally?"

No. Sorry that happened. "Lardass" Hogan was the character in one of Gordie's stories in "Stand by Me". He was the one who intentionally made himself vomit at the pie eating contest, starting a massive chain reaction.

"If the kid intentionally did something that he hoped would result in his vomiting then he's responsible, regardless of whether he really believed he'd succeed in vomiting. But if he believed that he would not vomit, then he's not responsible."

OK, what if the kid ate a huge lunch and said it was so he could vomit on his teacher, but really, his intention was to impress his friends with what a badass he was. He didn't want to vomit on the teacher, he merely wanted to convince his friends that he wanted to do so. Puruant to that, he stuffed himself, hoping it would convince them. Then, having taken steps to make himself vomit near a time when he would be near the teacher, he does actually vomit on the teacher.

Even in this case, I'd say he was responsible despite his intentions.

Lindsay--

In most cases, I think that intent often does not follow action. Thinking that there was little real difference between Bush and Gore, I voted for Nader. My intent was not to elect Nader, but to help force the Democratic party to address global warming and the needs of people who don't make a living wage.

What I didn't intend was to get Nader elected, and given the polls leading up to the election, I don't think I would bear any responsibility had he been elected.

On the other hand, even though I didn't intend to get Bush elected, I think that I do have to bear my share of the burden for allowing wishful thinking to influence my vote. Looking back, I don't think a dispassionate analysis would have allowed me to conclude that Bush would be only a shade worse than Gore. Although I was voting in Arizona, the fact is that I likely would have voted the same way if I had still been living in Florida. Sorry about that.

Re "..Legal issues aside, this case presents an interesting philosophical problem. Can you intend to do something you have no reason to believe you can do?"
Since I cannot "know" the future, I can only intend to TRY and do something. While my beliefs about my abilities may affect my attempt, personal experience has shown me that my beliefs aren't infallible. ^..^

Njorl, sure -- I only ventured a sufficient condition for his being responsible. There are others conditions that suffice for his being responsible. His having taken steps to make it more likely that he'd vomit, with wreckless disregard for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of vomiting, can be another sufficient condition.

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