Intentionality and Morality in Human Judgment

The CEO of a company is told, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also hurt the environment.” The company starts the new program and the environment is harmed. In an alternate scenario, the CEO is told that the same profit-increasing program will help the environment. Surely enough, upon implementation, the program helps the environment.

Professor Joshua Knobe, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science and Philosophy at Yale, conducted a survey to determine whether people believe the CEO intentionally harmed or helped the environment. Answers displayed an intriguing divide: in the harm condition, 82% said the CEO intentionally harmed the environment, while in the help condition, only 23% said he intentionally helped the environment.

The explanation for this phenomenon is now known as the “Knobe effect.” Although many believe that intentionality, the process of recognizing someone’s purpose and intentions, is caused by someone’s psychological state, intentionality is very dependent on the morality of the action.

Rather than it being a forward process, such as a person first evaluating the situation and his or her psychological state and then making a judgment, Knobe suggests that it is actually a reverse process, where one looks at the action and determines whether it’s morally right or wrong and then makes a judgment about intentionality. Essentially, people’s sense of what sort of attitude an agent is “supposed to” have toward a given outcome can depend on the nature of the outcome itself.

What is Intentionality?

Knobe proposes that we should not think of intentional and unintentional as two distinct choices; rather, we should look at it as a gradient ranging from “purely unintentional” to “purely intentional.” On one side, you have someone trying as hard as they can to not do something but still end up doing it, which is completely unintentional. On the other side, there is someone trying as hard as they can to do something and they succeed, a completely intentional action. So for one person, “intentionality” may simply mean that a person’s motivation in a decision was farther along the “purely intentional” side than the “purely unintentional.”

But how far is far enough? Knobe states, “It seems like we set the threshold in different places depending on the moral status of the action. So we have an idea of how far you should be expected to be for harming and for helping and they differ.”

In the case of harming, we expect people not to want to harm the environment; rather, we expect people to try to help the environment, so the single point in the middle would move towards the intentional side in the helping case, and towards the unintentional side in the harming case. So in the harming case, we might wonder at how shocking it is that the CEO is willing to harm the environment, while in the helping case, one might say it is shocking how unwilling he is to help the environment even though the actual amount of willingness is the same. “It’s just that you are comparing it to different types of expectations,” explains Knobe.

This effect is called the “side-effect effect.” For all concepts like this, both Knobe and others have shown that subjects are more inclined to apply intentionality in cases of morally bad side effects and less willing to apply it in cases of morally good side effects. That is, people would more likely say that an agent has intentionally performed a side-effect action if that action is bad rather than if it is good.

A diagram displaying the side-effect effect under normal circumstances (top), harming consequences (middle), and helping consequences (bottom). Image courtesy of Professor Knobe.

Neurological Basis

Not only has the side-effect effect been shown in empirical experiments, but there have also been studies to determine what the neurological basis might be. This research is primarily concerning the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a brain region that plays a critical role in how ordinary people integrate emotion into their decision-making. People who have lesions to this brain region have massive deficits in their capacity for emotional response and therefore react differently to many moral questions.

To investigate the neuropsychological role of the side-effect effect, a previous study took VMPC patients and gave them the same CEO question. For either scenario, the patients were asked if the CEO harmed or helped the environment intentionally. This experiment lead to an interesting result—the VMPC patients gave exactly the same response as normal people do. They say that he harmed intentionally and helped unintentionally. While this brain defect eliminates emotional factors into people’s decision-making, it did not eliminate the side-effect effect. Based on this, Young concluded that this effect isn’t actually due to people’s emotions getting in the way.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is highlighted in dark grey.

Pervasiveness of Morality

The core finding of the CEO experiment, Young’s work, and many other similar experiments dealing with various concepts seem to suggest that our whole way of understanding the world is colored by our moral judgment. Our ordinary understanding, the way we make sense of other people and ourselves, is not some type of scientific picture of the world but rather a deeply moral conception of how our world works.

“All of these concepts involve this notion that we compare the way the world actually is to ways it could have been,” Knobe explains. “So the key idea is that moral judgments are changing our way of thinking how things could have been otherwise, changing what we compare the actual world to. By changing this, our thinking of things possibly being other ways, that morality impacts our intuitions about all these different concepts.” In light of this realization, there is now a search for a deeper theory that explains how moral judgments affect our folk psychology and our different conceptions of the world.

Experimental Philosophy

This research involves the field of experimental philosophy. The traditional approach involves a philosophical mindset concerning questions of human nature. However, experimental philosophy is a renaissance of sorts, combining the conventional with methods of contemporary cognitive science. Rather than just thinking about human nature, questions are answered through experimental studies using scientific methodologies. Experimental philosophers strive to understand whether certain factors play a role in our understanding the world by creating experimental conditions that explore these concepts. If a factor is significant, the researchers try to answer why it is significant. It is an approach that is becoming more utilized as a way to understand the workings of our mind and the world around us.

Professor Knobe, an experimental philosopher and founder of the “Knobe effect,” wearing his characteristic experimental philosophy shirt.

Looking Forward

Professor Knobe feels that it might be better if the brain had some ability to just look at things and understand them for what they are rather than always reaching for a moral judgment. While researchers try to comprehend how moral judgment works in our mind, Professor Knobe will be busy researching both the differences between moral objectivity versus relative objectivity and the role of the body in people’s understanding of the mind. We can only look forward to his next breakthrough.

About the Author
SUDHAKAR NUTI is a prospective Classics major in Trumbull College. He loves everything involving science.

The author would like to thank Professor Knobe for his time, patience, and openness throughout the writing process.

Further Reading
Liane Young, Fiery Cushman, Ralph Adolphs, Daniel Tranel, Marc Hauser. (2006). “Does emotion mediate the effect of an action’s moral status on its intentional status? Neuropsychological evidence.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 6, 291-304.
Knobe, J. (2003). “Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.” Analysis, 63, 190-193.
Dean Pettit & Joshua Knobe (2009). “The Pervasive Impact of Moral Judgment.” Mind and Language 24 (5):586-604.