Intentions and consequences

Intentions and consequences

Let’s imagine that you’re driving along in a car. You’re slightly over the speed-limit, but you’re on a straight length of road, without any houses around. It’s also early in the morning, and there are no other cars nearby. You are in no way driving recklessly. You’ve done the same route many times before, and you’ve never run into trouble. But this morning you don’t spot a small pothole in the road. Your front wheel hits it, and you lose control of the car. The car skids around and around, and you watch with horror as a bus stop veers into view. You crash into it, and in doing so, hit two school children waiting for their ride to school. One is seriously injured, the other killed outright.
How do we judge this action? Can we say that you have done something wrong? Or does the fact that it was an accident absolve you from all blame? Certainly, as a result of your actions, someone has ended up suffering – not just the two school children, but their families, friends, school communities, and so on. But it’s not like you killed them in a drive by shooting, gunning them down in cold blood. You were driving along as you always do, and due to terrible unforeseen circumstances, ended up injuring two complete strangers. Should you be punished? Should you be made to pay for the injury and death caused?

Consequentialism and Deontologicalism

There are two very different ways of judging actions that are carried out by fully sentient human beings – in other words, fully mature adults, responsible for the choices they make themselves. (Actions carried out by children or young adolescents are harder to assess, so we’ll leave them out for now). First, we can say that as a direct result of your actions, two people ended up suffering. No one else was responsible: you were driving the car, you lost control of it, you inflicted the injury and death on the two children. In other words, you are judged by the consequences of your actions.
The second view would be to assess you on your intention. Did you mean to kill a school child and seriously injure her best friend that morning? Or did it happen due to circumstances entirely beyond your control – the pot hole, the physics of a rapidly rotating motor vehicle, the awful coincidence of two children queuing up for a bus at precisely the wrong moment? Of course not. It was absolutely not your intention, so you should not be held accountable. Perhaps you were breaking the speed limit, but who doesn’t? And the circumstances seemed to warrant you driving in exactly that way.
If we ascribe to the first way of judging actions, we agree with the principles of consequentialism. An action is judged to be good or bad on the basis of its outcome. If other people suffer, it is wrong. If people benefit, it is right.
The second type of moral judgement is given the slightly more complex term of deontologicalism.  This involves basing any intrinsic right or wrong on the intention to act rather than what happens afterwards.


One form of consequentialism is Utilitarianism, a philosophical belief developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarianism is also known as the greatest happiness principle, and is based on the simple idea that an action’s worth should be measured solely by the amount of happiness it brings about. Mill drew a distinction between pleasure and happiness, arguing that it was the latter of these two states that people should seek to promote, as happiness can only be generated by virtuous acts, whereas many people take pleasure from dubious pastimes that might not create any significant happiness.
Utilitarianism is considered to consequentialist because any action must be decided upon based on its outcome. If, for example, it seems likely that a lie may lead to an outcome producing happiness (for example, telling a child that Santa Claus exists), then the lie should be told.
One modern utilitarian, Peter Singer, extends the assessment of likely outcomes to include not just human beings, but any animal that is conscious of pain. He argues that actions affecting them should be considered just as important as those that affect us.

The Categorical Imperative

The figure most connected with deontological beliefs is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), widely regarded as the greatest philosopher since classical times for the way he bridged the gap between empiricism and rationalism. Kant’s moral code was based on the concept of the categorical imperative, which was a rigid set of rules amounting to a duty for all sentient beings to carry out. This duty was to ask yourself what kind of a world you wanted to live in, and live according to that – hoping that it would become a universally accepted way of behaving. So Kant believed that actions in themselves were either virtuous or not, and had nothing to do with their outcome. For example, to lie is always wrong, whatever the circumstances, because we will never create a perfect world unless lies no longer exist.
The consequentialist view is much more pragmatic, compared to the more uncompromising principle of deontologicalism. But both can be defended very effectively, so as always, it’s a hard call to make deciding which one you ascribe to yourself.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Intentions and consequences (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 23rd February 2017


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