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The question of "intentions" often comes up in interpersonal ethical situations. It's important to understand that there are several different types of "intention" or "intent", and to be clear about which of them one is referring to.

original vs. overall

  • original intent is what one's intent was when deciding to take an action.
    • Example: I decide I want to stretch my arms, and I accidentally bash you across the face. I didn't intend to cause you harm, but I did anyway.
  • overall intentions is what one wishes to do or avoid overall.
    • Example A: Given that I didn't mean to bash anyone in the face, I decide to be sure to look behind me before stretching my arms in the future.
    • Example B: Someone keeps stretching their arms and accidentally bashing people, even after having it pointed out that maybe they should be more careful. Their original intent may not have been to hurt anyone, but their lack of corrective action makes it clear that they don't have any intention of avoiding the harm.

stated vs. actual

  • stated intentions are what someone claims as their intention.
    • Example: "Really, I didn't mean to hurt you -- I was just trying to stretch my arms!"
  • actual intentions are what someone actually cares about and values when they decide how/whether to take an action.
    • Example: Someone who keeps bashing people in the face when they're "just stretching their arms" probably doesn't actually have any intention of avoiding harm. If someone truly intends not to cause harm, they will be conscientious about where and how they stretch their arms.

Unfortunately, discerning someone's actual intentions is much harder than simply knowing what they stated as their intent; it's more an art than a science, as human error can easily compound smaller mistakes into larger or repeated mistakes. This is where apologies are often useful as a gauge of true intent:

  • Does the person apologize voluntarily, as soon as they become aware of the harm they caused?
  • Does the apology indicate that they understood the harm they did, or does it seem more just like a rote response so they can say they apologized?
    • It's a red flag if the primary thrust of the apology seems to be deflecting blame (or, worse, placing it on someone else, e.g. DARVO).