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Why Intentions Don’t Matter

Bacevich’s article, which I mentioned earlier dovetails with what I continue to be more and more convinced of in ethical evaluation. Motives, intentions, or whathaveyou seem to me to be almost totally irrelevant to substantial ethical discourse and discernment. How you feel about what you do only matters to you, not the people you do stuff to. Locating morality in intentions and motives is, quite frankly, just pathological. Either it is a form of deluded self-assuaging, or maschism of self-despising. Either way it is quite dangerous.

All vestiges of ethical reflection (the fact that we even call it “reflection” shows the problem) that center on the internal motives of the agent are best done away with and the sooner the better. Ethical or non-ethical action is something that takes place between people within social and political structures, not within the recesses of my feelings and intentions. Until we can begin to think ethics in distinctly interpersonal and structural terms we will continue to be bogged in the pathological morass of internal self-obsession.


  1. erin wrote:

    I think that intentions don’t matter as much as we would like them to. Or better yet, -intentions cannot justify actions. But practically speaking, I have seen many people who do “the right thing,” act in a genuinely ethical manner, yet bear evil fruit because they did not address “internal” issues. Is treating someone well, all the while despising them, ethical? At some point, the anger/bitterness/despising undealt with will lead to unethical action, and I can’t help but feel it collapses identity and doesn’t account for time and process. I suppose this is the easy answer, though, and feel like your thoughts on this are corrective for where we are often at, self justifying.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  2. erin wrote:

    I suppose what I meant is that ethical action, with no consideration of intention, might be the proper standard, but it doesn’t offer a process for healing or change. It simply demands. I wish I had the hp to draw on Levinas here while I blogxtrovert. Carry on :)

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    I think there’s a difference between the pathological intentionalism that Bacevich criticizes, and a proposal to consider intention and motive entirely irrelevant to ethics. In fact, it seems that Bacevich isn’t even (necessarily) criticizing the appeal to intentions made by the U.S. government and its agents, but rather its massive blind spots and failure to really effectively address intention properly.

    There’s a place for saying that ethical action needs to be evaluated regardless of intention, but presumably one’s intentions are ethically relevant in the sense that murdering someone “in one’s heart” should be repented of, even if a murderous action doesn’t take place. A corollary of that, I would think, is the good intentions count for something, though certainly not everything. But even setting aside the corollary, surely evil intent requires is morally relevant. That alone should raise some red flags against a “distinctly interpersonal and structural” ethics.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Brad E. wrote:

    I’m not sure we need to group all non-active forms of ethical reflection under the umbrella category of “intent.” Much of what Jesus or the prophets had to say was some version of, “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I would hope that our understanding of the work of the Spirit is both internal and external, neither taking priority over the other: moved to love by word and deed even when we do not desire or feel it; moved to love by heart and mind both when we are and are not acting with or toward others at that moment.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Derek wrote:

    “How you feel about what you do only matters to you, not the people you do stuff to.”

    Halden, I would disagree with this, b/c, if nothing else, when someone acts wrongly toward me, i in fact do care why. It seems most people i know believe the same.

    In fact, a harmful act can be seen as an act of love when intent is understood. If someone shoves me, i would take that as an offense, unless of course someone shoved me to keep me from getting ran over by a rude bicycler.

    While intent shouldn’t come to dominate all ethical reflection, neither should acts. It seems that they coalesce together, and ethical reflection is impoverished if one or the other is missing. I think Mt 15:1-20 makes this type of connection.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Derek wrote:


    Your 2nd paragraph holds only if we conceive of the human person as naturally devoid of inner motives, b/c if they in fact are, they are part of the human make up. If that is the case, how can they not be a part of the social and political interactions that take place between people?

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    “Or better yet, -intentions cannot justify actions.”

    That’s exactly right, Erin.

    Also in regard to some of the “heart” stuff in the Bible. I agree that its important. But I don’t think such verses are really talking about subjectivity or introspection. Rather they are talking about the orientation of the whole person, the person’s devotion, allegiance. Thus, those who “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” are not guilty because they said the right words with the wrong motive. It is rather that they lied about being devoted to God while in fact oppressing the poor and participating in idolatry (in fact, that particular verse in Isaiah occurs in the context of Israel establishing alliances with foreign powers rather than trusting in YHWH for deliverance).

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Derek I think in those cases it isn’t really the person’s subjective feelings that make those acts what they are, but rather a full consideration what the act is in all its social dimensions, i.e. the shoving example. That isn’t a harmful act at all, it could only be seen as such by not observing what’s really going on there.

    What I’m really getting at here are the attempts made to justify actions on the basis of our alleged feelings and motives. The reason for this is that its just impossible to get a real handle on our deep motives for anything. Knowing why we do what we do is too slippery, and making judgments about it is laced with self-deception.

    So, I agree that the why of actions is important. I just don’t think attempting to figure out introspective motives really works. People who know one another call tell them why they do what they do in a far more reliable way than a person’s own internal self-narrative. We always lie to ourselves about who we are after all.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Derek wrote:

    Halden, I agree with this to an extent, and it does seem that Jesus taught that the total orientation of a person is fleshed out in actions, but it doesn’t arise (at least not always) spontaneously & without any sort of inner precedent. It seems that the book of James 1:14-16 testifies to this in a manner analogous to Mt 15:1-20.

    So it seems that there is a reciprocal relationship between our intent & actions. In my view you can’t separate them. That said, one can’t dominate the other either. Ultimately both are judged by Jesus, but they both seem to be important.

    Lastly, intent matters because the offended or hurt party needs to understand the other person’s intent in order to begin to see the act outside of their own limited vantage point. In fact, intent can shed more light on the totality of the situation in which the act occurred, allowing one to see that the offense wasn’t even an offense at all. This seems to happen quite often in ministry.

    Intent, in a sense, keeps us from making independent judgments on problematic situations, b/c we have to look not only at the act (and our interpretation of it), but also at why some other person or group did/did not do what they did. So to me intent is a major piece of understanding ethics socially, although you are certainly right to show how easily this degenerates into individualism.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  10. John Rasmussen wrote:

    I wonder what your reaction is to Bonhoeffer’s comment:

    “(i)t is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie” (Ethics, p.67). …

    isn’t intent part of the full description of an ethical act ?

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Brad E. wrote:

    You’re right about the “heart” stuff to the extent that part of the biblical critique is that “if you loved God, you would be doing these other things, but you’re not, therefore you are lying.” But that doesn’t entail either that motive doesn’t matter or that any introspective reflection is likely to be misleading or unimportant. It seems a welcome correction to emphasize action over against internal feelings in modern ethics (I have Pinches’ Theology and Action sitting on my shelf right now, waiting to be read), particularly when the self is posited as the ultimate god to be served in any and all situations (however arbitrary, monstrous, or unpredictable).

    I simply think that the gospel speaks directly to both realms, however we qualify the relative importance or truthfulness of the “inner.” Put another way, time spent in solitude and silence praying is not “action” toward or with other human beings, but can and ought to be construed ethically to the extent that it directs our selves, our thoughts, our feelings, our futures (and our “hearts”) toward love for God and neighbor. In hope and faith, upon leaving the prayer of solitude one will be better oriented “innerly” to serving and loving, in word and deed, one’s neighbors, friends, and enemies.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  12. kim fabricius wrote:

    I think a few things need teasing out here.

    First, Bacevich’s expresseions “American motives”, “America’s benign intentions” (“America means well”) – these personifications are ethically vacuous. How can a nation-state have motives and intentions? Only an agent can have motives and intentions. So we must talk, not about “America”, but about Bush and his cronies – they had motives and intentions.

    So: what were these motives and intentions? Wittgenstein remarks: “Only you can know if you had that intention.” Does that mean that we must take Bush at his word, that he engineered the invasion of Iraq to avert the deployment of WMD, or to prevent the spread of terrorism, or to lay the table for democracy in the Islamic Middle East? Absolutely not, because (a) good Augustinian that he was, Wittgenstein knew that we can be deceived about our intentions, and (b), enemy of of Cartesian interiority that he was, he also knew that we can see another’s soul in his face, his words, his actions, and that these readings are more than mere inferences.

    Now, what did you see when you looked in Bush’s face? Check out the political cartoons. And when you heard Bush’s words? Check out Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit (2005). And as for the conduct of the war, check out the reports on civilian casualties and deaths – the term is “collateral damage” – and the use of torture, justified at source. To speak of “good” intentions here becomes outrageouly Orwellian.

    The fact of the matter is that Bush knew that Saddam had no WMD, nor any alliance with Osama, and, like all his predecessors, he couldn’t give a damn about democracy in Iraq. No, Iraq was all about the geopolitics of American imperial interests and control, not to forget the oil, driven by the morally pernicious myth of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

    Personally, I think Bush was a liar and knew he was lying about his intentions. However, Peter Berger observes that “deliberate deception requires a degree of psychological self-control that few people are capable of. That is why insincerity is a rather rare phenomenon.” But even if we allow that Bush might have been sincere, sincerity, as Berger continues, is but “the consciousness of the man who is taken in by his own act… who beleives in his own propaganda,” and we are back with self-deception at best gnawing at the heart of Bush’s “good” intentions.

    However, I suggest that it is an over-reaction to say that, ethically speaking, “intentions don’t matter”. The principle of double effect, for example, which has its roots in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas – yes, it can be used to rationalise irresponsible, even abominable behaviour, but the distinction between intended and foreseen results is not an obviously empty one. More to the point, isn’t it rather reductive to declare that ethics is only about actions, not character, about rightness and wrongness but not about goodness?

    Sorry to go on so long. I’ll end with one more quote from Wittgenstein: “Why do I want to tell him about an intention, too, as well as telling him waht I did? … because I want to tell him something about myself, which goes beyond what happened at the time.”

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  13. roger flyer wrote:

    I don’t think Bush was a liar. I think he was like the Wizard of Oz when caught. His confession: “I’m not a bad man. Just a very bad wizard.”

    …but we Americans elect our presidents to be wizards, then, shoot them when they can’t do magic. (See Obama’s latest problems…)

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  14. Brad E. wrote:


    I think you’re right, but it seems as if you give into the temptation that so many other Christians and opponents modeled leading up to Iraq: namely, arguing about intentions, goals, interior feelings, psychological conjectures, etc. The point Christians had to make, and must continue to make, is that it matters not one bit what Bush’s (or his administration’s) intentions were, or whether he lied even once knowingly. What matters is what happened, and that what happened was wrong. Even to give one inch on the question of whether he was sincere, or meant what he said, or meant well, or still thinks it was the right thing to do, is beside the point: he shouldn’t have done it. End of story.

    I guess I’m finding myself shifting a bit more toward Halden’s side now, though of course not totally. This sort of thing seems to apply especially in drastic cases, or in cases of leadership; the greater the responsibility, the less intentions matter. Or some such better aphorism.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  15. Deve wrote:


    I want to agree with what you’re saying but then it seems that my intentions and the intentions of those around me matter but those in greater positions of power it doesn’t apply to. I’m always suspicious when philosophy justifies myself greater than others.
    Perhaps it’s simply easier to understand that intentions don’t matter when it’s costing thousands of lives. Maybe my intentions don’t really matter either but it’s easier to justify my “minor evils” by stating my intentions but much harder for those intentions to justify thousands of deaths.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Thanks to all for the great comments, especially Kim. I should say that, as usual, my way of framing this was a bit intentionally provocative, perhaps unhelpfully so. Chalk it up to some bad/maybe not so bad habits I learned from reading Stanley Hauerwas in my late teens.

    I have a follow up post to all this that’ll be out tomorrow, which will hopefully get at more of the substance of this important issue.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  17. kim fabricius wrote:

    I should say that, as usual, my way of framing this was a bit intentionally provocative, perhaps unhelpfully so.

    If you stop being “intentionally provocative”, Halden – now that would be “unhelpfully so”! In any case, in a long-winded way my comment was basically in agreement with you. Especially when it comes to politics, hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and to appeal to them in exoneration of a catastrophe like Iraq – or in justification of the bottomless pit of Afghanistan – is the last refuge of the moral scoundrel.

    On the other hand, bad intentions, it seems to me, are not irrelevant when it comes to moral reasoning. For example, to switch playwrights (from Shaw to Eliot): “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

    The ethicist James Rachels claims that “A pure heart cannot make a wrong act right; neither can an impure heart make a right act wrong.” I think Rachels is right in what he affirms (his first statement), but wrong in what he denies (his second statement). The same outcome may have its origins in either a good will or an evil will – but can anyone but a monster just shrug his shoulders and say that the result is all that matters? Such a utilitarian moral calculus frightens me.

    Put it like this: in moral reasoning, while it is not sufficient to appeal to intentions, I do think it is sometimes necesary. At least it is if we care about the cure of corrupt souls.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 12:30 am | Permalink
  18. roger flyer wrote:

    Halden is a provacateur. We love it!

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 6:28 am | Permalink
  19. Brad E. wrote:

    That seems dead on. I painted myself into a corner there. Mainly I was just realizing in the moment what you named: if I mean well when I overload my trash bag and it breaks halfway to the trashcan, I had no intention of trash exploding onto the street. I ought to clean up my mess, but it’s no big deal. If I send hundreds of thousands of troops into military combat, it doesn’t really seem to matter whether I meant well or not; the consequences fall back on me no matter what. I guess it’s simply a range of impact, and thus a sliding scale of how much “weight” we put on intent, instead of less culpability the closer we get to the powerless individual.

    That may be more muddled. Either way, point taken.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  20. Brad E. wrote:

    Amen sir.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  21. Aaron Rathburn wrote:

    Actions certainly do speak louder than words.

    However, it would seem that Jesus is more interested in the intentions of a person than the actions:

    “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

    I don’t think we should ignore actions and their effects on others. But it does seem upon cursory glance that the deeds are only the fruit of the heart; and indeed, if the heart is different from the deeds, then this is very significant.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  22. robert wrote:

    i haven’t read all the other posts, so i hope i don’t repeat what someone else has said… but, if Halden’s point is taken seriously, the danger seems to be a kind of warmed-up consequentialism – ‘the outcome not the intention determines the rightness of the action’. this suffers all the problems, like ones regarding long-term unforeseeable effects, that dog consequentialism.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  23. JT wrote:

    I too haven’t read all of the previous posts, so I may be repeating something that was already said, but so be it.

    I couldn’t disagree more with you Halden. A “good” gift given to another with utterly selfish motivations ceases to be a good gift. I’m not sure the action itself could even be called good anymore. Good and honest motivations are what make otherwise inanimate actions/gifts good.

    Therefore, intentions do matter.

    Grace and peace,


    Sunday, August 9, 2009 at 5:58 am | Permalink
  24. Brad A. wrote:

    As a service to those who haven’t read, Halden’s point is that intentions aren’t exculpatory: “good” intentions don’t in themselves justify evil actions. The action itself does matter.

    What you’re saying here, JT, isn’t really an problem.

    Monday, August 10, 2009 at 6:11 am | Permalink

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