The (Un)Importance of Intentions in Ethics

It is sometimes discussed whether people’s intentions are irrelevant or not when it comes to comparing seemingly identical consequences. Many people seem to think intentions and motives are highly relevant, for instance when it comes to assessing collateral damage in warfare; Hitler killing 100.000 civilians is simply not the same as Roosevelt or Churchill killing 100.000 civilians.

As a consequentialist it is, however, hard to attribute any intrinsic value to intentions. And if we contemplate the morality of an action that seems to be, so to speak, a one-shot activity, the intentions become basically irrelevant. We might, for instance, imagine someone who because of temporary desperation attempts a burglary and tries (but fails) to pick a lock, which wakes up the person in the apartment, who would otherwise have died because of an undetected gas leak. The consequences of this action would be the same as if the mailman put mail through the mail slot in a loud fashion, which wakes up the person inside. The mailman acted on perfectly legitimate intentions, while the burglar, presumably, did not. But if we assume that the burglar got so nervous from this attempt that he decides never to try something illegal again, then the intentions seem rather irrelevant when it comes to assessing the consequences. The failed burglar never actually does anything bad (or at least nothing illegal) in his whole life, and he saves one person from dying; and we could say the exact same thing about the mailman.

In reality, however, intentions are usually valuable when it comes to predicting the future behavior of a person. After all, a burglar will usually make more than one burglary in his life (perhaps we wouldn’t call him a “burglar” if he only does it once in his life…). If we fail to blame someone who by mere chance does something good while intending to do harm, we increase the chance that she (or someone else) will try to do something harmful in the future. By the same token, blaming someone for accidentally doing harm when aiming to do good would perhaps make people reluctant to attempt to to good in the future. Intentions are, in other words, almost always important because of their connection to actual consequences.

Intentions in themselves, however, should be irrelevant. We could even imagine cases where it would be good to have what is normally regarded as wicked intentions, i.e., where bad intentions are actively utilized to get good consequences (as apart from the gas leak example above where the good consequences were accidental). For instance, there are rare cases when it would be justified to torture someone in order to save lives, and in such cases one may have to employ a torturer who doesn’t care about saving those lives, but who enjoys torturing people. This would be someone who does (overall) good for what is ordinarily regarded as the wrong reasons, but we would not blame him for it.

One can also image someone who has the best of intentions but mostly does harm instead. A general who works for the UN to stop genocides and other gross human rights violations, but who uses his troops and resources in a thoroughly incompetent way, which leads to many unnecessary deaths, should probably be blamed for his actions, even though his intentions were extremely humanitarian. Good intentions cannot, in other words, always trump bad consequences, just as bad intentions cannot always trump good consequences.

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