Monday, 31 October 2011

Intentions and Consequences


Most of us have heard the famous old saying: “The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions” or words to that effect. This quotation presents to us a very important view in terms of ethical theory, for it denotes that intention is not what provides moral worth to an act. Those theories which base the good of an act on the intention are known as the non-consequentialist theories for the simple fact that they do not consider the outcome of an act as being important in deciding its moral worth. The debate between Consequentialism and Non-Consequentialism has raged in ethics for many years and is perhaps one of the most core debates in the whole of ethical philosophy: Is it the intention or the outcome of an act which determines if it is good?

It is difficult to reconcile both of these different views together and ethics must be based on one or the other. Though some theories, such as Virtue theory, would argue that we can base morality on the person committing the act, I still think that it is important to consider these two opposed sides of the argument, despite my own personal opinion being in concordance with that of Virtue Ethics.

There are many ethical theories for each side of this argument and therefore, to keep things simple, I shall write about two of the most well known theories, one for each side of this argument.

To name perhaps the best known example of a consequentiality theory, we can look at the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which states that what is good is what brings the greatest intensity of pleasure to the most amount of people. His theory has been adapted many times (we have Positive Utilitarianism, Negative Utilitarianism, Act Utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism, and many many more) but the core Utilitarianism ideal is the Hedonic calculus, a theoretical calculator which you use to measure the pleasure and pain caused by an action (taking into account factors such as intensity, the number of people effected, the duration, as well as several other things).

This is opposed by a Deontological theory as put forwards by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Deontology is a group of ethical theories concerned with various ideas of duty and they consider acts to only be ethical if our intention is to live up to these duties and thus are by default non-consequentialist. Here I could go into Kant’s theories in detail but I don’t feel I need to in order to communicate the basic idea: Duty. All deontological theories base the worth of acts upon living up to our duties, though the theories don’t tend to agree on what our duties are.

Let us consider one of the main objections to the idea of having a consequentialist theory which is the simple barrier that stands between us and the future. Simply, we do not know the future and, therefore, we cannot be held accountable for the unforeseeable results of our actions. This is not to say that we can just keep doing things that could harm many many people and argue that we did not know for certain that it would hurt them, but instead it says that we cannot be held accountable if our actions lead to a result that we had no way of having known.

A response to this would be that the moral agent who committed and act would be responsible for the consequences of what they did. But then again, can we blame someone for causing something they did not intent to cause and who also had no way of knowing what actually happened? Some would say that there is someone to blame in every circumstance but personally I think that it is almost barbaric to hold someone accountable on the grounds that they caused something without intention or knowledge that it could happen.

Personally, I favour the arguments for the intention of the act being the standard against which we measure the goodness of certain acts. Honestly, I think that if we had the ability to see fully the consequences of our acts then I would consider it differently and I would judge it necessary to attribute the responsibility to the one who undertook the act. However, as we are unable to perceive the future with such clarity as we perceive the present, we cannot hold people responsible for the consequences of their actions that they could not have possibly predicted.

There is a lot more depth and breadth to this topic, but I see fit to end it here, with my aim of sharing my views on the topic being fulfilled. Consider the question for yourselves, see what you make of this summary and then go on and investigate this vast topic in more depth.

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