It has long been a habit of the human race to anthropomorphize those things with which it finds itself sharing it's environment. People have said that the sun wanted to burn them and that their car fostered a dislike for them and even that their computer smugly refused to do what it was told. When talking about human tools, such as thermostats and guidance systems, it can be extremely convenient to discuss them as if they had certain beliefs, intentions and desires, such as believing it to be above a certain temperature or intending to reach a certain destination. In the attempt to explain the workings of the mental, this anthropomorphization has caused a question to be raised: "Do these objects actually possess these mentalistic properties?"

There are two fundamental ways of answering this question chosen by philosophers of mind. Those of the first camp(in the tradition of Fodor and Searle) would emphatically state: "No!". On the other hand, those of the second camp(of whom Dennett is the most vocal, but counts Haugeland and the Churchlands among his supporters) would say "No" with a smirk, and then after a few moments add: "Well, maybe..."

The mentalistic properties known as beliefs, intentions and desires(among others) are all propositional, they have a certain "aboutness". It is this aboutness which is the crux of the debate. It is unclear at first how something can be about something else. If a person believes that the sky is blue, we say that that belief is "about" the sky; the belief has a direct referrent in the real world. It is much less clear whether or not it can be said that a painting of a blue sky is "about" the sky. Even more uncertainty is introduced when one considers the idea of misrepresentation, such as when a person believes they see a rock when actually looking at a turtle.

Searle quite happily agrees about the meaning of the person's belief that the sky is blue as being about the sky. He calls this "Original Meaning" and claims that it is irreducible to simpler assignations and that it is precise(there is a specific object, the sky, which this belief is about). Searle then labels the meaning of the painting as simply "Derived Meaning" in that it is about the sky only in so much as the creator of the painting was intending it to be about the sky and that alternate interpretations are possible and valid in which the painting could perhaps be about the ocean.

Another example(this one taken from Dennett) is that of a quarter-detecting device used in an American soda machine. This device emits a certain response when certain conditions generally associated with the presence of an American quarter are met. This device is a quarter-detector so long as it is used in this capacity and for this period of time, it can be said to be doing things which are in a certain way about quarters. If however this device was transported to Panama and the residents there began using it for the purpose of detecting the Panamanian Quarter-Balboa(which is in many ways physically indistinguishable from an American quarter), it could then be said that the machine is doing things which are about quarter-balboas. The reason for this indeterminacy of meaning despite a consistency of behaviour is due(according to Searle, Fodor, et al.) to the fact that the detector's behaviour has only derived meaning and can said to be about quarters or quarter-balboas only in so much as that is what it's human agent is intending it to be about. In both these cases, it could be imagined that a quarter-detector could misrepresent a quarter-balboa as a quarter, or vice-versa, but still there is an alternate interpretation in which the detector could be said to detect neither quarters nor quarter-balboas but rather any object of a certain compostion(specifically, the precise composition which elicits a certain response from the detector). It is easily seen that in this interpretation there is no meaning, only definition, and there is no possibility of a misrepresentation because anything detected is necesarrily a member of the class of things which the detector detects. Searle and Fodor hold that this is the proper interpretation of the apparent mentalistic behaviour of artifacts, action bereft of any meaning or representation except that bestowed upon it in a derivative fashion by the manner of it's use or creation.

Dennett however goes on to observe that humans are(in a materialist philosophy) to a certain extent simply machines designed by Nature and Evolution for the purpose of survival. He holds that every human action is interpretable as having meaning only in so much as it was intended to have that meaning in order to survive. He claims that a system which in a human(or other animal) identifies a predator, is only about predators in that it is intended to be about predators in a survival sense. In this view there is a second interpretation, devoid of original meaning, in which the biological mechanism for detecting predators is as much about any object misidentified as a predator as it is about bona fide predators. Dennett also holds that there are parallel analogies in humans to the quarter/quarter-balboa example where something so simple as a change in locale could cause two fundamentally different objects to cause fundamentally identical beliefs.

From here Dennett, having begun by agreeing that artifacts could have no original meaning and having continued by extrapolating that humans could possess no such thing either, goes on to say that, unless there was conscious design behind the creation of the human mind, there can be no original meaning at all. He holds that people are, in effect, just complex thermostats and guidance systems with derived or, as he prefers, functional meaning. So perhaps, in its own limited way, a thermostat has a belief after all. Yet still, it seems quite likely that there is a significant line to be drawn somewhere between the basic, manufactured, predictable "beliefs" and "intentions" of simple artifacts and the emergent unpredicatable mentalistic phenomena evident in humans.

This writeup applies to English law

Basics of Intention

  • The mens rea of murder is intention to kill (express malice) or cause GBH (implied malice) as stated in the case of Moloney (1985)
  • Intention is entirely subjective (i.e. what was the defendant (def) thinking at the time?)
  • There are 2 types of intent; direct and indirect/oblique
  • Direct intent is where the consequence is the main aim of the def
  • Indirect intent/oblique is where the death is not the def's main aim, but he realised it was virtually certain to happen
  • Both types of intent are sufficient to find the mens rea of murder exists
  • Nedrick (1986) is the current judicial direction to the jury on how to decide whether the def indirectly intended his actions. It says:

    Was death/GBH a virtual certainty as a result of the def's actions? (Objective question)

    If so, did the def, himself, realise death/GBH was virtually certain? (Subjective question)

    If yes to both, the jury can* infer he must, therefore, have indirectly intended death/GBH

    *Section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 says a jury must take all evidence into account, not just evidence of intention
  • Woolin (1998) later confirmed this as the model direction but changed the word 'infer' to 'find' as it would be easier for the jury to understand

Development of the Law

The meaning of intention has been discussed within murder cases but actually applies to any crime with the mens rea of intention, e.g. intention to resist arrest, assault, wounding or any attempted crime.

Is intention as blameworthy as foresight?

In the case of Hyam (1971) it was said that the mens rea of murder was:

  • Intention to kill
  • Intention to cause GBH
  • Foresight that death was highly probable
  • Foresight that GBH was highly probable
  • >
This was thought to be unfair as those who foresee death/GBH as highly probably are not as blameworthy as those who intend it.

Glanville Williams said:

On a night out drinking with friends you may foresee a hangover the morning after, yet the hangover is not desired or could be said to be your intention.

The mens rea of murder stayed the same until the case of Moloney (1985), this case was appealed to the House of Lords who then stated that the mens rea of murder is no longer that stated in Hyam. It was now only intention to kill or cause GBH, simply foreseeing it would result in manslaughter

Then a problem came about: how do the jury decide whether a def indirectly intended death/GBH or merely foresaw it? This caused lots of trouble for juries and has led to many misdirections by judges.

  1. In Moloney the HOL said to help the jury decide indirect intent they should be directed as follows:
    Was death/GBH a natural consequence of the def's actions?
    • If yes, did the def himself realise death/GBH was a natural consequence of his actions?
    • If yes, the jury can, if they want to, infer he must therefore have indirectly intended his actions; but they don't have to.
  2. But this wasn't popular and was changed by the HOL in the case of Hancock & Shankland (1986). The case appealed to the HOL who confirmed the mens rea of murder as intention to kill or cause GBH as stated in Moloney but they decided to get rid of the 'natural consequences direction' and replace it with...
    The greater the probability of a consequence occuring, the more likely it was foreseen. The more likely that the consequence was foreseen, the more likely the consequence was intended.
    This direction wasn't liked either, it confusing for juries. It also uses the phrase 'foreseen' which is only relevant for manslaughter.

  • In Nedrick (1986) the trial judge used the mens rea of murder as stated in Hyam and found Nedrick guilty of murder. Nedrick then appealed to the COA who decided that the 'probabilities' direction was not suitable and stated yet another direction...

    Was death/GBH virtually certain as a result of the def's actions?
    • If so, did the def himself realise that death/GBH was virtually certain as a result of his actions?
    • If yes to both, the jury can say he must, therefore, have intended death/GBH but they don't have to (for reasons stated before in this node)

    Was that it then?

    In Scalley (1995) which had facts almost identical to Nedrick, the judge did apply the virtual certainty test. However, he directed the jury that 'if you think the def foresaw death as virtually certain you must convict of murder'. This, of course, was incorrect. The Court of Appeal corrected this.

    In the case of Woolin (1998), Mr. Woolin killed his 3 month old son by throwing him against a wall (similar to the cases of Doughty and Acott). He claimed that he didn't intend death/GBH. The trial judge directed the jury that they '...Can convict if he realised there was a substantial risk of serious injury/death when he threw the child'. The House of Lords then quashed W's conviction for murder and substituted one of manslaughter as a result of the trial judge's misdirection.

    These days

    The House of Lords has confirmed that, in complex cases where the simple direction on intention is not enough, the jury should be directed with the virtual certainty direction - now known as the 'Model Direction'. They also decided to change the word 'infer' to 'find.

    Sources: my law teachers at college. When I have exams coming up, I find the best way to study for them is to node the stuff I need to know. Hence this node and all the others on English Law that I have written.

  • In*ten"tion (?), n. [F. intention, L. intentio. See Intend, and cf. Intension.]


    A stretching or bending of the mind toward of the mind toward an object; closeness of application; fixedness of attention; earnestness.

    Intention is when the mind, with great earnestness, and of choice, fixes its view on any idea.


    A determination to act in a certain way or to do a certain thing; purpose; design; as, an intention to go to New York.

    Hell is paved with good intentions.


    The object toward which the thoughts are directed; end; aim.

    In [chronical distempers], the principal intention is to restore the tone of the solid parts.


    The state of being strained. See Intension.


    5. Logic

    Any mental apprehension of an object.

    First intention Logic, a conception of a thing formed by the first or direct application of the mind to the individual object; an idea or image; as, man, stone. -- Second intention Logic, a conception generalized from first intuition or apprehension already formed by the mind; an abstract notion; especially, a classified notion, as species, genus, whiteness. -- To heal by the first intention Surg., to cicatrize, as a wound, without suppuration. -- To heal by the second intention Surg., to unite after suppuration.

    Syn. -- Design; purpose; object; aim; intent; drift; purport; meaning. See Design.


    © Webster 1913.

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