Intention matters.

Understanding Intention: Does Intention Matter? What is More Important Intention or Impact?

Intention matters in planning, action, and doing. Attention, intention, and impact are all important components of an action. This is true not just in regards to the effect of the action, but in regards to perception of it and the tone behind it.

Our beliefs, desires, and intentions color our actions and how they are perceived by others and ourselves. Whether or not we or another can consider an action good, just, or moral can often seem to depend largely on the intention behind the action. In other cases, the impact of an action can seem to overshadow any intentions behind it, good or bad.[1][2]

Below we look at how to understand the philosophy of intention and see if we can make a case for “intention mattering.” See Intention by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for a detailed breakdown on intention in philosophy (a topic often discussed by moral philosophers).

Philosophy Core Concepts: Jeremy Bentham on Intentions, Motives and Dispositions. Motive matters in a court of law, why would intention not matter generally?

TIP: Intention, attention, action, and impact matter. Attention is what you focus on, intention is the aim of the focus (the desired ends). Action is what one actually does in practice. Impact is the grand result, the outcome of attention, intention, and action.

TIP: Generally speaking, although they can communicate verbally, animal trainers can’t communicate to animals directly via human language. Instead trainers must rely on body language, tone, infection, touch, and other non-lingual cues to convey their intention to animals. We can’t hold intention in our hands, but it does color our actions and affect how others perceive us. This is just one of the many ways in which intention matters. Check out this horse training article on The Power of Intention.

The Three Flavors of Intention

Intentions come in three “flavors”:

  1. Intention as plans, the intention behind a plan for future action.
  2. Intention in action, the intention with which someone acts.
  3. Intention in doing, the intention behind the action in the present moment.

Differentiating between intention types matters because the intention we have for the future doesn’t always translate to our intention in action, and our intention is even subject to change in the middle of an action itself. A political party’s platform may display one intention, but when the politician is sitting down with a special interest to strike a deal, the intention in action is what matters. Halfway through the meeting, when discussing a vital issue, the next action of the politician (the intention in doing) might matter the most.

When we say intention matters, we mean all these types of intention matter, but as they are distinct, each type must be considered separately as well as together to get a full view.

FACT: People can’t multitask by focusing on two things at once. This is because our attention is limited neurologically as a matter of efficiency. Meanwhile, our senses, emotion, sentiment, and potentially even the mirror neuron help us to pick up on subtext.

The power of intention | Tsipor Maizlick | TEDxJerusalem.

The Importance of Intention V. the Importance of Action – Which is more Important, Intention or Action?

For some moral philosophers like Kant, for an action to be good all types of intentions must be good (“good intentions”).[3] Others would argue that it is the outcome of an action (the impact), and not the intention, that matters most.

Synthesizing these views, one can make the simplest case which is that, for a given action, intention or action could be the most important factor, and that both intention and impact will always matter.[4]

Even though we can conclude any of the above theories when an action is impactful enough and pulls at the right heart strings, the influence intention has is greatly diminished and the impact the action has is highlighted.

Some claim, “intention doesn’t matter”[5], and we address that below. We ultimately reject the notion that intentions don’t matter and conclude that intentions matter both in what we manifest and the way our actions are judged by ourselves and others. This is even true in a court of law,[6] so the main focus will now be on looking at to what degree intention matters as compared to action.

While this line of thinking is philosophical, and will likely remain so despite advances in science, we can pull out a few peer-reviewed social science studies and some history to help illustrate this philosophical truism. We can also look at neurological and biological fact, for instance, attention isn’t just a philosophical concept, it is a neurological function. For everything else, there is introspection and accepting the time-honored legitimacy of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant, to Smith, to this article. (See a breakdown of the branches of philosophy to understand how this applies to intention).

The power of intention | Colleen McCulla | TEDxDayton.

TERMS: Attention means focus, intention means intent behind what you focus on, impact means the results of your actions, and perception is how you perceive all this and how it is perceived by others. Each term has application in both the natural and social sciences.

How Does Intention Affect Things?

Intentions shape our thoughts, our words, and our actions. In turn, they color our perception of reality (neuroplasticity) and impact the effect we have on others (influence). The same is true for a message, and for group dynamics (Collective Intelligence).[7]

Not only does our own intention impact the collective via our social relationships, but also the shared intention of a group can impact individuals. This often unspoken (outside of the works of moral philosophers like Kant), but apparent, phenomena happens at all levels of the collective and can have a butterfly effect on society.

Sometimes intentions are elusive, but we can see this play out in arenas such as politics. A party will always frame their message as altruistic, but the effect of the platform stems just as much from the actual intentions behind it as it does from the policy in action. A policy in action can belie the intent behind it due to commitment bias rather than due to their success.

Social Cognition and Collective Intelligence. If the collective has intelligence, then it has the intention, attention, good days, bad days, vibes, etc. It not only has this, but it also has social responsibility and can be guided or misguided. 

Intention and Paradoxical Effects: The Importance of Impact

Intention may count for something, but this doesn’t override the fact that effects are often paradoxical.

A hero rushes into battle against insurmountable odds and falls on the battlefield. A better strategy would have been smarter, but the action was heroic despite any criticism we might have.

Now, though, assume this hero decided to show up for D-Day a day early and rush the enemy alone. Ok, they still are valiant, but the adverse effect of giving away the plan to the enemy a day in advance has done much to outweigh their intention. Can we not factor in intention when judging the brash hero?

If a person or group tries to do the right thing, but the result is bad, then their good intentions counter some of the impact. We don’t have an equation to prove this, but it is the theme of every story from the Iliad to the Hunger Games.

If the intention is bad, and the outcome is bad, we have a clear villain. If the intention is good, and the outcome is good, we have a hero.

Meanwhile, if the intention is bad, and the outcome is good, we often disregard the intention as it is over-ridden by the impact. If the intention is good, and the outcome is bad, we tend to have forgiveness, although this only goes so far as Grover Cleveland found out when blamed for the Panic of 1893 which produced a severe national depression.[8]

The impact is most important, intention matters, and both require the focus of attention to manifest.

Intention in Action with John McDowell.The word intention may invoke a sort of mysticism, but this is a slippery slope. Aristotle could speak of morality and influence without being a mystic, and so can we. This video describes “intention in action” and speaks to the Belief-Desire-Intention Model of Agency.

TIP: Intention isn’t a physical object we can hold in our hands. And thus there will always be room for interpretation and disagreement. It is hard to find “the right” videos and sources for this page, but these TED Talks give some insight.

When Does Intention Not Matter?

Sometimes, when an outcome is “bad enough” (typically a matter of perception) impact of an action can outweigh the intention behind it.

The problem here is that “no two people see the same thing in the same way. This argument is perhaps most discussed in politics. Is a left-leaning social program always good? Is a right-wing nationalist policy always bad? We can have great intentions, but other side sees the actions as so bad intention doesn’t matter, and meanwhile we can never be too sure that powerful forces behind an action truly shared the intentions of the base behind it.

Edward Snowden: The Ethics of Whistleblowing – Does Intent Matter?. Does intention matter? What about when you and other perceive it to be in the public interest. How should justice view intention? See our page on the NSA for more ethics-based goodness.

This line of thinking is a slippery slope, but it in no way overrides the overarching message (that intention matters), rather it simply adds complexity to the discussion and reminds us why the discussion is vital.

The following article, “YACHT’s sex tape hoax underestimated the empathy of the internet,” concerns a band whose members spread a rumor about a sex tape as a well-meaning publicity stunt. The result of the tape was lots of anger expressed on the internet. It is an example of impact overriding intention. The video includes a rant from the perspective of intention not mattering.

Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Comments are welcome below.


Intention matters, but to what degree it is a factor depends on context.


  1. The Belief-Desire-Intention Model of Agency
  2. Intention“. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics
  4. Is intention more important than action?
  5. Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter
  6. Intention (criminal law)
  7. The Dynamics of Intention in Collaborative Activity
  8. the Panic of 1893

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Matt Gilbert on

Thanks for this.
A friend of mine, a philosophy grad with a penchant for quoting David Lewis (a lot) claims that while he concedes that intentions do matter, it is pointless to talk about them

What on earth could he mean? I am a self-taught enthusiast and all I could think of was some sort of Wittgensteinian “we must pass over in silence” position.

Thanking you in advance