This is a really important questions, and from your answer, you can really tell what kind of ethical "system" (if any) you subscribe to.
For a really strict utilitarian, I would imagine one's intentions have no bearing on the situation at all---outcome
is all that matters. I personally take issue with this stance, since it seems at least possible that you have a hypocrite who appears
to be doing things out of the goodness of his/her heart, but in reality is quite selfish.
For a deontologist, it's neither the intention nor the outcome, but the action itself, that matters---namely, do my actions correspond to a pre-defined notion of good or bad? Am I doing my duty or not? I'm a little more sympathetic to a deontological position than I am to a utilitarian one, but even here I have major issues. Kant's "categorical imperative", for instance, is not based on the concrete situation actually occuring but on "universalizing" an abstract maxim, and to me that's entirely the wrong way to approach ethical situations.
Virtue ethics would emphasize one's internal relation to the action---it's not about what you do, but who you are
in doing it. According to classical virtue ethicists like Aristotle, one performs actions because they are beautiful. A person of good character (or phronesis
, "practical wisdom") will, according to Aristotle, have an intuitive orientation to do the right thing because they find virtue beautiful. According to the classical definition, virtue is an active condition (hexis
) that makes one apt at choosing the mean (i.e. the beautiful action) between two extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency ("such as a man of practical wisdom would determine").
I'm very sympathetic to the virtue ethics position, but the problem here is that it depends on a number of factors that are likely to be considered overly "subjective." It seems that one either has this intuitive, ethico-aesthetic instincts or one does not---and if you don't what then (you're pretty much screwed if you weren't habituated properly as a child, according to Aristotle)? Besides, just what would
a person of "practical wisdom" decide to do?