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  • Intention in Ethics
  • Joseph Shaw

The use of intention in ethics has been the subject of intense debate for many years, but no consensus has emerged over whether intention is morally relevant, or even how it should be understood. In this paper I wish to make a thorough, though by no means exhaustive, examination of the concept and the concepts around it, some to be seen as near-synonyms, and some as contrasting ideas. My interest is in the ethical use of the concept, though my own analysis of it will be indebted to discussions in the philosophy of action. The most famous ethical use, which will not, however, be my direct focus here, is the 'principle of double effect,' which states that an agent may cause or allow something bad as long as, first, no evil is intended as an end or a means; and, second, that the foreseen bad is not out of proportion with the anticipated good. It is important to note the principle's testimony to the plausibility of prohibitions expressed in terms of intentions (indicated by the first condition), and, alongside these, a general prohibition on doing inordinate harms even without intention (indicated by the second condition).

My aim in this paper is to give a precise definition of intention, such as can be used in the way intention is usually used in ethics, as by the principle of double effect. Generally speaking intention is discussed without any articulated definition, leading to a great deal of confusion about what it should be taken to include. Again, it is sometimes objected against the use of intention that the concept is imprecise or over-complicated.1 I will try to show that a systematic consideration of relatively [End Page 187] uncontroversial features of intention can establish a definition which is both fairly simple and unambiguous.

Although I shall argue that this definition is true to the way intention is most widely used and understood, it allows very fine distinctions to be made between different aspects of what an agent brings about, some of which can be intended without others being intended. Fine-grained accounts of intention have the reputation of generating morally absurd results, so I have a considerable task to establish even a prima facie case for my account. I do this by giving arguments against a series of miscellaneous concepts which have been confused with intention, and by explaining the apparently counter-intuitive results of my account in three groups of cases.

The order of presentation will be as follows. I shall first distinguish intention from a number of related concepts (Part I), then consider, and reject, a proposed criterion for intention, the 'counterfactual test' (Part II), before setting out my own definition (Part III). I shall then examine how it fares in a number of cases where it might seem to give the 'wrong' answer to ethical questions (Part IV).

I What Intention is Not

A preliminary characterisation of intention can most simply be made by reference to a list of near-synonyms. Of the possible upshots of our actions and deliberate omissions we can distinguish some that we intend from others that we do not intend: those we intend are those that we were, in doing or withholding from an action, trying or attempting to bring about, or aiming at; they are the upshots that are the point or purpose of the action; they are part of our plan; if they fail to materialise, they would render the action, as originally conceived, a failure: our intention would have been thwarted. Before attempting a more precise definition it would be well to run through a list of things that, it is widely understood, should be distinguished from it, both by ethicists and by philosophers of action. The main concepts that can usefully be contrasted with intention are these: foresight, cause, desire, motive, moral responsibility, and intentional action. Suppose Agent does an action φ with outcome O. The question is whether Agent's foresight, cause, desire, or moral responsibility of or for O, or whether Agent's being motivated to perform φ by the prospect of O, is necessary or sufficient for Agent's intending of O...


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pp. 187-223
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