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Turning Cardinal Newman on his Head: Just how bad is a bad intention?

Most of us think that intention has great significance in practical ethics. If you barge into me, my reaction will be very different if I believe you intended to do so from the case in which I think it was an accident. And if you believe the so-called ‘doctrine of double effect’, you will think that intentionally causing some harm is entirely different from merely knowingly bringing it about as a foreseen consequence of a permissible action. So, for example, it may be all right to bomb a munitions factory, if you intend to stop its production, even though you know that as a foreseen side-effect of your bombing enemy civilians will be killed and enemy morale therefore weakened. What you cannot do is bomb with the intention of killing so as to reduce morale.

Now consider two possible states of affairs or ‘worlds’. In the first, someone entirely accidentally and non-negligently causes non-trivial suffering to some innocent sentient being. In the second, many individuals act with the intention of causing much more serious suffering to many such innocent beings. But for some reason or other (their incompetence, perhaps, or the intervention of God, or the fact that they are deluded in some way, perhaps through being attached to an ‘experience machine’), they always fail.

Which world is worse? I don’t mean morally worse. It seems highly plausible to see the second world as much worse from the moral point of view. Indeed no moral wrong at all is done in the first world, while the actions of those in the second seem deeply morally objectionable and blameworthy. What I mean is worse, period or worse overall – just worse, rather than worse from some special point of view. If you had to bring one of these worlds into being, which would you choose?

Cardinal Newman  thought that one venial sin was worse than any amount of human pain. So he would certainly have chosen the first world. Indeed, he would choose a world in which there is a vast, perhaps infinite, amount of pain over a world in which one single sin is committed. This view seems to me entirely mistaken, and perhaps rests on a confusion between moral badness, and badness overall. The first world is much worse than the second. The suffering of the innocent being is clearly bad. And even though the presence of the bad intentions in the second world may perhaps be, to some extent, bad (so it would be better perhaps if these agents were also acting in such a way that the harm that might result from their actions, but in fact doesn’t, would be brought about accidentally), real suffering is much worse. Indeed I would incline towards a view entirely opposite to the Cardinal’s:  it doesn’t matter how many bad intentions there are in the second world, it can never be worse than the first. In other words, what really matters (period) in intentionally caused harm is the harm, not the bad intention.

The significance of intention, then, has perhaps been exaggerated by certain moral philosophers. Bad intention may indeed be bad; but it’s not very bad. What matters much more is the avoidance of suffering.

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16 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thank you Roger,
    I’m sure that you have elegantly shown that good intentions are neither sufficient nor necessary conditions for producing good. I do not accept, however that this demonstrates that intention has no great significance for practical ethics.
    That I have the intention that my terminally ill partner dies without pain and in dignity doesn’t guarantee that it will happen like that, but the chances are much greater than if my intentions were to inherit as quickly as possible.
    Conversely, if my intentions as bank president are purely to maximise the short-term profitability for myself, other directors and shareholders, then the chances are that the outcome will be bad.
    It seems to me that although our intentions do not automatically lead to our desired outcomes they give pretty good indications of what will happen (given, of course, additional qualities such as competence).
    The fact that you can imagine worlds where this does not apply does not prove the opposite. If ”practical ethics” is not an oxymoron, it has to take into account that we are fallible creatures in a real imperfect world.

  2. “What matters much more is the avoidance of suffering”

    Though, of course, ‘avoidance’ is an intentional act.

    I agree with your point that world 2 would be more desirable than world 1 in a non-moral/special point of view. However, I do think Drinkwater is right in saying there is a value to intentionality because it has some sort of determinative role in producing a good act (?minimising suffering) and that some consideration of the practicalities of ethics must be made.

  3. Thanks both. I agree with you that bad intentions often result in bad outcomes, and are to that extent to be criticized and avoided. But if I’m right that’s mainly because of the outcomes, not the intentions themselves.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Thank you for your reply, Roger.
      Perhaps we’re not actually disagreeing much – my point was that in actions subject to moral discourse intentionality is an important and not just an incidental component. Behind «intentions» lies a whole host of other interesting issues, but that’s another story.
      To come back to Newman’s philosophy: expressed as it is, it appears to be, as you say, entirely mistaken. But let’s consider a less extreme case. Suppose you had to choose between living in a world of frequent earthquakes, tsunamis and famines but where one’s fellow citizens were all full of empathy, concern and solidarity, and a world free of such natural disasters but peopled by egoistical cheaters with no sense of ethics. Suppose further that objectively there was less suffering in world two : longer healthy life expectancy amongst other criteria.
      Is the choice still clear?

  4. I find this stuff fascinating, partly because it fits really intuitively in some arenas (I think) but not in others. At large scales I think it’s very compelling – the acid test of any big policy “system” is the results it delivers – the intentions of the agents behind it are secondary (eg the good intentions that underpinned actually existing communist societies didn’t stop communist governments from creating a road to hell). But I find the idea that intentions don’t matter less compelling at the small scale. There seems to me – and the criminal justice system – a world of difference between(a) a car driver who accidentally kills a pedestrian and (b) one who deliberately mows someone down. I think intentionality matters hugely in that case.

    I can think of a couple of relevant replies here that could fold some of intention back into “consequence”: (1) the risk in (b) is far greater than in (a) since the pedestrian in (a) just got unlucky whereas the pedestrian in (b) faced a far higher probability risk (that the malevolent driver had reasonable odds of success). So if the “consequences” you evaluate are thought of probabilistically, then (b) is worse than (a), since 10^6 events of someone driving past a pedestrian might result in a single a-like event, while 10^6 events of someone mowing someone else down might require a large number of body-bags. Thus b-like events are worse than a-like events. Secondly, you could include the psychological effects of bad intenions on victims/families as part of the consequences. These moves would allow both terms in the risk equation to go up with intention, while retaining intention only as a factor in consequences, and while keeping intenions outside of the way you actually choose to evaluate (morally, whatever) events. [You kind of leave the door open at the end of your post – “The significance of intention, then, has perhaps been exaggerated by certain moral philosophers. Bad intention may indeed be bad; but it’s not very bad.” How bad? Is the adness of intention a (smallish) constant fraction in all cases, or is it a varying quantity depending on the circumstances? If so, can you give us a rough functional form?]

  5. Thanks again to both of you. Your case is a tricky one, Anthony, but it trades to some extent on the fact that intentions do of course often influence actions or behaviour. It may well be better *for people* to live among well-intentioned others. But that’s only one good among others, and the good in question is anyway to do with well-being not morality.

    Naturally, I have the same intuitions as you about the cyclist case, David. But if morality itself has developed in large part because of the good outcomes it brings about, we can see why those intuitions might have emerged. As you say, bad intentions tend to produce bad outcomes, so we’re going to be down on them. And, as you point out, the value of our relationships seems to depend on the intentions of the parties, or at least how they’re perceived. Again, however, that isn’t moral value. At the end, you ask me to put my cards on the table. Fair enough: I think bad intentions don’t, in themselves, matter at all! All that matters is how well or badly the lives of sentient individuals go for them (and though there may be distributive principles that should govern the distribution of good and bad things, they’re independent of intention at all levels).

  6. I’ve always found it strange that we punish attempted murder less than actual murder. Is it just rewarding people for incompetence? Or does it provide some kind of incentive to stay one’s hand at the last moment?

    Probably it has more to do with a vengeance-based rather than prevention-based system of punishment. Which, as a consequentialist, I think is very silly.

  7. Thanks, all.

    Jeremy: I haven’t read Harris’s book, but like him I am impressed by the Libet and other experiments, as well as the non-experimental, a priori arguments for so-called ‘hard determinism’ (consider e.g. Galen Strawson’s ‘Basic Argument’ ( My argument, however, is that even if libertarianism about free will is true, intentions don’t matter very much.

    Julia: I’m inclined to agree.

    CKP: An outcome is morally worse (perhaps only partly) in so far as it contains more that is blameworthy. So what I’m claiming is that blameworthiness doesn’t matter much.

  8. Roger,

    How would you go about prescribing moral actions if intentions were unimportant?

    1. They’re unimportant in themselves. But they tend to have bad outcomes. So we should condemn them for that reason.

  9. But surely if all that matters is how ‘well’ we live, then to condemn someone for a bad intention – even if they have yet to cause any suffering – would be a gross injustice? If I were to take the position that my intentions didn’t – in themselves – matter whatsoever, then I would feel particularly hard done by to be ‘condemned’ for having caused no pain – which is what really counts.

    And what do you mean by ‘tend’ to have bad outcomes? What is the probability necessary to make someone more or less likely?

    Lets say a criminal is hell bent on causing pain and will jump at any opportunity to do so. He is given this opportunity to cause suffering in the form of pressing a button which has a particular set chance of causing pain, and of course the criminal jumps to it (he isn’t selective about what the success rate is for his actions). At what percentage probability does the button need to be set at before the criminal’s intention of pushing the button make him blameworthy? 1%, 5%, 50.1%? If it’s 5% for example, is 0.1% difference between 4.9% and 5% really the difference between a good and a bad intention – a moral and a non-moral person? Condemnation and no condemnation? Where should the limit be set?

    1. Thx Jeremy. As I see it, blaming is just a way of attempting to influence behaviour. There’s never any reason actually to blame someone except in so far as such blaming has certain consequences. And there’s no independent notion of blameworthiness in play. I think you’re right that this view commits me to blaming the innocent, and not blaming the guilty, in various scenarios. But I think also that even common sense will allow both in extreme circumstances.

  10. Interesting!

    I feel I should end the discussion here because it would be far too taxing on our time otherwise. Many thanks Roger.

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