This Classic Thought Experiment Will Make You Question Your True Intentions

Image for article titled This Classic Thought Experiment Will Make You Question Your True Intentions

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



I must be missing something because the basic question doesn’t seem very complicated or nuanced to me.

In the hypothetical you describe, the CEO acted intentionally in both cases, but his/her intention was not to change the environment.

So - CEO took action, knowing what the consequences of his/her actions would be so s/he is responsible for the consequences, even if the consequences weren’t the intent. If the CEO had known and the environmental impact factored into the decision making, then it’s fuzzier.

My criteria for judgement in a hypothetical case you describe is something like: (Start at the top and stop as soon as the answer to one of these questions is ‘no’). The further down the list you get the more positive or negative I judge the person.

1. Should a reasonable person be able to predict the consequences (environmental impact) of his/her (the CEO) plan of action? ** if not, then no judgement either way because the result was unintended and unpredicted. If yes, then some judgement because a reasonable person SHOULD have been able to predict the outcome.

2. Did the CEO know what the environmental impact would be? ** if no, then no additional judgement beyond #1. If yes, then a lot more judgement, and proceed....

3. Did the environmental impact have any affect on the decision/Was the outcome one of the factors in making the decision? (in this case you said ‘no’) ** if no, then no extra judgement beyond #2. If Yes, then they get losts of extra judgement - though there could be mitigating factors that would decrease my judgement.

I don’t think I judge positive or negatively more or less because something is positive vs. negative, but I could be wrong.