CEO’s can only intend to be Bad!

Take a look at the following video and try out the short task involved and then click below for the rest of the post:

Okay so if you have watched the video then there is around an 80% chance that you felt that the CEO intentionally harmed the environment and only a 20% chance that you felt that the CEO intentionally helped the environment. Yet the scenarios provided are identically structured with the only difference being the ‘goodness’ of the side-effect caused by the decision. Logically this should be irrelevant as the CEO declares the same indifference to the side effect in both scenarios yet the statistics show that people do not judge the two cases equally. Instead, studies using this experiment have repeatedly demonstrated that people are more likely to ascribe intentionality when there is bad moral consequences such as harm to the environment involved.

*My answer was unintentional to both scenarios but I felt an initial urge to say intentional for the bad scenario and despite over-ruling my initial reaction after thinking it over I still felt that my decision to say unintentional was somehow wrong.*

This experiment was created by Joshua Knobe who is one of the leading figures in ‘experimental philosophy‘. What differentiates ‘experimental philosophy’ from regular philosophy is that the researchers actually design and implement experiments such as the one above to examine people’s intuitions.

Joshua Knobe looking philosophical

You might ask how experimental philosophy differs from psychology but this point is somewhat moot as the experimental philosophers themselves acknowledge that the boundaries between what they are doing and certain strands of psychology are blurry. Knobe justified this blurry distinction in an interview by arguing that psychology is a subject of major relevance for philosophical questions relating to human thought and behaviour and by pointing out that the boundaries between various academic disciplines are often the result of convention and history and are becoming increasingly irrelevant for topics like moral cognition. He may well be right as his papers appear in a diverse range of journals- I personally came across his papers in an evolutionary anthropology course.

Whether it is regarded as philosophy, psychology or something else, the salient point is the intriguing results obtained from the experiments. Knobe argues that these results, along with similar results from other experiments, demonstrate that moral considerations (unconsciously) influence aspects of our reasoning about others mental states (our so called ‘Theory of Mind’).  His argument is persuasive as it seems apparent that the moral side effects are having an impact on perceived intentionality however a number of alternative explanations for the results have been put forward by other researchers. Two examples are:

  1. The respondents wanted to express their disapproval of the CEO’s decision when the side effect was harmful but since the only option was to select intentional or unintentional they selected the answer which allows them to indicate that the action deserves blame.
  2. The respondents had an existing moral framework that made it difficult to accept that an act could be harmful and unintentional. If they realised that this was possible they would chose differently.

However, one of the strengths of experimental philosophy is the ease with which new studies can be conducted and so Knobe and his collaborators redesigned their experiments to test whether alternative explanations, like the two above, held up. To illustrate, here is how they addressed the two issues identified above:

  1. They added an additional question asking about whether the CEO’s actions were blameworthy giving the respondent the chance to indicate their disapproval while still selecting unintentional.
  2. Before showing them the original scenarios they provided respondents with an extra scenario in which a drunk driver unintentionally kills a pedestrian illustrating that someone could do something unintentionally and it still be morally bad.

After making these adjustments the same results were collected contradicting the predictions of the alternative explanations and adding further support to Knobe’s original interpretation. Yet despite such compelling rebuttals (there are many more) it would be wrong to imply that the original explanation is now entirely uncontested. There remain a number of researchers who have raised other challenges or who support alternative explanations for the results (you can see a list of some relevant responses on his website).

What it is fair to say is that Knobe’s supporters seem to outweigh his detractors and what’s more he and his supporters seem to be fully prepared to meet any objections by continuing to invent novel new experiments with which to continue to probe the results. And to date despite nearly a decade of debate and experiment it seems that the initial findings remain robust. In fact, after a battery of further experiments, Knobe has just recently proposed, along with his co-author Dean Petite, that moral judgement pervades all aspects of ‘folk psychology’ and is not limited simply to affecting judgements of intentionality.

Those are interesting claims and have already been used to support the views of certain evolutionary psychologists, like Marc Hauser, who contend that there are universal intuitive aspects of moral cognition. Whether such conclusions turn out to be justified or not will likely depend on further experiments and I find it both surprising and refreshing that it is most likely to be philosophers who will be carrying them out!


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