Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

Morality and Action | September 17, 2008

There is a degree to which it is irrelevant what motive a person has for an action, as long as they know they should do it, and at least attempt to do it. Morality is reliant on purpose. Without it, the result merely becomes random byproduct. Consider: A man casts a fishing line and, thinking he’s caught a fish, reels the line in. It turns out he has hooked the shirt of a drowning girl, and so ended up pulling her to safety. Is this moral? The outcome was certainly good, but how could morality be deduced from random chance? Morality is dependent on cause and effect, because what rule could we say applied to the fisherman? That you should fish and hope you save someone’s life? That doesn’t seem to make any sense.

In the case of the two men, each who save a girl from drowning, but for different reasons, both actions are good, because both intended to save the girl and made steps towards enacting it, whether or not one was successful. Even the man who saves the girl’s life because he wants attention from women understands the moral concept behind his action: he should save the girl. The reason he thinks women will like this is because they will conclude he is a good person, which he is prettending to be. (You can say he is lying then, which is another issue, but that doesn’t detract from the morality of his saving the girl’s life.) Intention to perform a moral action or obtain a moral outcome are neccessary for the action or outcome to be moral at all.

Consider the man who gives money to a false charity, unintentionally causing children to be poinsoned. The consequence was not intended, but it was still bad. In the case of the two men who tried to save the girls’ lives intention was important, only in that they intended a good outcome by their actions. The man who gave moeny to a charity that turned out to be a murder plot still intended a positive action, an action that by utilitarianism would be good (had it turned out like he’d intended). Consequences are important in that the intended consequence of an action should be good, and the person should genuinely try to make it occure. Whether or not the outcome is as intended is more dependent on ability to perform than moral failing. (In the case of the two men, one was able to save the girl and the other was too slow, though through no fault of his own. As for the man who donated to the evil charity, he may have been duped but that is more an issue of stupidity. Is it immoral to be stupid?)

So I see it as a sort of half-and-half situation. Intention is neccessary for an action to be judged morally at all, but it can only be good if the intended consequence is good (this “good consequence” can potentially be judged to be the consequence that brings about greatest happiness). So in a way, Utilitarianism can be reworked to actually include intention. ( 😛 Boone. Beat that.)

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1 Comment »

  1. Is that a challenge?

    As we’ll discuss over the course of the next few classes, and especially when we start talking about Kant’s moral theory, it’s not as simple as saying that it’s a “half-and-half situation” with respect to the importance of intention and consequence on morality. For the utilitarian, at least, the only thing that matters is an action’s effect on overall happiness. If you have a theory that takes into account what happens before an action, you are no longer a utilitarian. In order to incorporate intention into utilitarianism, then, you’d have to figure out a predictable relationship between intention and consequences, in effect defining the former in terms of the latter in order to establish its utilitarian legitimacy.

    Comment by Boone B. Gorges — September 18, 2008 @ 8:36 am


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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.

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