The Problem of Intention
It often seems quite
natural to us to say that we should judge people depending on what they
intended to do rather than just what they ended up doing. Hence we can convict
people for ‘attempted murder’ even if they failed to carry out the deed and, on
the other side of the coin, we differentiate murder from manslaughter when
someone has died by the ‘killer’ didn’t actually mean to do it.
However, it is actually quite
difficult to clarify exactly what intention is, and how it explains human
actions. The following situations point up this difficulty:
Your enemy is traveling on an airplane; you insure his life
and place a bomb on the plane, timed to explode in flight. Do you also intend
to kill the other passengers? When you intend an action, do you intend all the consequences
of that action?
If you say you did not know there would be other passengers
are you thereby exonerated? Do you intend what you ought to know? In
that case, did all Germans intend to torture their victims in the concentration
camps? Did Einstein intend the destruction of
Your enemy comes to lunch; you offer him a drink of water
and you say to yourself, I wish it were poisoned. He suddenly drops dead. You
later discover that poison had somehow gotten into the water supply. Did you
intend his death? Does desire equal intention? or
is something also required?
You decide to kill your enemy, who lives in the next town.
You get your gun, jump into your car, and drive there. On the way, you
accidentally run over and kill a man, who turns out to be your enemy. Can you intend
the end or goal, but not the particular means?
You are mountain climbing with your friend, and your
ineptitude causes his accidental death. Suppose you later discover, through
psychoanalysis or introspection, that you really hated him. Can you have an intention
and not be aware of it?
Are we always the best judges of our own intentions? Albert
Speer asserts in his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, that he went back
Can you intend an action if you are drunk? drugged? brainwashed? hypnotized? sleepwalking? Must an
intentional action be consciously intended?
Oedipus intended to marry Jocasta;
unknown to him, she was his mother. Did he intend to marry his mother? Can what
you know be an element of intention?
Can you intend to win at roulette? Can you intend (for the
tenth time!) to give up smoking? Is ability an ingredient of intention
or is hope enough? or must that hope be a rational
10. You come upon your enemy
lying down and you shoot him. (I’m sorry these examples are all so gory.) But
it turns out that he was already dead. Can you intend the impossible? (Can
you intend to find the greatest prime?)
11. Suppose your enemy was
falling from the top of the
12. The price of movie
admissions goes up, and you decide not to go. Can you intend not to do
something? Intentionally not acting may be called forbearance.
13. Kitty Genovese was
murdered on the night of March 16, 1964, on a Street in Forest Hills, New York,
and no fewer than thirty-eight people living in apartment houses nearby heard
her scream and saw her trying to escape; not one person intervened or even called
the police. Did these onlookers intend her murder? If you, a good swimmer,
ignore the cries of someone in the water calling for help, do you intend that he
drown? What if you are a poor swimmer? Can you intentionally not act when
you may be said to have a moral obligation?
14. Old Karamazov was killed
by his epileptic servant Smerdyakov; but Smerdyakov made Ivan realize, afterward, that it was he,
Ivan, who wanted his old father dead: Smerdyakov was
only carrying out Ivan’s intention. Can you intend that someone else act?
Can you intend someone else’s action?
15. When may intentional
behavior be equated with the following of rules? When you play chess, is
every move intended to checkmate your opponent? Can you “play chess” and intend
16. Is behavior intentional
when it is persistently directed toward a goal? Are bird migrations
intentional? the motions of a sunflower?
17. So much crime and
violence seem wanton, purposeless, unmotivated, Hannah Arendt has coined the
phrase “the banality of evil.” Is stealing or shooting “just for the hell of
18. As you are walking
downstairs, you trip, and thrust your hand out to break the fall. Was your
action intentional or reflexive? (Can the knee jerk reflex ever be
19. As you are driving your car, a dog suddenly
runs in front of you; you slam on the brakes. Was your action intentional or reactive?
(Unlike the case of a knee jerk reflex, you have a motive.)
20. A commuter on a railroad,
disgusted by the heat, dirt, delays, and crowds, decides on the spur of the
moment to refuse to pay his fare. Is his action intentional or impulsive? (Note
that there has been no deliberation.)
21. You are a kleptomaniac
and cannot resist “swiping” something from a department store counter. Is your
behavior intentional or compulsive?
22. At dinner, you are asked
to pass the salt, and you do. Is your action intentional or conventional?
23. You are a chain smoker
and reach for a cigarette. Is your action intentional or habitual?
24. The telephone rings while
you are working and you reach to answer it. Is your action intentional or automatic?
25. Income tax time has come
around again; you hate to pay taxes, but you do. Is your behavior intentional
or obligatory? Or, your child is kidnaped, and
a ransom is demanded. Is your payment intentional or coerced?
These examples illustrate
the idea that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to
pinpoint a mental act called intention. In Latin intendo
(arcum) means “I aim (my bow).” It was thought
that the mind could somehow be aimed or directed at a target; the usage
survives in “this is what I aim to do.” But, like trying to isolate the act of
“volition” by subtracting “my arm goes up” from “I raise my arm,” isolating the
act or entity called “intention” seems hopeless. Like other “states of
consciousness”, intention seems intuitively clear at the outset, but becomes
under scrutiny quite hazy.
Adapted from Reuben Abel’s ‘Man is the Measure’ (Chapter 20)