Beginning with Knobe (2003), numerous studies have revealed asymmetries in folk judgments about a variety of relations between agents and side-effects of their actions to which the agents are indifferent. When the CEO of a company cares solely about profit and knowingly decides to implement a project that will harm the environment, subjects tend to say that he harmed the environment intentionally, that he is blameworthy for doing so, that he was for harming the environment, that he decided to harm the environment, and that he achieved profit by harming the environment. When the same CEO instead knowingly implements a profitable project that will help the environment, subjects are unwilling to say that he helped the environment intentionally, that he is praiseworthy for doing so, that he was for helping the environment, decided to do so, or achieved profit by helping the environment (see e.g. Pettit & Knobe 2009).
Given that the CEO was equally indifferent to and aware of the environmental effects in both cases, the asymmetry might seem puzzling. A number of accounts have been proposed, and there is reasonable agreement that the asymmetries depend on norms, or on evaluations of the different effects (see e.g. Nichols & Ulatowski 2007; Knobe 2007; Knobe & Mendlow 2004; Knobe forthcoming; Cole Wright & Bengson 2009). What is not clear, however, is what the nature of this dependence is.
In this talk, I outline some problems with prior explanations and provide an account that handles all the relevant cases. The basic explanans is that in the harm condition, there is a straightforward and intuitively striking explanation of the effect in terms of the agent’s motivational states: the environment was harmed because the CEO didn’t care enough about the environment. Nothing similar is available in the help condition. This difference in intuitive explanatory judgments between the harm and help conditions is in turn explained by the fact that differences in normative expectations make certain factors seem explanatorily more significant than others (cf. Hitchcock & Knobe 2009). To various degrees, these differences affect judgments of intentionality and related folk-psychological judgments (concerning what was decided, what an agent was for, what was done by doing what, etc), when such judgments are seen as playing an explanatory role: for this purpose the action in question needs to be understood in terms that connect to motivational states that explain the agent’s actions. Given an assumption defended elsewhere (Björnsson & Persson forthcoming) and supported by new empirical evidence, the same is true about judgments of blame- and praiseworthiness: they depend on attributions of responsibility for the outcome, and judgments of responsibility are themselves a species of explanatory judgments.
If this ‘explanation explanation’ is correct, we can expect similar asymmetries in the case of intended effects of actions performed under microscopic chances of success, and we can expect side-effect asymmetries triggered by non-normative considerations that affect the explanatory relevance of agents’ motivational structures. And this is indeed what we see (Nadelhoffer 2004).
Björnsson, G.; Persson, K. Forthcoming: ‘The Explanatory Component of Moral Responsibility’. Noûs
Cole Wright, J; Bengson, J. 2009: ‘Asymmetries in Judgments of Responsibility and Intentional Action’. Mind & Language, 24, pp. 24–50.
Knobe, J.; Hitchcock, C. 2009: ‘Cause and Norm’. Journal of Philosophy, 106, pp. 587-612.
Knobe, J. 2003: ‘Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.’ Analysis 63, pp. 190–93.
Knobe, J. Forthcoming: ‘Person as Scientist, Person as Moralist.’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Knobe, Joshua 2007: ‘Reason Explanation in Folk Psychology’. Midwest Studies In Philosophy 31, pp. 90–106.
Knobe, J.; Mendlow, G. 2004: ‘The Good, the Bad and the Blameworthy: Understanding the Role of Evaluative Reasoning in Folk Psychology.’ Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 24, pp. 252–25
Nadelhoffer, T. 2004: ‘On Praise, Side Effects, and Folk Ascriptions of Intentionality’. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 24, pp. 196–213.
Nichols, Shaun; Ulatowski, Joseph 2007: ‘Intuitions and Individual Differences: The Knobe Effect Revisited’. Mind & Language, 22, pp. 346-65.
Pettit, D.; Knobe, J. 2009: ‘The Pervasive Impact of Moral Judgment.’ Mind & Language 24:5, pp. 586-604.
knobe effect, intentionality, responsibility, folk psychology, explanatory judgments