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Morality or Modality?: What Does the Attribution of Intentionality Depend On?
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I Morality and the Attribution of Intentional Actions

It has been argued that the attribution of intentional actions is sensitive to our moral judgment (Knobe 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, see also Mele 2003, Phelan & Sarkissian 2008). I will examine these arguments and suggest an alternative explanation for the experiments they are based on.

Joshua Knobe conducted the following experiment (Knobe 2003) to support this claim. Subjects were given two vignettes that differed only in one small detail and this difference influenced their attribution of intentionality. The first vignette was the following:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, 'We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.'

The chairman of the board answered, 'I don't care at all about harming the environment. I jus)t want to make as much profit as I can. Let's start the new program.'

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

The second vignette differed in only one word: 'harming' was replaced by 'helping':

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, 'We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also help the environment.'

The chairman of the board answered, 'I don't care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let's start the new program.'

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.

The surprising finding was that the overwhelming majority (77%) of subjects said in response to the first vignette that the chairman harmed the environment intentionally, whereas the overwhelming majority (70%) of subjects said that the chairman did not help the environment intentionally. As the difference between the first and the second scenario was only in terms of the moral value of harming versus helping the environment, Knobe concludes, this experiment clearly shows that our moral judgment influences our attribution of intentional actions. Knobe and his collaborators conducted a number of similar experiments that yielded similar results (see Knobe 2006 for a summary). But does this experiment really show that our moral judgment influences our attribution of intentional actions? I will argue that there is a simpler way of explaining these findings, without talking about moral judgment or morality at all. In short, I will argue that the difference between the two vignettes above is not a difference in the moral value of a certain action.

II A Modal Account of the Attribution of Intentionality

One striking feature of the experiments Knobe and his collaborators conducted is that they all share the same structure. To put it very simply, in one scenario, the agent has two reasons for performing a certain action and ignores one of these. In the other, the agent has a reason for and a reason against performing an action and ignores the reason against. Thus, in the experiment I quoted above, we have the following two scenarios:

  1. a.   In the harm case, the chairman has a reason (R1) for introducing the plan (to increase profit) and a reason (R2) against (to avoid harming the environment).

  2. b.   In the help case, in contrast, the chairman has two different reasons to introduce the plan: he had a reason to increase the company's profit (R1) and he also had a reason to help the environment (R3).

    In short, the difference between (a) and (b) is that in (a) the chairman has R1 for and R2 against introducing the plan, whereas in (b) he has R1 and R3 both in favor of performing this action. Importantly, the chairman chooses to ignore the environmental considerations: R2 and R3, respectively. This leaves R1 in both scenarios, which is a reason for introducing the plan. There is no difference between (a) and (b) in the actual reason the chairman is acting on.

    But there is a modal difference between (a) and (b): there is a difference in what would happen if the chairman did not ignore R...



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