Can action have a moral attached to it or is it the intentions behind the action that has moral? Or is this question meaningless because action cannot exist without intention, therefore the action getting its moral due to the intention behind the action?

A secondary question is: when a person is being judged in a court should his/her intentions behind the action be taken into consideration?

  • 1
    This question is going to be complex for someone to answer because the question of whether acts (generally called acts rather than actions for non-intentional accounts) themselves are amoral hinges greatly on whether you think such a notion is even possible. (For an extend treatment, see Korsgaard's Sources of Normativity)
    – virmaior
    Jul 22, 2014 at 11:07
  • Intentions /are/ taken into consideration in court. For instance, if you intend to kill person A, but accidentally kill person B instead, you are tried as if you intended to kill person B.
    – Roger
    Jul 22, 2014 at 13:24
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    But that's taking the action at its face value. If killing person A was the intention but person B was killed instead, then wouldn't that be an accident instead of the actual motive? Therefore the trial will be based on the action of killing person B (an accident) not the intention of killing person A. Implying that intention is not taken into consideration. Right?
    – Icarus
    Jul 22, 2014 at 13:30
  • This is the entire basis for Normative Ethics. See my answer, here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/9623/5304
    – dgo
    Jul 22, 2014 at 16:24
  • Are you asking if all actions are amoral, or if any action to be amoral? Excepting those who reject morality, most traditions I can think of seem to answer "no" and "yes" respectively. Jul 22, 2014 at 19:17

2 Answers 2


For some actions, it is the intent that matters. One example would be the situation described by Herodotus:

When Darius was king, he summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them for what price they would eat their fathers' dead bodies. They answered that there was no price for which they would do it. [4] Then Darius summoned those Indians who are called Callatiae,1 who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and understanding through interpreters what was said) what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death. The Indians cried aloud, that he should not speak of so horrid an act.

The intent of both the Greek and Indian actions was to honor the dead, but they had the opposite views on how to best do that. So, in that example, the intent is the thing with the moral weight, not the action.

However, I think many philosophers would agree that actions themselves have moral weight in general. To be moral is to be virtuous, and the coordinating virtue is Prudence. Acquinas gives the following summary of prudence:

Tully (De Invent. Rhet. ii, 53) assigns three parts of prudence, namely, "memory," "understanding" and "foresight." Macrobius (In Somn. Scip. i) following the opinion of Plotinus ascribes to prudence six parts, namely, "reasoning," "understanding," "circumspection," "foresight," "docility" and "caution." Aristotle says (Ethic. vi, 9,10,11) that "good counsel," "synesis" and "gnome" belong to prudence. Again under the head of prudence he mentions "conjecture," "shrewdness," "sense" and "understanding."

The different philosophers disagree about some details, but the overall impression is clear: to act prudently (and therefore morally) involves some skill in thinking through the consequences of one's potential actions, and not only what one wants to do. So, as an example: one who has the good in mind but lacks understanding will still not act prudently, and will not be virtuous.


The answer to the first questions is yes. An action can have a moral attached to it. For the second question, the answer is yes, the intention behind the action has a moral attached. The third question is not meaningless, because an action can exist without intention. However, most actions do have a moral attached because most actions do have an intention. Since all actions that have an intention have a moral attached, the only actions without a moral attached are those that don't have intention. One of these type, are those committed by those incapable of having intention (incapacitated, naive, innocent, etc.). Another type, are those committed without thinking, or as a habit.

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