Intentions don’t matter

Utilitarianism is the idea that an act is justified to the extent it maximizes happiness. To a utilitarian, happiness is the only thing that matters. Everything else in life, whether it be freedom, equality, justice or virtue is purely instrumental to increasing happiness.

I have come to accept utilitarianism. The idea that freedom, justice and equality are subservient to maximizing happiness strikes me as reasonable. I’m sure it does not strike everyone that way. I wish I could provide you a 10-step proof as to why utilitarianism is the correct moral theory, but I’m not that ambitious.

One area I’d like to focus on today is the importance of intentions. For some approaches to ethics, the intention of the actor matters a great deal. “Was the man trying to kill his wife or did he do it by accident?” Utilitarianism is a teleological moral theory, which means it is only interested in end states. “Did the act increase happiness or not?”

The question is, do intentions matter in a utilitarian framework? If intentions merely mean what the actor hoped would happen, then no, intentions don’t matter. Utilitarianism is not interested in the disposition of the actor but rather in the predictable consequence of his act. Under utilitarianism, a moral agent has a responsibility to learn facts about the world so he can more accurately guess the effects of his decisions. However, the theory does not require the agent to consciously increase utility.

Consider this: what is the likely outcome of pointing a loaded gun at someone and pulling the trigger? It’s quite likely the person will die. Are there alternatives available to the subject? Yes, he can put the gun down, which results in no deaths. From this knowledge we can say that the subject committed an immoral act if he pulled the trigger: he did something likely to cause great suffering even when he had an alternative course of action which produced much less suffering.

But shouldn’t we make a moral distinction between deliberate murder and involuntary manslaughter? Only to the extent that the murderer or would-be murderer performs acts likely to increase suffering. If I have a malevolent neighbor who tries to kill me by casting a spell on me or by saying a few magic words, he is not doing anything immoral from a utilitarian point of view because his acts are not likely to cause suffering. The fact that he wishes me dead is irrelevant. On the other hand, if I have a beneficent neighbor who kills me because he wants to whisk me away to heaven, he is guilty of an immoral act. The fact that he intended for me to live in paradise is irrelevant. He had no good reason to think this would happen.

Before I go on, I think I’ll pause here to ask if there are any objections to what I’ve written. I’m afraid that I am so wedded to utilitarianism that it’s difficult to tell which parts of the theory seem reasonable to non-utilitarians and which do not.


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