Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Scanlon on Intentions


Anscombe articulates what is called the “Doctrine of Double Effect” in the course of criticizing Oxford University’s decision to award an honorary degree to Harry Truman. The idea is that killing the innocent as a means to your end is always murder but that killing the innocent as a side of effect of pursuing your end is not. That enables her to oppose some measures taken during war, such as bombing cities, while not advocating total pacifism.

What’s the difference between immorally killing innocents and permissibly killing innocents? It has to do with your intention. If you intend to kill the innocent as a way of achieving your aim, your action is morally wrong. If you do not intend to kill the innocent but merely know that you will do so, your action is not morally wrong.

Scanlon criticizes the idea that intentions can make actions morally wrong or, as he puts it “impermissible.” He thinks that simply describing the actions is enough to determine whether they are right or wrong; there is no need to look at the intention that motivated the actions.

Double Effect

You have probably heard of the Doctrine of Double Effect without knowing it. It’s what is behind the famous Trolley Problem. Here’s the problem.

  1. A trolley is on a track where it will kill five people. You can push one person in its way. That will cause it to stop, saving the five, but at the cost of killing the one person you pushed.

  2. A trolley is on a track where it will kill five people. You can throw a switch. That will cause it to go on a different track, saving the five, but at the cost of killing one person on the other track.

This pair of cases was introduced to illustrate the Doctrine of Double Effect. The idea is that pushing the one person onto the track in the first case would be wrong because it uses that person’s death as a means to save the five. However switching the trolley onto the track with the one person on it is said not to be wrong because it involves killing the one person only as a side effect of saving the five.

Derick thought that the trolley cases made the distinction between means and side effects less clear than it had seemed before. That’s not a good thing for an example to do! Zane agreed that it is hard to separate means and side effects.

Chris argued that you can’t know someone’s intentions, so the effort to rest a distinction like this on intentions is fruitless. I think there’s something to that, but I think it’s possible to take it too far. We actually do know quite a lot about other people’s intentions. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to understand one another’s language or keep from bumping into one another on the sidewalk. Intentions get used a lot in the law too. Intention is the difference between a murder and an accident, after all.


Scanlon thinks that intentions are inessential to determining whether an action is wrong or not. To make his point, he takes up Anscombe’s example of the difference between terror bombing and tactical bombing. The point of terror bombing is to bring the war to a close by inspiring so much terror in civilians that they demand the government sue for peace. The point of tactical bombing is to destroy parts of the enemy’s military power, such as its soldiers and military equipment.

Anscombe had said that the intention to bomb civilians is what makes terror bombing morally wrong and that the absence of this intention is what makes tactical bombing acceptable. Scanlon thinks we can achieve the same result without referring to intentions at all. Here’s how he proposes to do it.

In war, one is sometimes permitted to use destructive and potentially deadly force of a kind that would normally be prohibited. But such force is permitted only when its use is very likely to bring some military advantage, such as destroying enemy combatants or war-making materials, and it is permitted only if expected harm to noncombatants is minimized, and only if this harm is “proportional” to the importance of the military advantage to be gained. (Scanlon 2015, 840)

What’s important here is that he doesn’t use the intention to kill civilians in discriminating between acceptable and unacceptable killing in war. That’s the idea.

Jacob and I weren’t sure that this would actually rule out terror bombing. Getting the other side to surrender is a military advantage, after all, and it might well be your side’s only alternative. I also think it would be interesting to see what would happen if we included a principle about killing people on your own side. That was Truman’s decision, after all: killing civilians in Japan or killing American soldiers by ordering them to invade Japan. (As Anscombe reminds us, in this case there was a a third alternative, of course, which was to end the war on terms other than total surrender on Japan’s side.)

Scanlon ends his essay by saying that intent is relevant in determining what he calls the “moral goodness” of an action as distinct from its “permissibility” (Scanlon 2015, 842). Based on the examples he gives, I take it that the idea is that bad intent doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do what you’re doing; it means that you should do it in a better way or with a better state of mind.

So, for instance, suppose I call my ailing grandfather in order to get my mom to stop nagging me about it (Scanlon 2015, 843). There’s something defective here. But the correct response isn’t to not call my grandfather. It’s to do it with a better attitude: I should do it in order to express my concern and make him feel better, not to get my mom off my back.

Similarly, if I save someone’s life in order to keep his estate from going to an enemy, I’m not behaving as well as I should (Scanlon 2015, 844). But it’s not as though I should let the guy die instead. I should be better motivated than I am: I should want to save a life rather than spiting an enemy. That’s the idea.

Key Points

These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. How Anscombe analyzes the difference between bombing cities and bombing military targets with civilian casualties.

  2. Scanlon’s cases that seem to show that you can do the right thing even though you have bad intentions.


Anscombe, G. E. M. 2015. “Mr. Truman’s Degree.” In The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Gideon Rosen, Alex Byrne, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin, 830–36.

Scanlon, Thomas M. 2015. “When Do Intentions Matter to Permissibility?” In The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Gideon Rosen, Alex Byrne, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin, 838–44.