Do intentions matter?

A black and white dog holding sticks of dynamite in its mouth with the caption "Good intentions, bad results"
I don't know how to start off this post, so I'll repeat the title and hope it makes me sound profound: Do intentions matter?

The question of intent in ethics is probably one that philosophers consider trivial, even a little quaint; it's been debated back and forth and inside and out over and over again from about a thousand different angles and raising the question of intent with an actual philosopher, or even a philosophy student, would probably end up with them bursting into flames from my stupidity, ignorance and general philistinism. Sadly, I am not a philosopher, neither are most laypeople, and we're still having to debate this issue...

...mostly in the form of arguing on the internet. Chances are you've probably run into an argument where someone's done something hurtful or oppressive and about ten people immediately start yelling about how the guilty party should go drink a gallon of bleach and is stuck being a piece of shit forever.

You can debate how effective that is as a method of activism (and that's putting it nicely, plus my personal belief is that telling someone to commit suicide is beyond the pale no matter how much you style yourself as a good person - but that's another story for another day); mostly I tend to shrug my shoulders and shake my head. Too much talking, not enough action.

Black and white photo of a page full of intentions
I pay slightly more attention when the guilty party is genuinely ignorant of what they are doing. You see, in that case they still get shouted at to go drink a gallon of bleach...because intentions do not matter and it's not our job to educate people. Now, the burden of who should educate is a pretty big issue: I personally fall on the side of not being people's personal Wolfram Alpha, because it's lazy on the part of the person asking questions and gets very irritating for the educators, but on pointing people to links and search terms - especially if the educator is not as well-qualified to answer as another person might be. It also encourages the person being educated to use their own research skills and separates the people who didn't know from the people who didn't want to know - something I will go onto later. I'm digressing, though.

I'm pretty conflicted about this, to be honest. I'm pretty conflicted about a lot of things, come to think of it.

Now, this is the point where someone probably says that I shouldn't be conflicted because they've found the Truth and the Way, and once you find that there can be no more debates, no more disquiet within oneself.

Too bad I haven't found it, then!

I'm conflicted about whether intentions do matter or not, because on the one hand intentions are quite irrelevant: if I end up setting off a bomb in Central London, it doesn't matter whether I set it off while cackling maniacally and twirling my evil cape or whether I didn't know it was a bomb. Either way, I've just killed and injured masses of people.

On the other hand, while intentions can't change the consequences of one action, they can help determine whether people can be stopped from doing the same things again - and this is where the difference between not knowing and not wanting to know comes into play.

People who don't know things...well...simply don't know the consequences of their actions. They do things without knowing the effects they have on others. So far, so shitty, right?

Here's the thing: they can be taught. They can learn, they can grow, they can change. We all can, and it's something we forget in believing that a person's character is fixed. They can educate themselves, learn from their mistakes, apologise and stop doing the hurtful and oppressive things they were doing.

People who don't want to know things are different. Of course, they can still learn and grow and change too, but they don't want to. Some of them know the effects they're having on other people and some of them don't, but either way, they don't care and they're happy to stay stupid. They could educate themselves and stop doing things that harm others - but for whatever reason, they don't want to. Maybe they're too proud, maybe they're downright horrible people, but either way, they've made that choice not to learn.

This is why I believe that to a certain extent, intentions do matter - at least when it comes to people knowingly and willingly doing things. Not all people do things out of malice, and those who do things out of pure ignorance can and will change if nudged in the right direction.

Intentions may have no bearing on the consequences of an action, but they have a bearing on whether people will keep on acting that way.