The Moral Importance of Intention

The one story that has consistently dominated the headlines for the past few weeks has been that of the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the famous Paralympic athlete accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. There is no doubt that the bullet that killed Steenkamp was fired by Pistorius. The outcome of the trial will rely instead on Pistorius’ intention – did he intend to kill/injure Steenkamp or not?

Within philosophy, the criminal justice system’s focus on intention brings up a number of interesting questions. Some philosophers argue that intention has no real moral relevance at all. In this essay, I want to defend what I find to be the imperative moral importance of intention, and look at the additional clauses we will need in order to produce a full and complete theory of intention which is not tripped up by various problem cases.


The Moral Importance of Intention

The question of whether intention is of any real moral relevance is one that has yielded a wide range of philosophical views in recent years. In this essay I will argue that, on the basis of intuitions (having made a preliminary methodological assumption that moral intuitions are our best evidence if we want to find a satisfactory moral theory for something that is sensible, practical and fits in with what we really do in the world) that intention plays a crucial part in what moral weighting we give to an agent’s actions, and that we can look to The Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) to distinguish between the rightness and wrongness of cases with regards to good moral agents. I believe a complete theory of DDE accurately represents all of our intuitions about a situation, and can therefore distinguish between the permissibility and impermissibility of a certain action. My essay will look into criticism of intention as a whole –  that we can never actually know what someone’s intentions are – and also into problem cases for DDE, and whether DDE simply re-describes a moral situation in a different way.

Before I begin, I will define what I mean by “intention”. We normally use intention in one of two ways – firstly, an agent-based notion, such as “I didn’t intend to hurt anyone”, and secondly, an action-based concept, such as “I intend to go into town today”. This essay is solely talking about the first, agent-based notion of intention. In “Actions, Reasons and Causes” Donald Davidson says “Giving the reason why an agent did something is often a matter of naming the pro attitude (a) or the  related belief (b) or both; let me call this pair the primary reason why the agent performed the action”[1]. Although Davidson himself does not explicitly use this is a definition for intention, I would like to. Intention, therefore, does not refer to an event, or state of the agent, but instead to a way of re-describing what an agent is doing in terms of what can be referred to as a “primary reason”. This primary reasonfor an action A involves a desire (or, as Davidson says, a pro-attitude) towards some goal G, and an instrumental belief that performing action A is a means to attaining G. For example, someone’s primary reason for wearing a coat on a cold day might be that they want to stay warm, which they hold alongside the belief that wearing a coat is a means to stay warm that day. It is this notion of intention that I will be talking about in this essay. Other reasons the person may hold for wearing the coat may include things like that it goes with the rest of their outfit, or that they haven’t worn it much yet, but these reasons are secondary reasons insofar as they would not constitute any action being taken if they did not come alongside the primary reason.

It is immediately obvious to us, then, that in day-to-day life, an agent’s intention is carefully considered when we decide whether to attribute praise or blame, giving us morally-weighted terminology like “it was an accident”, or “he did it deliberately”. Although some may argue that someone’s intention is morally insignificant, and it can be avoided when looking at whether an action is permissible or impermissible, in the face of something else more concrete (most commonly, perhaps, the actual consequences of the action they have undertaken), this does not seem like an intuitive suggestion.Intention is highly important – it would be a harsh judge who ruled that the same amount of blame should be attributed to a person who accidentally started a fire through carelessness or oversight, which then eventually led to the death of two children, and a callous, deliberate arsonist who burnt the house down with the ultimate end goal of burning the children alive. Treating situations like these, so obviously completely different, as the same, goes against all our moral intuitions. Having made the assumption that we want to find a moral theory that fits in with our moral intuitions, then, it seems like we can rule out the position of the extreme sceptic, who suggests that intention has no relevance to the way we understand and interpret morality. But how much weight we attribute to it?

Well, things are not so simple. There are many cases where an agent’s action produces multiple outcomes, where, if we are to judge morality on someone’s intention, we need to carefully consider whether their intention was for the good or the bad consequences. If it is to be the case that we attribute so much moral weight to intention, we must look more carefully at problem cases and distinguish what it is for someone to intend something (and not merely foresee it). Therefore, the theory that I will be concentrating on in this essay is DDE. I believe DDE can help us make sense of all the problems we have with intention.

DDE is often invoked in order to condone an action which causes harm as a side effect of promoting a general good. There is an essential difference within DDE which captures the permissibility (all other things considered) of between bringing about some harm as a side effect of a good, and the impermissibility of bringing about the same harm as a means to the good. DDE is, then, specifically focussed on the difference between intention and foresight. A classic case used to explain how there can be such a significant difference between these two fundamentally similar things is the case of the doctor and the pregnant woman. The woman has been in a dreadful accident, and, to save her life, the doctor must perform an operation which removes a part of the woman’s womb, which will undoubtedly kill the unborn child. If he fails to act, both the mother and unborn child will perish of natural causes. Therefore, the doctor goes ahead with the operation, despite knowing that the unborn child will not survive it. The death of the foetus, in this situation, is a foreseen but not intended side-effectof the doctor’s actions. This is an entirely different scenario to one in which the doctor is performing an abortion, and the removal of the foetus is the intended consequence of the doctor’s actions. Consequentially similar acts, then, can have different intentional structures and therefore should be treated ethically differently. DDE, if found to be correct, has extremely wide-reaching applications in condoning controversial actions in a range of cases including military and medical ethics.

Thomas Aquinas is credited with being the first philosopher to introduce this distinction in his work ‘Summa Theologica’, as a justification of homicidal self-defence[2]. His criteria for a harmful action being morally justifiable as a foreseen side effect incorporated that (a) the nature of the act itself is good (or at the very least morally neutral), (b) the agent does not intend the bad effect, either as an ends in itself, or as a means to the good (c) the good effect outweighs the bad effect to the extent where causing the bad effect is justifiable (now known as the proportionality condition) and (d) the agent attempts to minimize the harm caused by the bad effect. It is important to note that these are all vital components of a complete theory of DDE, and that it is not the intention/foresight distinction alone.

I have chosen my essay to focus on DDE as I believe it accurately captures all our intuitions about intentions, and, although later I will look at “problem cases”, I consider there to be reasonable explanations as to why these do not create the problems they claim to for DDE. DDE also captures what we recognize as important about intention a lot better than the alternate explanations – of which the most commonly cited is the Doing/Allowing Distinction (DDA).

DDA suggests that what makes situations morally different is whether we are actively doing harm, or merely allowing harm to happen. However, although DDA is an important philosophical difference and is not something that should be overlooked, it unfortunately cannot do all the moral work that DDE does. For example, within our first case of the doctor saving the mother’s life but unintentionally killing the foetus, the doctor is actively removing a part of the woman’s womb, so it cannot be said that he is simply allowing the foetus to perish. However, we want to condone his actions. Similarly, in problem cases which I will go into in more depth on later, such as the famous Trolley Problem, DDE is simply a more accurate representation of our intuitions. In the original Trolley Problem case, where we press the lever to change the track, and therefore kill one instead of five, the active action is made in changing the track – we do not just allow the trolley to continue on its path and kill the five. It seems that DDA does not quite pinpoint what exactly our relevant concerns about the case are.

Another reason that I am determined to focus on DDE instead of DDA rests on my previous discussion that our intuitions insist that intention must be morally relevant. It may even be the case that the best way to understand “doing something” is that we are intentionally doing something. Despite all the interesting things DDA has to say, we cannot overlook the issue intention – and the problems within it are best captured by DDE. These two distinctions are both philosophically informative, but DDE is ultimately better at unpicking moral cases.

It seems clear, then, that there is an easily intelligible case for DDE. But there are also two key worries surrounding it. The first is an epistemic worry – how can we ever really know what someone’s intentions are? The second worry is that under DDE a seemingly morally insignificant change to a situation, or a trivial re-description of an agent’s intentions, can seem to make the difference between permissibility and impermissibility.Looking first at our epistemic concern, then – how would we have known if that doctor really did intend the unborn child to not survive?

Well, whilst allowing for a few exceptions, I would like to claim that, in the majority of cases, we can make at least a very educated guess as to what the person’s intention would be. In this particular situation, we have no reason to sensibly believe that the doctor would have a desire to cause the unborn baby to die. However, we can clearly see why he would want to save the woman’s life – even if we took it to be for completely egoistic reasons, such as his medical prowess bringing him respect amongst his work colleagues and possibly furthering his career. Of course, there may be a hypothetical case where a doctor does want to kill an unborn baby – having, for example, some vendetta against the family. We are presuming, however, that when making a judgement on an agent’s intention, we have the facts available to us such that we can know whether or not this is the case.

Although we may not be able to satisfactorily make the leap from this case to saying that we can always definitely tell for sure what someone’s intentions are, judging someone’s intention is still going to be much more difficult than other, alternate theories. The main form of resistance to DDE comes from act-consequentialists, yet it seems that act-consequentialists are in just as bad, if not a worse situation with regards to epistemic worries than proponents of intention. With time being infinite, the consequences of every action an agent takes spans infinitely onwards in time, with each event their action has caused in turn causing another. Judging the entire state of the world and how it would have differed from what would have been if an agent did not perform that particular action therefore makes act-consequentialism comparatively infinitely more difficult to judge than an agent’s intention, which is only a primary reason at a certain time, ‘t’. In both cases, it is plausible that our objective judgement may not always be infallible, but that does not mean that the theory itself is intrinsically flawed.

Let us then move on to our second worry. Firstly, what if by simply re-describing an agent’s intentions we can legitimize an action we wouldn’t otherwise condone? A famous example of a case in which DDE appears to fall down in this way is that of a terrorist bomber[3]. Obviously, we may say, a terrorist bomber whose intention is to kill hundreds of innocent civilians is wrong – his intention is evil (this is in contrast to the case of the allied bomber, whose actions we may condone, as his intention is to end the war). The suggestion, however, is that the terrorist’s intention may not be for the innocent civilians to die, but instead, for them to appear dead, so as to instil the fear and panic which will ultimately further the terrorist’s desires. Unfortunately for the bomber, he has judged that the only way in which these civilians will convincingly appear dead is if they actually are dead. Their deaths, therefore, are a foreseen but unintended side effect of them actually appearing dead.

Understandably, this case is extremely worrying for many philosophers. Surely it should not be possible for the permissibility or impermissibility of an action to be able to change simply because you have been able to tweak your intentions in a particular way?

Well, although this conclusion would be extremely worrying, this re-description could not stand alone – it would have to come with further evidence. If the bomber truly did not intend for the civilians to die, there should surely be other evidence to back this up. For example, we can ask whether or not they looked for other solutions to achieve their aim? Did they feel any sadness and regret about this terribly unfortunately unintended side effect?

This case also does not fulfil all the conditions for DDE. We must remember that DDE is not solely concerned with the intention/foresight distinction, but there are also other important conditions within it, which make this situation not as problematic as it may first appear. For a start, it could be claimed that the bomber is, in fact, still using the civilian’s deaths as a means to an end,something that is strictly ruled out by DDE. Another consideration which this situation does not seem to fulfil, at least until we have more information, is that of the proportionality condition, which, after the huge amount of harm done (lots of innocent people’s deaths), will have to be filled with quite a large humanitarian gain if the terrorist achieves his aims (even more innocent lives saved.) However, especially with the use of the emotionally loaded word “terrorist” we instantly do not consider that the bomber’s aim will be to save innocent lives – instead, we imagine him wanting to further some aims that are ultimately bad in themselves – especially as this is followed by us not having enough information to see the bomber’s intention as anything but “causing fear and panic”. We need to know more about the whole situation in order to determine whether the terrorist fulfils the proportionality condition, whether he tried to minimize the harm done, and whether he felt any regret and sadness about this unfortunate side effect, before we can judge whether or not the situation could be permissible.

In the terrorist bomber case, nothing has changed apart from how the terrorist’s intentions. In some cases, we accept that this may be enough to change the permissibility of the situation. But there is another, more worrying instance, where a physical change in the situation, in a way which does not seem morally relevant, appears tochange an action’s permissibility under DDE.

This brings us onto our second worry – the idea that the distinction between foresight and intention may simply be too contrived. We do not want to end up with a scenario where a tiny change to the physical layout of a situation sees the permissibility change alongside it. There are some famous problem cases that have been proposed which claim to show DDE is not an accurate description of what we want to endorse or condone with regards to morality. Philippa Foot, for instance, came up with a hypothetical “trolley case” in which your trolley would either continue to run on the track it was currently on, killing five people, or, if you made the active decision to flick the switch, would run onto the other track, killing one person[4]. Although some people may claim the bad situation was already in place and you should not get involved under any circumstances, to most it seems initially apparent that the morally correct thing to do would be to take the track which only killed one person, and the death of this one person would be a foreseen but unintended side effect. We could prove that it was unintended by suggesting that the one person may, in fact, escape. In this case, you would prefer for the person to escape and for no-one to die, which suggests you never intended their death.

However, Thomson came up with a further suggestion – that the track now loops around and joins up with the other track, which has the five people on it.[5] The only way in which to stop your trolley making the full circuit and ending in killing the five people is for something to stop it: namely, the one person. Now, then, Thomson argues that your preference has now become that you do not want them to escape, as the trolley would then kill the five people, and you therefore now intend for the one person to be harmed. Therefore, the death of this person has now become a means to an end, as opposed to a foreseen but unintended side effect – something that DDE cannot condone. But surely the trivial difference of a few metres of train track cannot make the difference between right and wrong? Yet the death of the one is now part of the plan to save the five, meaning that the permissibility has changed since we allowed for the changing of the track in the previous case. It is suggested, then, that the Loop Case shows that using someone as a means to an end does not make a difference to moral permissibility (all other things being equal), and DDE should therefore be abandoned.

Solutions to this have been suggested – Michael Costa’s article “Another Trip On The Trolley”[6] advises that, seeing as the harm is already in place, there is no way to escape the “using a person as a means” clause – either the one person will save the five, or the five will save the one (by stopping the trolley circling round and killing the one). You are forced into using a person or people as a means to save others, so it may as well be that you minimize the damage. However, Costa’s argument unfortunately collapses if a minor adjustment is made to the track so that the one person is on higher ground, such that the trolley would never circle around and hit them if it took the track with the five on. Again, a minor adjustment to the logistics of the situation seems to stop the argument in its tracks.

We also do not want to fall into the trap of attributing rightness and wrongness based on a trivial re-description of the agent’s intention. Something that has been claimed is that the agent’s initial intention is to stop the five being hit from the front – an aim which would be defeated by the trolley hitting the five from the back (as it would do, without the presence of the one). Matthew Liao, however, argues that it seems implausible that the agent’s true intention to prevent the trolley hitting the five is concerned with the clause “from the front”, instead of simply intending to prevent the trolley hitting them at all –similarly as with the few extra metres of track, why should we care if the five are hit from the front of the back? [7]

Frances Kamm proposes that we should add an extra clause to DDE, based on the recognition of an important difference between doing something to bring about harm, which should be condemned, and doing something because harm will occur, but not in order to bring that harm about. The latter of these should also not be confused with a situation where one merely foresees harm. Proponents of DDE have overlooked the possibility that one may do something because, but not in order that, harm may occur, and have therefore fallen foul of miscategorising this case.

The example Kamm gives to clearly showcase this difference is as follows:

“I intend to give a party in order for me and my friends to have fun. However, I foresee that this will leave a big mess, and I do not want to have a party if I will be left to clean it up. I also foresee a further effect of the party: If my friends have fun, they will feel indebted to me and help me clean up. I assume that a feeling of indebtedness is something of a negative for a person to have. I give the party because I believe that my friends will feel indebted and (so) because I will not have a mess to clean up. These expectations are [necessary] conditions of my action. I would not act unless I had them. The fact that they will feel indebted is a reason for my acting. But I do not give the party even in part in order to make my friends feel indebted nor in order to not have a mess.”[8]

Kamm refers to DDE plus this extra amendment as “The Doctrine of Triple Effect”. The significance of this in the Trolley Loop Case is clear. The trolley has not been diverted in order to hit the one, but because it will hit the one. This amendment may not have been recognized before simply because it is only necessary in very small number of extremely specific cases, like the Party case and the Trolley Loop case, but using it allows us to adequately draw all the conclusions we want from the problem cases without simply re-describing an agent’s intentions.

In conclusion, I believe that intention has imperative moral relevance that we cannot overlook, and that a full and complete theory of DDE can fully and accurately summarize our intuitions with regard to intention, as long as we remember that it is not simply an intention/foresight distinction, and ensure we also include vital ingredients such as a proportionality condition, a “means to an end” condition and also Kamm’s distinction between doing something to bring about harm, and doing something because harm will occur, but not in order to bring that harm about.

[1] Davidson, Donald, “Actions, Reasons and Causes” in “Journal of Philosophy” Vol.60, Chapter I, p.686

[2] Aquinas, Thomas – “Summa Theologica”, 1273, (II-II, Q64, A7)

[3] Bennett, Jonathan – “The Act Itself” (1998, Oxford University Press) discusses a huge range of “bomber” cases in his chapter on “Intentions”. The particular case I am focussing on, however, may be better attributed to McMahan (McMahan, Jeff – “Revising the Doctrine of Double Effect” (1994, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Volume 11, No.2))

[4] Foot, Philippa – “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect”, (1967, Oxford Review, Number 5)

[5] Thomson, Judith Jarvis – “The Trolley Problem” (1985, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, p.1402-1406)

[6] Costa, Michael – “Another Trip On The Trolley” (1987, Southern Journal of Philosophy)

[7] Liao, Matthew – “The Loop Case and Kamm’s Doctrine of Triple Effect” (Nov 2009, Philosophical Studies)

[8] Kamm, Frances – “Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm” (2006, Oxford University Press), p95



Main Sources

Aquinas, Thomas – “Summa Theologica” (1273, published 1988 in “Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas”, Anton Pegis (ed), Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company)

Bennett, Jonathan – “The Act Itself” (1998, Oxford University Press)

Costa, Michael – “Another Trip On The Trolley” (1987, Southern Journal of Philosophy)

Davidson, Donald – “Actions, Reasons and Causes” (1963, The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 60, American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, Sixtieth Annual Meeting)

Foot, Philippa – “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect”, (1967, Oxford Review, Number 5) and “Morality, Action and Outcome” in “Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie” (ed. Honderich, Ted) (1985, London, Routledge)

Kamm, Frances – “Physician-Assisted Suicide, the Doctrine of Double Effect, and the Ground of Value”, in “Ethics”, Volume 109 (1999, University of Chicago Press), “The Doctrine of Double Effect: Reflections on Theoretical and Practical Issues”, in “Journal of Medicine and Philosophy” Volume 16, pages 571-585 (1991, Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers), and “The Doctrine of Triple Effect and Why a Rational Agent Need Not Intend the Means to His End” (2000, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol 74), “Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm” (2006, Oxford University Press)

Liao, Matthew – “The Loop Case and Kamm’s Doctrine of Triple Effect” (Nov 2009, Philosophical Studies)

McMahan, Jeff – “Revising the Doctrine of Double Effect” (1994, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Volume 11, No.2)

Olver, Ian – “Is Death Ever Preferable to Life?” (2002, Dordecht, The Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers)

Otsuka, Michael – “Double Effect, Triple Effect and the Trolley Problem: Squaring the Circle in Looping Cases” in “Utilitas” (2008, Cambridge University Press)

Quinn, Warren – “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Double Effect” (1989, “Philosophy and Public Affairs”, Volume 18, p.334-351)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Doctrine of Double Effect, Doing vs. Allowing Harm, Intention (Links: , , )

Thomson, Judith Jarvis – “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” (1976, The Monist, Vol. 59), and “The Trolley Problem” (1985, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94)

Unger, Peter – “Living High and Letting Die” (1996, New York, Oxford University Press)

I also benefitted greatly from suggestions and additions from my supervisor, Sebastian Nye (University of Cambridge).

Other Sources

Boyle, Joseph – “Who Is Entitled to Double Effect?” (1991, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Volume 16, p.475-494)

Donagan, Alan – “Moral Absolutism and The Double-Effect Exception: Reflections on Joseph Boyle’s ‘Who Is Entitled to Double Effect?’” (1991, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Volume 16, p.495-509)

Nagel, Thomas – “Agent-Relativity and Deontology” in “The View From Nowhere” (1986, New York, Oxford University Press)

Quinn, Warren – “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” (1989, “Philosophical Review”, Volume 98, p.287-312), “Morality and Action” (1993, Cambridge University Press), and “Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory: Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot”, also edited by Rosalind Hursthouse and Gavin Lawrence (1995, Oxford University Press)


4 thoughts on “The Moral Importance of Intention

  1. Dear Babatunde,

    Perhaps I should have at least mentioned Anscombe! Whilst she focuses more on the relationship between intending and doing, what intention actually is, and the difference in the three ways we use the word “intention” (expression of intention for the future – I intend to complete this comment in the next ten minutes; the intention with which someone acts – I am typing with the intention of writing a coherent sentence, and the fact that I am typing these words intentionally) I personally find the moral relevance of intention more interesting. Thank you for your feedback!


    • Yes that’s true, although Anscombe’s Intentions fits in with the rest of her philosophy. For instance, she bemoaned the abuse of the Doctrine of Double Effect in her paper War and Murder because of recent developments in Cartesian psychology. Basically, if people focus their mind in doing one thing, knowing full well what a consequence of doing that thing will be, they have abused the DDE. I quote here here:

      “At the same time, the principle has been repeatedly abused from the seventeenth century up till now. The causes lie in the history of philosophy. From the seventeenth century till now what may be called Cartesian psychology has dominated the thought of philosophers and theologians. According to this psychology, an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will. Now if intention is all important–as it is–in determining the goodness or badness of an action, then, on this theory of what intention is, a marvellous way offered itself of making any action lawful. You only had to ‘direct your intention’ in a suitable way. In practice, this means making a little speech to yourself: “What I mean to be doing is. . .”. “

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