This Classic Thought Experiment Will Make You Question Your True Intentions

By Esther Inglis-Arkell on at

One of the most famous experiments in experimental philosophy introduced us to the Knobe Effect. It makes us think hard about what we’re saying when we say someone did something “intentionally.”

In 2003, philosopher Joshua Knobe published the results of an experiment that made people think about intentions. He asked a number of subjects to consider the actions of a fictional CEO. This CEO wants to take a certain action, and that action will have a certain effect on the environment. The CEO doesn’t care about the environment one way or the other. He proceeds to take the action because it will make money. Any environmental change will be purely a side-effect of the action. In one scenario, the action will improve the environment. In the other scenario, the action will destroy the environment.

In either scenario, was the impact on the environment “intentional”? The answer to the question depends on what we think “intentional” means. If “intentional” means the environmental impact was the purpose of the action, then neither scenario is an example of an intentional action. If “intentional” means the CEO took the action deliberately, knowing that it would change the environment (for better or worse) as one of its consequences, then both scenarios are examples of intentional action.

Knobe found that responders were not consistent with their blame. If the impact on the environment was negative, then people would say the CEO “intentionally” caused environmental damage. If the impact on the environment was positive, then people did not believe the CEO “intentionally” did the environment any good.

The experiment can be interpreted many ways. Knobe believed that we first judge whether an action is good or bad, and we use different criteria for judging intentions, and therefore assigning blame, depending on our initial moral appraisal.

Later experiments showed it can be more complicated than that. One experiment studying the Knobe Effect moved the CEO to Nazi Germany. The same guidelines apply, except this time, the CEO chooses to take action purely for profit, but the action happens to violate an unjust Nazi law. In the other scenario, the CEO goes for profit and the action happens to comply with the law. In this case, most people believed that the CEO was intentionally violating the unjust law, but unintentionally following it. Perhaps we think “intention” is more about the decision to fight, or follow, social norms than about the morality of the outcome.

What do you think? Was either CEO intentionally doing anything intentionally? When you scan the papers in the morning, do you judge people who do bad one way and people who good another way?

Image: Martin Bowling