Intending a means, expecting a side-effect: what is the difference?

Michael Bratman
Durfee Professor in the School of Humanities & Sciences and Professor of Philosophy
Stanford University
March 31st, 2005, 8:00 to 10:00 pm
Bentley 140

In much of our thinking about action and its moral assessment we draw on a distinction between intending a means and expecting a side-effect. One much discussed example involves a pair of bombers in a war. Terror Bomber intends to bomb the children in a school as a means to promoting victory. Tactical Bomber intends to bomb a munitions plant as a means to promoting victory. Tactical Bomber knows, however, that next to the munitions plant is a school, and so that as a result of destroying the munitions plant he will be killing the children in the school. Many say that whereas Terror Bomber intends to kill the children as a means, Tactical Bomber does not intend to kill them as a means, though he does fully expect to kill them as a side effect. And many think that this difference between the two bombers can sometimes matter a great deal to our moral assessment of them and their actions. (A version of this idea is built into the Principle of Double Effect.)

But what exactly is this difference between intending a means and expecting a side-effect? And does this distinction survive critical scrutiny? I will sketch an approach to the nature of intention that helps us understand the intuitive force of this distinction, and an approach to the nature of practical reasoning (reasoning about what to do) that helps us articulate skeptical doubts about this distinction. Thoughtful response to these skeptical doubts will take us to complex issues about intention, practical reasoning, and human agency.


mb2Michael E. Bratman is U. G. and Abbie Birch Durfee Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. He is the author of Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987; Re-issued by CSLI Publications, 1999), Faces of Intention: Selected Essays on Intention and Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), and various articles in philosophy of action and related fields. Some his recent work on agency and self-governance will be collected in his Structures of Agency: Essays (Oxford University Press, in preparation).

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