Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Intention and (Im)permissibility

We often think that intentions play a crucial role in explaining the im/permissibility of actions. (Compare 'collateral damage' in strategic bombing vs. intentionally targeting the population. Or buying your neighbour rat poison to help him kill rats vs. to help him kill his wife.) But Scanlon offers a nice general strategy to undermine this position: (1) Consider the impermissible action. (2) Cut out the bad intentions, and suppose the agent is instead simply acting negligently. (3) Notice that the result is still impermissible.

For example, if you have good grounds for believing that your neighbour is trying to kill his wife, it's presumably impermissible to buy him some poison, no matter how empty (of bad intentions or good sense alike) your head is at the time. What matters to the question of permissibility is the expected consequences of the action, and your private intentions make no difference here. We are tempted to think intentions matter in the original cases because they covary with other factors that matter, e.g. what you can reasonably expect your neighbour to do with the poison. But once we separate them out (by appealing to cases of negligence) we see that it's these other factors, and not one's intentions, that typically matter for questions of permissibility.

To reinforce this conclusion, notice how bizarre it would be if perverse motivations could typically render otherwise permissible actions impermissible. Scanlon discusses the case of a doctor justifiably administering painkillers that will foreseeably end the life of a terminally ill patient. Supposing this is permissible in the ordinary case, does it change when the doctor happens to delight in having an excuse to kill his patients? Should he say, "Sorry, I can't deliver the lethal painkillers, because I know that if I did so I would intend not just the cessation of your pain, but also your subsequent death. Not that it would change anything, but you know, it's impermissible to intentionally kill people. Good luck finding a doctor who intends only the former of the two predictable consequences of the procedure!"

This is a second general strategy that can serve to undermine purported links between intention and permissibility: just combine the two contrast cases into one where the agent may have either intention in performing the action, and note that it would be completely bizarre for this to affect its permissibility. In the bombing case, for example, suppose a single potential missile target could serve both military and terrorist objectives. In deliberating about whether to press the launch button, must the general first introspect on her own motives? If she finds that she intends the civilian casualties, should she summon her more pure-of-heart lieutenant to press the button instead? Who could possibly care?

What matters for permissibility are the reasons for action that exist in the world. Once we establish that there is sufficient reason to bomb the target, we've established that the action is permissible. The actor's intentions don't change the moral status of the action. What they should influence is our assessment of the agent. But that is to raise questions of blameworthiness, not permissibility.


  1. Surely when the average person is debating if collateral damage is permissable they are not usually saying 'was the last incident ok' but instead saying 'are we going to not permit these things to happen in future - with the associated costs'.
    Ie they would delete from history the killing of a wedding party if they could but might still ocnsider the general class of actions somthing they would not delete.

    killing civilians with intent appears to be somthing one might put more effort into "not permitting" because it is a clear high risk area compared to "preventing people who don't intend to kill civilians from killing civilians"

  2. While I can't stand the doctrine of double effect, I still think that one's intentions can sometimes affect permissibility of a specific action.

    Is there a difference between marrying someone out of love vs. marrying them so you could get hold of their money? I think so.

  3. Good comments. Scanlon actually discusses these two exceptions to the general rule that intentions don't matter:

    (1) Intentions may have predictive significance, altering the expected consequences of an action. (Suppose that instead of a missile, the bombing is to be carried out by fighter pilots who may react to changing circumstances. If they become faced with a choice to maximize either strategic military impact or civilian casualties, which one they choose may depend on how they initially conceived of their mission. So, in such a case, it is important - on consequentialist grounds - to select actors who have the right intentions!)

    (2) Intentions are central to so-called "expressive actions", e.g. declarations of love and so forth. But in this case, the impermissibility arguably derives from more general principles that forbid us from misrepresenting ourselves or manipulating others. (To perform an expressive action from the wrong intention is a form of lying.)

  4. Sure, but one doesn't have to lie in such cases. How about deciding to have more kids so you can collect more child benefits (or whatever other bad reason you can think of)?

  5. That just sounds blameworthy, not impermissible. (Unless it's a predictive significance case, i.e. such a "parent" may not be expected to do an adequate job of raising their children.)


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