“Don’t Judge!” ….Can We Judge Intentions?

By Jon|March 23, 2016|Philosophy|

(Just a note, I am writing this article partly for my own benefit and so, please don’t ‘judge’ it according to full academic standards. That’s not my purpose here; it is, however, to speak philosophy in layman’s terms)

“Don’t judge!” We’ve all heard it, but what does it mean, and why do people say it so often? 

I think what is usually meant, is something to the effect of “don’t presume you know my intentions!” We obviously can’t get inside the head of another person and know exactly how they are feeling and what is motivating them to be and act how they are. So then that means we can only judge what they do according to how it affects us, right?

But do we really not know anything about their intentions? How much do we know? This semester I am taking a class with Dr. Stephen Jensen about two major theories of human action – Thomas Aquinas and Stephen Bennett. In this article I will just outline the major points of his paper “Getting Inside the Acting Person”.

Jonathan Bennett, who wrote “The Act Itself,” thinks that intentions are an entirely private affair. Actions are physical events that occur, and the physical events are the only thing we have to judge others’ behavior – not to judge them as good or bad people, but just as relatively good or bad physical consequences of their behavior. No one is really responsible for what they “do” because they can’t change how they behave (he’s a determinist), and so to judge their intentions as good or bad is to blame or praise them for something they didn’t freely bring about in the world. They make think that they freely brought it about, but its an illusion.

On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas believed that the intention someone has in doing an action can make the action good or bad, even if it brings about the same physical results in both cases. The “New Natural Law” are self-proclaimed supporters of this view and argue generally that we can know very little from the outside about someone’s intentions, though its still important what those intentions are. Dr. Jensen, of course is also a Thomist, but not of that NNL sort.

Dr. Jensen has has another view on the matter, which I’ll try to summarize below. But first, consider these two examples

  1. Soldier 1 is ordered to block the enemy from invading his country by blowing up a bridge. He destroys the a bridge which kills an innocent child standing on the bridge (physical action), but his intention was to destroy the bridge, not to kill innocent girl (moral action).
  2. Soldier 2  shoots the innocent girl standing on the bridge (physical action) so that she will fall on the detonator and blow up the bridge (moral action).

In the first case, how do we know that the the soldier intends to destroy the bridge and not the girl? And the second case, how do we know he intends to kill the girl and not the bridge?

Bennett: Intention doesn’t matter morally anyways (it helps us evaluate ‘apparent’ responsibility, not actions, because no one can control how they act. We know the “intention” based on his awareness of the possible effects of his behavior, but even then it doesn’t help us. The physical act is what really matters.

New Natural Law: Intention matters, and soldier 1, for example, could be destroying the bridge (physical act) and intending to blow up the bridge, but he could also be intending to kill the girl by means of blowing up the bridge. This is something we would never know. Soldier 2 likewise could shoot the girl and intend it, but he could also do it intending only to blow up the bridge and not to kill the girl. In other words, we can’t know the soldier’s intention only by looking at the effects of his behavior – soldier 1 and 2 could be having either of the two likely intentions (or even other intentions). Intentions are private.

Jensen: Soldier 1 and 2’s awareness of how their actions will affect the world are not separable from their intention and are knowable, to some degree, based on their external behavior – which are signs of intention. Causal structures in the world (awareness that a bullet going through a girls brain will make her drop to the ground) are what form our deliberation process, and our deliberation process in large part forms our intention, and the intention (which pulls the trigger) executes those causes we are aware of. So in other words, the physical action that takes place as a result of the person’s behavior, is a fairly dependable sign of what the person intended.

Why? Exterior actions are effects of intentions.

Joe is pounding nails into his roof.

He foresees, wants, and intends that the nails are secured in wood, and foresees that they make a noise, but may or may not want that they do so, and certainly doesn’t intend that action to make a noise. 

But how do we know he is intending to pound nails in rather than to make a noise? Both effects are caused by his action.

There are two ways, Jensen answers:

  1. Causal structures can be the causes of our intention in the sense that a) we can’t choose to do something impossible, and b) one awareness of a cause in nature that takes less effort may also appeal to us more than another. In other words (a), using a rubber band to blow up the bridge isn’t possible and neither is lighting a match and throwing it in the river. In this sense, the causes in the world impose themselves on what we intend and eliminate certain options. This is why we can’t fully describe the intention of blowing up the bridge by killing the girl as MERELY blowing up the bridge – because the way it was brought about required, from the soldiers perspective, the killing of the girl. This is a negative limit to what can be intended. Second (b) we become aware of causal structures and others appeal to us more than others, like realising that wheels involve less friction when transporting wood than dragging the wood also forms our intention. But these observations don’t cause the person to act, they are just deliberated about in choosing a means to accomplish the person’s goal (end). 
  2. Causal structures are also effects of our intention, because by them we bring about causes in the world. This is in actually doing the action, there is a new causal structure that results from soldier 1 pulling the trigger – the bullet leaves the gun, and drops the innocent child. So Jensen claims that the connection (that order which is chosen from the structure) is both a cause of intention by forming through excluding certain options and revealing others, and the effect of intention, in the sense that the intention is the cause of our actions — and the effects follow these structures.

But causal connections (as causes) by themselves are not enough yet to be a sign of the intention, because there’s no evidence one would choose one over another until you combine it with the causal connections as effects and insufficient visa versa. The intention of the person, if the act is successfully performed, is always going to be among the effects of the intention. So we just have to look among the effects. We can easily throw out possibilities that soldier 1 intended to scare the neighbors cat–there’s something in the man’s reasoning that is now an effect. But can we really tell that he intended to kill the girl? Why can’t we describe his action as just “blowing up the bridge by setting off the detonator”? Isn’t killing the girl just a side effect? New Natural Law interpretors of Aquinas want to say so.

But there is a problem with this view. 1) to accomplish a goal, you need to select a means. In order to destroy the bridge, SOMETHING has to be done and when that thing starts happening, the person acting has stopped deliberating about it and is actually doing it. Second, the soldier can’t just skip over THAT THING, into destroying the bridge, just like you can’t boil water and skip the part of deliberation that tells you that you need water in the pot as well as to turn the stove on.

But maybe he fired the gun to scare the girl so she only falls on the detonator, but not hurt her? Well if that were the case then he wouldn’t have pointed the gun straight at her.

But there are two things that weaken our ability to know someone’s intention. One is the failure to execute the action intended because of an inability. For example if someone trips with a beer in their hand (not saying its happened) — then people might think you intend a lot less than you actually do… Also if soldier 2 was not very good at shooting a rifle and shot the girl in the leg, it would be more difficult to tell. Second, there could be a failure in deliberation, where the person thinks their actions will bring about certain effects that they wont. An example would be when someone actually is drunk and spills their beer all over someone:

Ok, well that might have been the most interesting part of this article to some people…but now let’s tie everything together.

Jensen says that the causal structures of actions are effects of intention…Some of the causal structures of action are directly intended, so that the appearance of a causal chain within an action provides at least the possibility it was intended. From these causal structures, we can determine more precisely what was intended, because the causal structures themselves serve, in deliberation, as causes of intention; causal structures are the material conditions out of which intentions are made. Therefore, the intended causes must accomplish the goal, and no causal link essential for accomplishing the goal can be skipped and left outside intention.

But how do we guess the exact goal from the many other things that are brought about by the action? To look at the girl’s death and suggest that the soldier wanted to shoot the bridge is not likely because it doesn’t do anything, but its a little more likely that he was trying to hit a bird or something in flight above the detonator. So we need to observe the scene well, aware that the person could only fail in his knowledge of what his actions could bring about and failure to execute the goal. We can also guess from actual effects that there was another goal…like when someone starts running but fails to escape an attack. We need not worry if the agent was successful because we can often perceive the failure through other effects brought about by intention.

The answer to the title’s question ends up being – practically we can judge intentions. Can we be certain all the time? No.

So this article is helpful for understanding Aquinas’ view on the matter because of course it supplies the textual citations to back up the claim. If you want to read it in full is available here, but at a price. As for Jonathan Bennett….well, you can see my summary of what he thinks about intentions here. Ironically, his view is far more common among modern philosophers, but almost non-existent among human beings.

I hoped you had fun judging my intentions by the keystrokes on this page.








About Jon

Jon connects leaders and organizations to Catholic philosophical resources to battle for the soul of the western world.