Say there’s a knock at my door. I open it and a lawyer is there.

I had an uncle I’ve never heard about. A wealthy man. He just died.

I’ve inherited $500,000. So has each of my brothers and sisters.

Congratulations to me!
The money quite simply changes my life. My house is paid, my children’s college fund flush.

I still have to work, but the money goes to different things now. There’s savings. Stability. Security.

My brother starts his own business. My sister goes on sabbatical; volunteer work.
Say a year later there comes another knock on my door. It’s a reporter. He’s working on a story, and my late uncle is a part of it.

My late uncle’s business was a front. He made his money on slavery, every dime. Chocolate and coffee, overseas.

He has proof.
Here's what I say:

I didn't intend to benefit from slavery. That has nothing to do with me.

I didn't enslave anybody. That has nothing to do with me.

I didn't break the law. That has nothing to do with me.

Anyway what could I do about it now?
*I didn’t intend that. That has nothing to do with me.*

Two different things, often expressed as one connected thing. A neat trick.
There’s what I *intend*. And then there’s what *is.*.

Or: There’s what I’d *like to think* is true about me. And then there’s what *is* true about me.

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, those two things are even the same. But sometimes they’re different—there’s a gap.
People have intentions, it’s true, and those intentions matter, from a moral perspective, a practical perspective, a legal perspective.

It matters whether I actively enslaved people or not.

It *matters*

It's just not *all* that matters.
What would we think of me, if I refused to accept the reporter's proof? Turned him out of my house? Refused to comment?

After all, I hadn’t intended to take any money that didn’t belong to me; it just came to me.

I didn’t personally intend to cause harm, or to gain wealth.
But think of all the good that's happened with that money, I insist. Think of my brother, his business, the people he employs. Should he fire them? Think of my sister, now giving back with volunteer work. Must she stop?

I didn't intend this. It has nothing to do with me.
It wasn't my personal decision. It was my uncle's. I never even met the man. I didn't try to get this money, it just came.

This situation was not my personal decision. Nothing to do with me.
But notice what the personal decision in this hypothetical is. It isn’t the inheritance or the crimes against humanity, which I neither intended nor participated in, but which nevertheless happened.

My decision is what to do with the knowledge of it.
It’s not the particulars of the crime. It’s the knowledge of it.
It’s whether, with knowledge of it, I remain in that knowledge or flee from it into deliberate ignorance. It’s whether I, in knowledge, take responsibility, and in my responsibility, accept what it will cost me.
I think you’d agree that my decision to flee into ignorance, keeping the laundered money, rejecting the proof, are personal decisions carrying moral implications, revealing a deeper selfish intention.

Consider why.
I have recently-acquired knowledge of harm, of theft. My association with this harm and loss are realities. They aren’t less real simply because my knowledge of the association is new, or because I didn’t intend the association, or because I had no control over the association.
That association is going to cost me something in one case, and in another it gives me an opportunity to keep an unearned reward that greatly benefits me. If I were not associated with this harm and loss, I could avoid paying that cost, and I could gain the reward.

And so ...
And so there rises in me a desire, understandable if not honorable, to not be associated with this harm and loss.

My *mission* becomes not knowing things already known.

I will demand proofs of things proven.

I will ask for explanations I intend not to understand.
My personal decision is not whether or not the harm has been done, nor is my personal decision whether or not it has anything to do with me.

It did, and it does, and my intentions toward those realities don’t matter a bit to those questions.
My personal decision is first, whether or not to accept the reality my association with harm and loss, and then to decide whether or not I’m going to accept the consequences of that reality.

And that decision reveals my actual deeper intentions—the ones that matter.
If I don’t want to accept responsibility, I'm going to want everyone to focus only on personal choice and intentions, and ignore that my decision to ignore the reality of my association with harm and loss is itself a personal choice betraying selfish intentions.
And there might be people in my life who would benefit from my disassociation from this harm and loss, whose lives might be complicated by my association with a crime, who would not want to see me pay the cost, who might want to see me keep the unearned reward.
And perhaps, those who would also benefit, might also focus exclusively on my intentions.

"You didn't intend that. It has nothing to do with you."
So, if we want to avoid the reality of our association, we have to quickly learn to forget we’re associated with it.

Anyone reminding you of that association is going to be very offensive to you.

In fact the report of the crime will be seen as the true crime.
And perhaps, if the crime were not personal, but rather societal, you might find an entire society focusing all moral calculation exclusively on personal intentions, as a way of avoiding any association with knowledge of the reality of their association with harm and loss.
It might be that such a society would heap scorn on even the idea we share an interconnected life together—though it’s clear we do—because to acknowledge we share an interconnected life leads us inexorably back to acknowledgements we desperately and pathologically wish to avoid.
It might be a society like this would become obsessed with inheritance of wealth as a common and obvious birthright, born of proud heritage.

While any suggestion of inheritance of responsibility would be an offensive reminder of divisive irrelevances from the unreachable past.
Let me suggest that we are such a society: founded on harm and loss, desperately focused on not knowing things already known, desperately focused instead on personal intentions.

Refusing to understand that a system exists, so we won't have to understand our association to it.
When you’re founded on a system of harm and loss, it’s going to be very important to not know about systems.

A good way to not know is to not talk about it.

And a good way of doing that is to focus exclusively on what everyone’s personal intentions are.
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