Introduction Was it intentional? Did he intend to kill? What were the original intentions of the framers of the United States Constitution? "Intention" is an important concept for legal theory. On the one hand, "intention" figures prominently in theories of criminal law and tort law. On the other hand, constitutional theory is interested in the idea of "the original intentions of the framers." This post provides a very rough and ready introduction to the idea of "intent" and related notions of "intentionality" for law students (especially first year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
A Note on Terminology Legal theory is most concerned with "intentions" of the ordinary sort: "The defendant intended to kill" or "The Framers intended 'commerce' to exclude 'agriculture' in the commerce clause."--uses like these involve the ordinary legal use of "intention." There are, however, two related philosophical concepts that might be confused with this sense of intention. Philosophers use the word "intentionality" to refer to the ability of mental states to represent things, properties and states of affairs: in this special sense, all mental states are intentional. And philosophers also have a more technical concept of "intensionality"--spelled with an "s" rather than a "t" after the second "n"--that is used to refer to an important logical feature of words and sentences. A sentence is an intensional context if its truth value is sensitive to the substitution of referentially equivalent descriptions: don't worry, the jargon will be explained!. Ordinary intentions exhibit intentionality, intention sentences are intensional--hence the potential for confusion.
Actions Are Intended Under a Description Jane hears a knock on the door and sees someone in the uniform of a package delivery company with a package. She invites the person in. She does not know that the person she has invited into her home is "the Westside rapist"--a serial rapist who disguises himself as a delivery person. If we ask her, did you intend to let "him" in, her answer will depend on the description we give. Did you intend to let the man in the delivery uniform in? Her answer will be "Yes." Did you intend to let the Westside rapist in? Her answer will be "No." The lesson of this example is that actions are intentional under a description. The very same individual was both "the man in the delivery uniform" and "the Westside rapist," but Jane's intentions were not the same with respect to the two different descriptions.
Transparent and Opaque Contexts Actions are intentional under a description. Because of that fact, philosophers say that intention is a referentially opaque context. Boy, that is mouthful. What does that mean? Let's take a context that does not involve intentionality. The sentence "The Westside rapist entered Jane's house" does not involve an attribution of an intention. And we can substitute a different description for "Westside rapist" without affecting the truth value of the statement. Assuming that the Westside rapist did enter Jane's house and that his name was Norman Heathcliff, then all of the following statements would be true:
The Westside rapist entered Jane's house.--True. Norman Heathcliff entered Jane's house.--True. The man in the delivery uniform entered Jane's house.--True. The man on he porch entered Jane's house.--True.
We can substitute any description that refers to "Norman Heathcliff" and the truth value of the sentence is unaffected. A sentence that has this property is called "referentially transparent" or "an extensional context."
Now, let's go back to intention. Suppose that Jane lets the man into her house, but does not know that he is the Westside rapist or that he is named "Norman Heathcliff." Truth value now will vary depending on how the man is described :
Jane intended to let the man in the delivery uniform into her house.--True. Jane intended to let the Westside rapist into her house.--False. Jane intended to let Norman Heathcliff into her house.--False. Jane intended to let the man on the porch into her house.--True.
But the four descriptions all refer to the same man. Because you cannot substitute referentially equivalent descriptions into expressions of intentions, we say that such expressions are "referentially opaque" or that they are "intensional" contexts. (Notice again that intensional was spelled with an "s".)
The distinction between opaque and transparent contexts is fundamental to the philosophy of language, and this distinction figures prominently in philosophical writing about "intention." This may all sound a bit abstract, but this distinction is worth mastering. If you don't know it, you will not be able to follow any really sophisticated discussion about intention.
What difference does the distinction between referentially transparent and opaque contexts make to the law? That's a big question, but here is one example. Some theories of constitutional or statutory interpretation assert that questions about the applicability of a legal rule can be settled by reference to the intentions of the authors of the statute. One line of attack on this view focuses on the question whether a collective body (e.g. a legislature or constitutional convention) has intentions in the same sense as does an individual. Putting that objection to the side, the distinction between opaque and transparent contexts can be used to build a different sort of objection. Suppose that we have only one legislator, Rex, and that Rex enacts a legal rule. Now a judge, Solomon, must apply the rule in a case where the meaning of the rule is either vague or ambiguous. Can Solomon simply apply the rule as Rex would intend? In some cases, the answer to this question may be "yes," but not in all. Why not? Because Rex may have intended the rule to apply to the case under some descriptions of the case, but not under others. Boy, that's abstract. Can you make your point more concrete?
Consider this example. The same Congress that enacted the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause also segregated the schools of the District of Columbia. Suppose that this Congress had the following two intentions: (1) Congress intended that the equal protection clause should prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, and (2) Congress intended that the equal protection clause should not prohibit segregation of the public schools. Now suppose that we believe a third thing: segregation of the public schools is discrimination on the basis of race. Given this situation, the "intentions of Congress" cannot directly settle a particular case, e.g. Brown v. Board of Education. Under one description, Congress would intend that the case should be decided for Brown; under another description, Congress would intend that the case should be decided for the Board. Both descriptions are true of the case.
Of course, I haven't developed this objection or the possible responses in a deep or thorough way. There is lots more to say. But the point is this. Legal rules are the product of intentional actions. Like all actions, lawmaking is intentional under a description. This means that statements about legislative intentions are referentially opaque. But when we apply a legal rule to a fact situation, we can describe the facts in many different ways. (A vast number of descriptions can refer to any particular legal dispute.) If intentions are to be used to as the basis for interpreting legal rules, it cannot be on the basis of a theory that says only, "Decide the case as the intentions of the lawmaker require." More will be required to make such a theory work.
Intention and Foreseeable Consequences Does "intending an action" make a difference to either moral or legal responsibility? The distinction between intentional and unintentional action certainly seems to be important to both tort law and criminal law. Tort law differentiates between intentional torts and torts based on negligence or strict liability. Criminal law involves what is called mens rea or the "mental state" that is an element of the crime. In ordinary morality, we differentiate between intentional infliction of harm as more culpable than mere negligence.
Most law students encounter the problem of foreseeable but unintended consequences in both criminal law and torts. Consider the following examples:
--Example One: Ben has a gun. He aims at Alice and shoots, hoping to kill her. Her death was what he was trying to accomplish.
--Example Two: Carlos plants a bomb under the bridge. He wants to destroy the bridge, but he also knows that when he triggers the bomb Dawn is on the bridge right over the powerful bomb. Carlos regrets that Dawn died, and he had hoped that by some miracle Dawn would live.
--Example Three: Edgar is holding Francis and Gertrude captive. When Edgar's demands aren't met, he executes Francis. Edgar regrets that he had to do this, but he believes this is the only way that he will be able to intimidate Francis and Gertrude's employer into paying a ransom for Francis.
--Example Four: Harry shoots in the air on New Year's Eve. The bullet goes up and comes down, killing Ingrid. Harry did not intend to kill anyone, but he did recognize that there was a small risk that his bullet might strike and injure or kill.
In all four cases, we can say that one person killed another: Ben killed Alice, Carlos killed Dawn, Edgar killed Francis, and Harry killed Ingrid. But each case differs with respect to intentionality:
In example one, Ben intended to kill Alice and her death was his end.
In example two, Carlos intended to blow up the bridge and Dawn's death was a foreseen and very likely consequence of this intentional act, but Carlos did not directly intend to kill Dawn.
In example three, Edgar intended to kill Francis, but her death was a means to a further end--payment of the ransom.
In example four, Harry did not intend to kill Ingrid, but his intentional act foreseeably resulted in her death.
Are these cases alike or different? Morally or legally? Of course, those are big questions, but we can make a little progress on them. Cases one, two, and three are usually considered to be indistinguishable so far as culpability is concerned: in all three cases, the actor intends the death of the victim. Case four is usually considered to be distinguishable from cases one, two, and three: case four involves negligence which may be culpable but is not as blameworthy as intentional killing. Case two--where the Dawn's death is foreseen as highly likely but is not desired--is sometimes said to involve "oblique intention." Even though the death in case two was not directly intended, it is nonetheless the natural and foreseeable consequence of the intended action (blowing up the bridge while someone is on it).
Trolley Problems In all four cases described above, the action that results in death is clearly wrongful. But that is not so clear in the famous "Trolley Problem." Here is a statement of the problem:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch with the result that one will die instead of five?
Most philosophers agree that it is morally permissible to flip the switch. The philosopher and legal theorist John Mikhail has done a series of experiments that confirm that most ordinary people agree. If you pull the switch, you act intentionally and you cause the death of the one person. Now consider a second problem, "Organ Harvesting":
You are a surgeon performing elective surgery on a healthy person. Five other patients are on the verge of death, but could be saved if you killed your healthy patient and harvested her organs. Should you kill your patient?
Almost everyone (except perhaps some hard-core act utilitarians) agrees that killing the patient is morally impermissible. Both cases involve causing the death of one to save five. But in the "Trolley Problem," you do not directly intend the death; in the Trolley problem, you may hope that through some miracle the one person escapes death. In "Organ Harvesting," on the other hand, the surgeon must intend the patient's death. The organs can only be harvested if the patient is killed. Perhaps it is the intention to kill that makes the difference to our moral intuitions.
Our discussion of the Trolley Problem has been very brief and superficial. For more, you can follow this link. For our purposes, the point of the trolley problem is to suggest that intention is potentially important to questions of culpability.
Warning As with many topics in the Lexicon, we have only skimmed the surface. Experts on intentionality in philosophy and criminal law theory would surely disagree with some of what I have said and would have much more to say.
Conclusion Every legal theorist needs a basic mastery of "intention." But this is a very deep topic. If you are drawn to the theory of criminal law or the theory of torts or to constitutional theory or statutory interpretation, you will want to know more about "intent." Hopefully, this entry will get you started.
George Wilson, Action, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Alison McIntry, Doctrine of Double Effect, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Frances Howard-Snyder, Doing vs. Allowing Harm, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(This entry was last revised on April 6, 2008.)