In light of the ensuing discussion, it seemed like a good idea to fill out the whole issue of the ethical relevance of intentions a bit more. What is absolutely important in regard to this issue is to understand the way “intention” must never be used to absolve us of our actions. This is at the heart of what I was putting forth earlier. So, rather than the stark language of “intentions don’t matter” that I used to cheaply grab your attention, what really needs to be said is that any attempt to posit a morally meaningful disjunction between intention and action is illicit. What absolutely cannot be allowed is for ethical analysis to take the shape of, “Yes, this horrible thing happened, but when you see it from my ‘inside view’ you’ll understand why I’m not really all that culpable.” This is exactly the way the “appeal to intentions” functions in regard to the example given by Bacevich in regard to America’s action in Iraq. It is this sort of attempt to posit a disjunction between intention and action that is morally disastrous, and shrouded in self-deception.
Slavoj Žižek, in his book Violence makes this point absolutely clear with regard to the horrors committed under Soviet Communism:
When, in the 1960s, Svetlana Stalin emigrated to the U.S. through India and wrote her memoirs, she presented Stalin “from inside” as a warm father and caring leader, with most of the mass murders imposed on him by his evil collaborators, Lavrenty Beria in particular. Later, Beria’s son Sergo wrote a memoir presenting his father as a warm family man who simply followed Stalin’s orders and secretly tried to limit the damage. Georgy Melenkov’s son Andrei also told the story, describing his father, Stalin’s successor, as an honest hard worker, always afraid for his life. Hannah Arendt was right: these figures were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. (Emphasis added)
This crystallizes my point. Whenever appeal to “the inside” functions by way of introducing a disjunction between what is happening “out there” and “the real me/you,” then everything is wrong. That is what absolutely cannot be allowed within morally meaningful ethical discourse. The reason for this is because who we really are, the true story about us, lies not in our self-contemplations, but in who we are to others. Whatever Svetlana thought about who her father “really was,” in his private, tortured soul, the truth of who Stalin was is inscribed the masses of unmarked graves he left behind. That, not any internal reflection or emotional complexity he may have felt is who he was. The truth of who we are is not found inside us, but always outside ourselves in how we act on others and how they act on us (I think there’s a christological point in here somewhere).
Žižek drives the point home:
The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do. (p. 47, emphasis added)
So, when put carefully, it isn’t that intentions have no relevance at all to ethics. Rather it is that they can never be allowed to function in an exculpatory way in ethical discourse. Appealing to the intentions may be licit in terms of condemnation of what seem, on the surface, to be acceptable acts, but they can never function as justification for ostensibly evil ones. Thus, to pull some sort of axiom out of all this, one might say that there cannot be any licit appeal to intentions to justify an act. Intentionality may, however serve to indict what may appear as acceptable acts in some cases. However, the overriding point must always be that any attempt to establish a disjunction between intention and act for the purpose of self-justification is to be rejected in all circumstances.