Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

The moral relevance of intentions

Why intentions are important even for utilitarians

This is the third of a series of articles defending a compatibilist interpretation of utilitarianism, which can be reconciled with all major moral theories. In the previous article, I explain how utilitarianism is compatible with virtue ethics.

Utilitarianism is the moral philosophy that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It is a consequentialist moral philosophy, and for this reason many make the mistake of assuming that it only cares about consequences, while ignoring intentions. In fact, however, the name “consequentialism” doesn’t imply a contrast with intentions, but with deontology, the moral theory that focuses on respecting good rules rather than maximizing good consequences. Bentham himself, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, dedicates an entire chapter to intentionality.

A man’s intention then on any occasion may be styled good or bad, with reference either to the consequences of the act, or with reference to his motives. If it be deemed good or bad in any sense, it must be either because it is deemed to be productive of good or of bad consequences, or because it is deemed to originate from a good or from a bad motive.

— Jeremy Bentham, 1781. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Bentham was a jurist, and would have never suggested something as absurd as punishing accidental manslaughter and premeditated murder with equal severity. A premeditated murderer is a dangerous person who is prone to harming others. A person who killed another by accident just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and there is no point in punishing them as long as they are not guilty of recklessness or gross negligence. Punishing them wouldn’t bring anything good. It wouldn’t protect other potential victims because they may still be the victims of bad luck, it wouldn’t deter other people because nobody controls accidents, and there would be no point in trying to rehabilitate this person because there’s nothing wrong with them.

In law, there is an important distinction between intention and motive. Let’s say a man catches his best friend sleeping with his wife, gets mad with rage, and attacks the man, who ends up dying in the hospital later due to complications. The motive, or the motivating force behind his actions, is clear. Namely, he felt insulted and betrayed, and this motivated him to attack. But what was his intention? Was it to kill? Or was he simply reckless and exaggerated in his attack and ended up killing by accident?

The morality of the action depends entirely upon the intention — that is, upon what the agent wills to do. But the motive, that is, the feeling which makes him will so to do, when it makes no difference in the act, makes none in the morality: though it makes a great difference in our moral estimation of the agent, especially if it indicates a good or a bad habitual disposition — a bent of character from which useful, or from which hurtful actions are likely to arise.

— John Stuart Mill, 1861. Utilitarianism.

Isn’t the road to hell paved with good intentions?

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This is something many will bring up when discussing, for example, American foreign policy and the collateral damage of their military operations. Conservatives will often defend the US, claiming they had no intention to harm innocents, while the more radical on the left might say their intentions don’t matter at all, and that Americans are “the real terrorists”. But the relevant question here is not whether intentions matter or not, because they very much do. The relevant question is how foreseeable the consequences of those actions were, and how negligent those involved.

When we say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we are not making a case against the relevance of intentions. We are making a case against taking irresponsible risks, against being negligent, against being reckless. So yes, sometimes you are blameworthy even if you didn’t have bad intentions. But if you are responsible, not negligent, but still by sheer bad luck a child jumps in front of your car while you’re driving within the speed limit, then no, you are not blameworthy.


It is clear that for utilitarians both the motive and the intention are important when analyzing the moral character of actions and individuals. If somebody says that, according to utilitarianism, a person who attempts a murder and fails is more ethical than a person who accidentally killed another one, they clearly don’t understand utilitarianism. They are simply drawing hasty conclusions from their own misguided and naive interpretation of the word “consequentialism”.

A person who attempts murder is dangerous. They must be imprisoned. They must be rehabilitated. Potential victims must be protected from them. We must study them and understand how we as a society failed to prevent them from becoming a dangerous criminal. A world in which we fail to take intentions into consideration is a world in which we fail to prevent and minimize suffering. There is nothing utilitarian about such a world.



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