Intention Essay

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The ability to form intentions allows people to commit themselves to actions in advance and to make complex decisions about circumstances they might face in the future in which there would be no time to deliberate. It also allows individuals to engage in long-term planning and implementation of projects that are possible only with the cooperation of others or their own future selves. In criminal justice, establishing intention is often critical in determining whether an action constitutes a crime, and sometimes the degree to which an offender is guilty. Establishing intention, however, is problematic.

For example, one night as John is locking up his bistro it begins to rain and he notices that Mary, a regular customer, in her hurry to catch a cab has left behind a valuable manuscript on one of his patio tables. Unable to get her attention before the cab departs, John forms the intention to return the manuscript to her the next day. Intending to keep it dry and out of the rain, he quickly picks up the manuscript and conceals it under his jacket. When John returns home, it occurs to him that he might forget to bring the manuscript with him the next day, and, intending to remind himself to bring it, he places the manuscript on his kitchen table so that he will see it when he eats breakfast, as usual, the next morning. He then sets his alarm and goes to bed, but unfortunately the power goes out and resets John’s alarm. The next day John awakes late and in his hurry to get to work he skips breakfast and forgets to take the manuscript with him.

As the cab pulls away, Mary notices that she has unintentionally left her manuscript behind, and looks back to where she had been sitting to see the bistro’s proprietor, John, apparently hide the manuscript in his coat and take off running. Mary, believing she has been robbed, calls the police and arranges for them to meet her at the bistro the next day to confront John.

In this example, John forms a number of intentions—first, to return the manuscript to Mary the next day; second, to protect the manuscript from the rain; and third, to remind himself to bring it to work the next day, should he forget, by putting the manuscript in a place he believes he will see it. As it so happens, John only succeeds in protecting the manuscript from the rain.

Because Mary is not privy to John’s inherently private mental states, she comes to believe that John has intentionally stolen the valuable manuscript; after all, the actions Mary observed are consistent with John intending to steal the manuscript and she knows the manuscript is valuable, a ripe target for thieves and opportunists. Most moral philosophers believe that John’s intentions are relevant to explaining his moral responsibility for his actions; in this case John is presumably morally praiseworthy for taking the manuscript home because he does so in an effort to return it to Mary; however, had John taken the manuscript home intending to deprive Mary of her property, presumably he would be morally blameworthy.


It is useful to distinguish between three forms of intentionality. First, one can form an intention about the future—in the example above, John intends to return the manuscript the following day. Second, one can act with, or on, certain intentions—John intentionally places the manuscript under his jacket. Third, one’s actions can be intentional under certain descriptions—John’s action of placing the manuscript on the table was intentional; meanwhile, it makes sense to say that John intentionally skipped breakfast and intentionally hurried to work, but it does not make sense to say that his leaving the manuscript at home was intentional.

It is clear from the above case that intending to do something is distinct from the action of actually doing it; John intends to return the manuscript the next day but fails to do so. Intending to do something is also different from believing that one will, in fact, do it. For example, an archer may intend to hit a bull’s-eye even while harboring serious doubts that she will succeed in doing so. Such an archer might do everything within her power to hit the bull’s-eye and fail because of circumstances outside of her control, such as an unexpected gust of wind. She may also fail because of circumstances outside of her control at the time, such as her lack of skill. Furthermore, an individual might form an intention to do something in the future that would be entirely in his control to fulfill at some future time while still believing that he will fail. For example, after a troubling medical exam, a patient might form the intention to try to exercise more often, even if she is aware that in similar situations in the past she formed similar intentions but failed to follow through with them. Some philosophers believe that to form an intention one must at the very least believe it is possible to achieve what one intends.

Michael Bratman contends that intentions are practical attitudes notable for their role in planning for the future. Intentions, for Bratman, involve desires, although not every desire is sufficient to form an intention. To have an intention to perform some action does not require that one have a complete plan of action to achieve that something; often how one plans to achieve one’s intended goals are fleshed out over time. For example, John intends to return the manuscript the next day, and when he returns home he comes up with a plan to remind himself to take the manuscript—by placing it on the kitchen table so he will see it, and be reminded, when he eats breakfast the next day.

Donald Davidson argues that intentions are evaluative; to intend to do x is to judge x desirable or worth doing. However, this view is contentious; many ethicists believe that it is possible to intend to do something freely that one believes is morally wrong and has judged to be, all else being equal, undesirable. Recently Ishtiyaque Haji has argued that an essential characteristic of certain reasons is the ability to do otherwise. If such reasons produce a moral obligation to form an intention to x, individuals must have the ability not to form this intention. While in some cases people may be able to refrain unintentionally from intending to x, it doesn’t make sense to say this in all cases. Thus, it must be possible to intentionally refrain from doing what reason dictates to be morally obligatory. Davidson’s view also seems to have problems explaining instances of akrasia, or weakness of will. The addict may give in to her urges and intentionally smoke another cigarette, all the while knowing that smoking is undesirable and perhaps even morally wrong.

Mens rea

To be legally responsible for some crimes requires both an actus reus, Latin for “guilty act,” and a mens rea, Latin for “guilty mind.” To be criminally responsible for murder, one must perform the actus reus—the unlawful killing of a person—with the mens rea—the intent or knowledge that one’s act could result in the death of a person. Notably, one does not need to know that one’s action is unlawful to act with a mens rea; however, in some situations genuine ignorance about whether what one is doing is against the law counts as a defense against one’s having a mens rea. To act with a mens rea requires that one exhibit some form of immoral or malicious intent or forethought regarding one’s actions.

In the opening example John takes Mary’s manuscript without her permission. Had he done so with the intent of depriving her of her property, he has stolen it. However, as it so happens, he did not act with any malicious intent, and it would be inappropriate to hold him legally responsible for stealing the manuscript.

Negligence and Mens Rea

One controversy surrounding the legal account of mens rea is over whether extreme negligence is sufficient to constitute a mens rea. Criminal negligence that is said to constitute a mens rea includes cases of gross negligence that risk substantial undue harm to others, even if it is not clear that the agent intends their actions to have said bad results.

Joshua Knobe has engaged in experimental research that shows people are much more likely to say that negative unintended side effects are considered intentional if the agent acting knew their actions would likely occur before acting; while positive unintentional side effects that the agent knew would likely occur before acting are not considered intentional.


  1. Bratman, Michael. Intention, Plans and Practical Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  2. Davidson, Donald. “Intending.” In Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
  3. Davidson, Donald. “Replies to Essays I–IX.” In Essays on Davidson: Actions and Events, B. Vermazen and M. Hintikka, eds. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
  4. Duff, R. A. Intention, Agency, and Criminal Liability. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
  5. Haji, Ishtiyaque. Reason’s Debt to Freedom: Normative Appraisals, Reasons, and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  6. Knobe, Joshua. “Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.” Analysis, v.63 (2003).
  7. Setiya, Kieran. “Intention.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta ed. (Spring 2011). (Accessed August 2013).

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