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There is considerable interest in normative ethics regarding whether intentions are relevant for the permissibility of an act, with a number of prominent philosophers such as Judith Jarvis Thomson, Frances Kamm and Thomas Scanlon arguing that they are not relevant. See also a nice discussion about this topic at Pea Soup recently by Alec Walen and Victor Tadros.

Readers of Ethics Etc might be interested in a paper of mine called “Intentions and Moral Permissibility: The Case of Acting Permissibly with Bad Intentions,” which is forthcoming in Law and Philosophy, and in which I argue, pace Thomson, Kamm and Scanlon, that intentions can be relevant for the permissibility of an act. A copy of the paper can be found here and here is an abstract of the paper:

Many people believe in the intention principle, according to which an agent’s intention in performing an act can sometimes make an act that would otherwise have been permissible impermissible, other things being equal. Judith Jarvis Thomson, Frances Kamm and Thomas Scanlon have offered cases that seem to show that it can be permissible for an agent to act even when the agent has bad intentions. If valid, these cases would seem to cast doubt on the intention principle. In this paper, I point out that these cases have confounding factors that have received little attention in the literature. I argue that these confounding factors undermine the putative force of these cases against the intention principle. Indeed, when cases without these confounding factors are considered, it becomes clear, so I argue, that intentions can be relevant for the permissibility of an act.


  1. 1. Posted by Ketan Rama | June 27, 2012 9:26 am

    What struck me as I was reading the paper was that Kamm, Scanlon, and Thomson are simply unlikely to endorse the intuitions on which Liao builds his case. Consider, for example, the case he labels ‘Enemy Trolley’ (p.15), in which a man decides to divert a trolley headed for five toward a track with one person on it, with the intention not of saving five but of killing the one on the other track, who happens to be his enemy. Liao says it is impermissible for the bad man to divert. I believe Kamm has an identical case in the fifth chapter of Intricate Ethics, which she labels the ‘Bad Man Trolley Case.’ Kamm’s intuition is that it is permissible for the bad man to redirect (which seems clearly correct to me as well). Liao explains convincingly how it could be permissible for the bad man not to divert (he appeals to the fact that it wouldn’t be required for a good person to redirect, on many’s view). But this is (needless to say) not an argument that it is impermissible for the bad man to divert. We are simply meant to see, along with Liao, that it is impermissible for him to do so. I am fine with this sort of appeal to intuition, but it is important to note that Kamm explictly disagrees, and I suspect that Scanlon and Thomson, along with many others who are initially sympathetic to the irrelevance of intention to permissibility, will simply disagree as well.

  2. 2. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | July 6, 2012 10:42 pm

    Thanks very much for your comments, Ketan. A couple of thoughts.

    1. I think that my main point that the cases that Thomson, Kamm, and Scanlon used to argue against the relevance of intentions for permissibility have confounding factors would still stand, even if they don’t accept my intuition about Enemy Trolley.

    2. Philosophy is of course not a popularity contest, but I would be willing to speculate that more people would share my intuition that Enemy Trolley is a case of impermissibility (or is at least less permissible than Standard Trolley).

    3. Kamm may think that her Bad Man Trolley Case is a case of permissibility because she may be under the impression that it is a “must act” case. But once one sees that the Bad Man Trolley Case is not a “must act” case, it becomes more difficult to see how this case is a case of permissibility. Indeed, remember that Thomson now thinks that one should not redirect even in Standard Trolley.

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