So you’ve been introduced to the difference between a Consequentialist and a Deontological perspective on the question–“What actions are morally right/wrong?” in W03 Right and Wrong. Something that might have occurred to you is this: What exactly is the significance of intentions to the two major perspectives? (As I work through the Q/A for W03, I see similar questions raised.)

Often enough, many students will think that the difference between the Deontological and the Consequentialist perspectives is that while the agent’s intentions matter to the former, it doesn’t matter to the latter. That’s not quite right.

In response to one student, Mr Jeremias Koh (one of my previous tutors), wrote a long reply in which I was copied. I thought that it is very good and so decided to reuse large parts of it, with his permission, plus additional material in the post I created that semester. The below is an updated version.

Let me begin with one basic way in which the agent’s intentions matter to both the Deontological and the Consequentialist perspectives on moral right/wrong. Both theories set out to evaluate actions for their morality, rather than just any old happening. Your consciously taking a walk in the park is an action. Your stomach digesting food is not. Franz’s telling scary Nazi where the Rosenbergs are hiding is an action. Sweaty Franz’s perspiring is not. Typically, all parties assume that if it’s an action, there is an intention that’s behind the behavior–it’s not just a bodily movement, but something that is guided by the agent’s thoughts and desires. Non-actions too, can lead to good or bad outcomes for the world. For instance, Sweaty Franz’s perspiration led to a bad outcome for the Rosenbergs. But the parties to the debate agree that their theories are in the business of evaluating actions, not just any old happening. So at one level, the question whether the presence of an intention matters to either or both perspectives, the answer is, typically, it matters to both.

But there is a different question as well–Does what the agent’s intention is matter to the moral evaluation of the action in question? Let’s first consider what the Deontologist will say. As you recall, for her, the moral status of an action is a matter of how it relates to categorical (i.e. no matter the consequences) norms. For example, if our Deontologist holds that there is a categorical duty not to tell lies, then she would say that we should never tell a lie, no matter the consequences. Ok, but there are at least two ways to understand what that duty amounts to.

(A) If by “tell a lie”, you mean “assert something that is, in fact, a falsehood, whether or not the speaker believes that it is a falsehood and intended to assert a falsehood”, then you get one sort of duty. Someone who sincerely believes that p, even though p is false, will be “telling a lie” when he asserts that p–given this interpretation of the duty. Given such a duty, there is an important sense in which what the agent’s intention is in speaking doesn’t matter when trying to figure out if he fulfilled or violated the duty.

(B) If, on the other hand, by “tell a lie”, you mean “knowingly, deliberately assert something the speaker believes to be false”–and this is the natural way to understand the concept–then what the agent’s intention was in saying whatever he said matters  when trying to figure out if he fulfilled or violated the duty.

So in short, the correct answer to the initial question–Does what the agent’s intention is matters to the Deontologist’s moral evaluation of the action in question?–is that it depends on the duties recognized by the Deontologist, e.g., whether those duties are more like (A) or (B). To be fair, the (B) version is more typical. (I also called something like (A) a more “naïve” version of Deontology.)

What about the Consequentialists? For them, the moral status of an action is all about how it relates to the goodness of its outcome for the world. For example, if you ask a Consequentialist whether it is morally wrong for you to lie to your mother about how much money you have, the Consequentialist would tell you that the morally right thing to do is to whatever brings about the best overall outcome for the world. If telling the truth brings about a better outcome for the world than lying, then the right thing to do is to tell the truth. But if lying brings about a better outcome for the world than telling the truth, then the right thing to do is to lie.

Yes, it’s often hard to know what course of action will actually bring about the best overall outcome for the world, because we’re not omniscient and do not have all the facts beforehand. However, this just means that there is a severe limit regarding what we can know as morally right. In any case, the point of the theory is to give us a way to define which actions are right. The fact that it doesn’t also give us a way to figure out which action is right beforehand just tells us that maybe this wasn’t what the theory set out to do. More about this in the next post.

The one came up in a later Q/A which I thought belongs here as well:

As a deontologist, is having no intention to save others the same as having the intention to harm others?

It will depend on the context though. You can have no intention to do X in the sense that whether or not to do X isn’t even an issue. You were walking down the street and didn’t even see the guy seeking for donations for his charity–and that’s one way in which you can have no intentions to donate. But suppose he came up to you and you saw him, etc., and you walked away. Then this lack of intention is a lot more like an intention to not do something. And that kind of “not doing something” can, in principle, be the direct cause of a harm. Imagine that you are the third little pig and when your brothers come frantically knocking on your brick house’s door to escape from the big bad wolf and you had no intention of opening…