Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Herman on Intentions


Herman disagrees with Scanlon. She thinks intentions are usually essential to determining whether an action is right or wrong.

She calls her target the “acts-not-motives” view. This holds that motives are relevant to our appraisal of agents but not of actions. The idea is that we use motives to tell us whether the person is good or bad but not to tell us whether their actions are right or wrong. As she puts it, the acts-not-motives view holds that, “an otherwise permissible act is not made wrong by a ‘bad’ motive or intention, and only rarely (if ever) do motive and intention even partly explain an action’s impermissibility” (Herman 2015, 846).

Instead, she thinks, we are obligated to have good motives. This would be silly if our motives were outside of our control: for example, sympathy or anger motivate us but we can’t decide whether to be sympathetic or angry. She thinks it is possible to hold people responsible for their motives possible she thinks of motives as the product of reasoning and she also holds that reasoning is in our control: “we can reason as we should, and therefore can be obligated to do so” (Herman 2015, 851).

Cases, cases, cases

Here is a case that, according to Herman, is taken to support the acts-not-motives view:

  1. The gangster who pays for his coffee. He would have beaten up the barista if anything went wrong, but nothing did, so he pays and leaves.

The gangster appears to have done the right thing even though his state of mind is not what you expect from a morally upstanding citizen. Herman thinks the gangster did, in fact, do something wrong: “the gangster’s action in handing over the money” was wrong (Herman 2015, 847). That’s what she is going to try to explain.

Herman has a bunch of cases of her own. In these cases, she believes, it is obvious that the bad intention does make the action wrong.

  1. I show up as I promised to do but I have forgotten the promise and I’m there for a totally different reason.

  2. A doctor in an emergency room follows the rule “treat the white patients first.” As it happens, the patients with the most severe injuries on his shift are all white. He’s doing the right thing but for completely the wrong reason. If a black patient had come in with more severe injuries than a white patient, he would have treated the white patient first.

By way of contrast, here are the cases Scanlon gave in advocating for the acts-not-motives view.

  1. Calling to stop nagging. I call my grandfather so my mom won’t nag me about it. According to Scanlon, calling isn’t wrong. But this is hardly the best way to do it; ideally, I would be calling out of sincere interest (Scanlon 2015, 843).

  2. Saving a life out of spite. I save a drowning man because I don’t want his estate to go to my enemy. This is the right thing to do, but, obviously, for the wrong reasons (Scanlon 2015, 844).

So what we have to decide is whether the person in these cases did something wrong. Here is one way to test that: if what the person did was wrong, then that person should have done something else. This seems pretty obvious to me: if kicking the dog is wrong, then you shouldn’t kick the dog. So one way of telling whether an action is wrong is by asking yourself “should the person have done something else?” If the answer is “no,” then maybe you don’t think the person did anything wrong.

My initial thought was that this favored Scanlon. No one thinks that the doctor should not have treated the patients that he treated (case 3). And no one thinks you should leave rather than staying (case 2) or that the gangster shouldn’t pay for the coffee (case 1).

But, having thought about it, I now believe that was too quick. Herman does think there is something they should have done instead:

  1. The gangster should have paid for his coffee without musing about beating people up.
  2. I should have showed up because I remembered the promise.
  3. The doctor should treat patients according to their need and not consider race.

So I’m not sure what to say. I still find it odd to say that the gangster or the forgetful promise maker did something wrong. But the doctor case is pretty good for Herman’s side. And, in any event, I don’t have a very convincing reason for disagreeing with Herman about any of the cases. So I’m going to leave it at saying that both Herman and Scanlon have plausible interpretations of the cases they both describe and that I’m not sure which one is right.

Key Points

The main thing to take away from this is how Herman analyzes the cases in which people do what seems to be the right thing for what seem to be the wrong reasons. It is fruitful to compare her treatment of these cases with Scanlon’s treatment of similar cases.


Herman, Barbara. 2015. “Impermissibility and Wrongness.” In The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Gideon Rosen, Alex Byrne, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin, 846–53.

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.