Skip to content

Round Again with Intentions

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.


  1. Brad E. wrote:

    Excellent clarification. I wonder if you might also add to the concluding axiom (and it might be the mentioned christological point): ideally, or rather eschatologically, our intentions and our actions will be one. That is, our selves as we know them will be in perfect harmony with how others know us for we will receive our true selves from our relations to them. The Spirit helps us more and more to close the gap between our self-deceiving reflection and our outward action, while empowering us to act more and more loving toward our neighbors and toward God. We love and become love by the love that is the Spirit: inside and out. Christ, the incarnate human, embodies this love perfectly, and therefore is in his life and person perfect harmony of intent and action. Put another way: there is no lie in the triune God. In Scripture’s words, “I am the truth”; “he will lead you into all truth”; “your word is truth.”

    I trust someone can make sense of that. Thanks for the stimulating reflections, Halden, our blogging provocateur-in-chief.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    Thanks, Halden (the Portland Hit-Man).

    On the “the disjunction between intention and act”, and the theological impossibility of deploying it in a self-justificatory way, one could do worse at this point than turn to Romans 7:14ff. Here is Barth, in The Epistle to the Romans – on “The Reality of Religion”, specifically on Romans 7:20:

    “We return therefore to the decisive question: What is performed? Answer: I do what I would not. I am therefore no more justified by the nobility of my desire to do good than I am by my desire not to do evil (7:16,17). For the second time the judgement pronounced by myself upon myself is wholly justified: it is no more I that do it. Excluded from responsibility for what is happening in my house, I am thrust up against the wall merely as an observer. An appeal to my goodwill only proves that sin dwelleth in me. It is sin that acts, sin that performs, and to sin that the ‘success’ belongs. And yet, this does not mean that I am, in fact, released from all responsibility: it means, rather, that I stand self-condemned. I have no reason to suppose that the EGO that performs and the EGO which disapproves can escape identification. Reality, even [sic] the reality of religion, knows but one man, and I, and not some other, am that man. It is one man that wills and does not perform; one man that does not will, and yet performs: within the four walls of the house of sin dwells but one man. Religious experience, then, simply bears witness to the fact that sin is all-embracing.”

    There is a third factor, in addition to intentions and actions: viz., the results of our intentions and actions. But again, neither the Butterfly Effect nor Murphy’s Law are exculpatory. On the contrary, they simply add to the the fact that we’re fucked. “Give me a break, I meant well”? Rather “Wretched man that I am!”

    Finally, a Christological point: one way of looking at the sinlessness of Jesus is to see it as the absence of a disjunction between intention and action. As for results, cue Donald MacKinnon and the “tragic”.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  3. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I agree with this argument, so long as it is precisely defined as you have it here: evil action cannot be justified by intentions that are “less evil” (or usually just portrayed as such after the fact). And in your examples of clear and unquestionable evil, the point is well made.

    However, I do wonder about situations of morally ambiguous acts. Cannot intentions matter there as useful determinants for ethical evaluation? This is not to presuppose a disjunction between intention and act – which I agree is not justifiable – but rather to ask whether there are situations where interpreting the act depends in part on understanding the intentions behind it (as well as external circumstances). I’m not arguing for a relativism here, but such a context would seem to matter.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I don’t think I have a problem with any of that, Brad.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Spencer wrote:

    Halden’s position seems to fail the test of being able to make sense of relatively mundane moral experiences: if I accidentally kill someone with my car, for example, I would have to be morally evaluated in exactly the same way as if I intentionally ran someone over. Or if I feed a friend peanuts without knowing that he is deathly allergic, I am just as blameworthy as the person who intentionally poisons her.

    Furthermore, if moral evaluation can be reduced to action, then I can be justified in passing complete judgement over someone else’s action. But this flies in the face of conventional “judge not…” wisdom which, though cliched, is not therefore less wise.

    It strikes me as morally odd to condemn the person who acts unintentionally with guilt equal to the one who acted intentionally. And anthropologically odd to chalk it up to personal sinfulness instead of exculpatory ignorance.

    Admittedly, intention can be a hard thing to nail down, even for the intending agent – as Kim aptly indicated with reference to Wittgenstein and Augustine in the last post. But that’s cause for caution with respect to intention, not dismissal.

    None of this, of course, means that we should not be horrified by evil moral actions themselves and work collectively to prevent such actions from happening, but it does mean that our moral evaluation of the person should take intention into account.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  6. KC wrote:

    …they simply add to the the fact that we’re fucked. “Give me a break, I meant well”? Rather “Wretched man that I am!”

    Well said.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  7. Theophilus wrote:

    That’s when the question of reasonable precautions comes up. If I hit the pedestrian unintentionally, but was distracted because I was texting, I am still culpable despite my lack of murderous intent. Similarly, if I forget the common courtesy of informing my friend that the food I’m serving contains peanuts, I am culpable because of my neglect. That is precisely the issue at hand in the original article – it is foolish to consider ignorance to be proof of innocence. The legal demand to take “due caution” or “due care and attention” is relevant here.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  8. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    I hope you all appreciate this from the Talmud: “Once a Hasid forgot a sheaf in his field, and he said to his son: ‘Go and offer up for me a peace-offering, and another as a burnt-offering.’ The son asked: ‘Why dot thou rejoice, my father, in this commandment (Deut 24:19), more than in others?’ He replied: ‘G-d gave us every commandment in the torah to fulfill intentionally, but this commandment was given to be performed unintentionally. If we intended to fulfill it, it would not be performing this Mitzvah.’ Is it not a matter of logic? If G-d promises to bless the work of our hands when we perform His commandment without intention on our part, how much the more shall He bless us for performing a commandment which we intend to fulfill” Tosefte Peah 3
    Or,perhaps y’all might prefer “though the children threw the stones in jest, the frogs died in ernest.” Mark Twain. obliged, daniel

    Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  9. Spencer wrote:

    True, Theophilus, but the set of all bad actions done in ignorance is not equal to the set of all actions done in culpable ignorance. The legal demand of “due caution” implies that there is a level of caution which it would be absurd to require (else the modifier “due” adds nothing to “caution”). And certainly one can take “due caution” and still make a non-culpable mistake. But how are we to evaluate such situations if we have decided beforehand that intention can in no way lesson one’s guilt?

    Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  10. Theophilus wrote:

    Certainly, there is a difference there, but it’s a nuance that isn’t discussed in the original post. What’s even more interesting in the original article is dismissal of culpability after the fact by the enabler of death on the grounds of having good intentions. Accidents and mistakes happen; it is the use of good intentions to shield someone from critical evaluation that might impact future actions that is the problem here. To expand the driving metaphor, if I drink and drive and strike the pedestrian before it is known that drunk driving is dangerous, I have good intentions and may have exercised due caution, but it is my responsibility to consider whether I should drive drunk again.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  11. I have gathered from previous threads that Milbank is generally not well received but I do believe his Aristotelian heritage is apt for the subject matter of intentions. For instance, in Theology and Social Theory, “Praxis, in the old Aristotelian sense, referred to a dimension of action which was categorically ‘ethical’ because it could not be separated from a person’s essential being or character (ethos); it meant a doing which was also a being. It also implied action directed towards a particular end (telos), but an end immanent within the very means used to achieve it, the practice of ‘virtue’” (p. 161). This is similarly Hauerwas’s repeated point that agency, in contrast to its liberal parody, has to do with fitting our actions into a narrative that makes our character intelligible. In other words, teleological motivations are fully interconnected with external actions. Milbank’s particular concern is that if this notion of praxis is abandoned then the subjective inner wills of individuals can be manipulated by the State. Hence why he would be cautious in divorcing praxis from virtue. My point is tautological in respect to the arguments made above, but my concern – via Milbank – is that storied accounts of existence coming from “outside ourselves” can equally be “untrue.” My only point is that agency must deliberatly include truthful accounts of understanding and explaining existence.

    Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site