If we examine ourselves every day with mindfulness and mental alertness, checking our thoughts, motivations, and their manifestations in external behavior, a possibility for change and self-improvement can open within us. From early morning until I go to bed and in all situations in life, I always try to check my motivation and be mindful and present in the moment.
-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
An old saying goes: "it's the thought that counts." When we give a gift or try to do something good, people often care more for the effort we make, or for our intentions, than for the material value or the result of our efforts.
In the law, crimes and injuries are often prosecuted and punished differently based on motivation, too. In the United States, when one person causes the death of another, it might be murder if there is intent, or with less intent it may be voluntary manslaughter, or with even less intent it may be involuntary manslaughter. In Europe and Asia, civil law puts relatively less weight on intent and more on the result of an act, but intent is still a key consideration and especially with regard to what penalty is deserved. Different societies measure and value intent with some variation, but in all societies, intent is considered important.
Immanuel Kant wrote extensively on motivation during the 18th century, when he formalized these ideas in Western philosophy and influenced nearly all philosophers since. Kant wrote that actions without intent are meaningless, and that the value of an action is not in its result, but in the feeling of the person taking the action.
There are many times we are uncertain what is right or wrong. A good guide in such times is to act with good intentions. Having good intentions is not always enough to ensure good results; often a bad result is due to misunderstanding of intent.
We must make our intentions clear to ourselves and others. If our motivations are not clearly stated, then others will assume some motivations, because without knowing our intent they do not know how to judge the value of our actions. Any action may have many motivations, so chances are high that without clear communication of intent, a misunderstanding will occur.
The Dalai Lama applies these ideas to our daily lives. Whenever possible, we should begin each day and each task by considering our motivations.