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The folk strike back; or, why you didn’t do it intentionally, though it was bad and you knew it


Recent and puzzling experimental results suggest that people’s judgments as to whether or not an action was performed intentionally are sensitive to moral considerations. In this paper, we outline these results and evaluate two accounts which purport to explain them. We then describe a recent experiment that allegedly vindicates one of these accounts and present our own findings to show that it fails to do so. Finally, we present additional data suggesting no such vindication could be in the offing and that, in fact, both accounts fail to explain the initial, puzzling results they were purported to explain.

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  1. 1.

    Because the harming-chairman case, the one for which judgments of intentionality increased, involves what is most naturally thought of as a morally bad side effect, one might conclude that Knobe intended moral badness as inclining subjects to judgments of intentionality. Indeed, Knobe (2003) is most naturally read as a defense of this thesis. However, Knobe in fact holds a weaker thesis, such that some sense of badness (and not simply moral badness) can lead to intentionality judgments (Knobe & Mendlow, 2004).

  2. 2.

    Recently, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has outlined a ‘social intuitionist’ model of moral judgment that affords a more general framework within which BLAM might be situated (Haidt, 2001). On this model, the vast majority of people’s moral judgments are driven by initial flashes of intuition (what we might call ‘gut feelings’) that do not result from any process of reasoning. People can, of course, provide reasons to support their moral judgments when prompted to do so, but all such reasoning is post-hoc justification of a prior moral judgment. Only in rare cases does reasoning play a constitutive role in moral judgments. Similarly, for BLAM, subjects first have a strong inclination to blame the agent who engendered the bad side-effect in question, and this prior moral judgment then leads them to say—post-hoc—that the agent brought about the side-effect intentionally.

  3. 3.

    According to BLAM, judgments of blameworthiness precede judgments of intentionality in the relevant side effect cases. According to BAM, they do not. An anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies suggests the following method for generating evidence about who is right: “Show two groups the same story. Instruct them to answer as soon as they can. (They click a box on a computer monitor. Their clicks are timed, as is appearance of the story on the monitor.) Ask one group whether the agent A-ed intentionally, and ask the other whether he should be blamed.” This is an intriguing method and presents an interesting proposal for future work. If it turned out that people regularly made judgments of one kind before the other, this might endorse one view over the other.

  4. 4.

    Nadelhoffer (2004c) suggests a role for the post-hoc intentionality judgments his theory posits: “the concept of intentional action...could still be used to amplify, verify, mitigate, or exculpate our antecedent attributions of moral responsibility. And even though in these situations our notion of intentional action would admittedly not play its usual role of fixing blame, it would nevertheless have an important role to play” (262). Important, perhaps, but arguably not one of its central roles. In any case, our discussion was only meant to point out the affinity BAM and BLAM have to various theories of the conceptual role of “intentionality.” It is not essential that proponents of either BAM or BLAM accept the one account or the other.

  5. 5.

    This strategy is suggested, but not implemented, in Nadelhoffer (2004c).

  6. 6.

    In fact, 42% of subjects judged the side effect in the increasing prominence case to be good, and 40% thought Susan deserved praise for it. We were a little surprised by these numbers. Could these judgments be affecting ascriptions of intentionality? This cannot be ruled out. However, even if this were true, neither BAM nor BLAM could account for it. According to BAM, if people judge an effect to be good, then they must examine whether the agent was trying to bring it about (and whether or not it was a means to some other end the agent was trying to bring about) in order to assess whether it was brought about intentionally. But it’s clear that Susan is not trying to bring about the increase in prominence, so BAM cannot account for this result. According to BLAM, an agent’s pro attitude toward a good effect can lead to ascriptions of intentional action (Nadelhoffer, 2004b). However, Susan displays no such pro-attitude towards the effect. So BLAM cannot account for this result either.

  7. 7.

    Nadelhoffer (2006) ran a study with a similar structure and obtained a similar result. The study concerned a sniper who fired his rifle and, as a side effect, ended up heating the barrel of his gun. Of those asked, 68% deemed the sniper to have heated his barrel intentionally. This represents another instance of a neutral side effect that is nonetheless deemed intentional. Our thanks to an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for pointing this out.

  8. 8.

    We shared our results with Knobe, and he agrees (personal communication) that they do, indeed, constitute a refutation of BAM.


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We would like to thank Jesse Prinz and an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for their illuminating comments on previous drafts. We owe special thanks to Joshua Knobe, who offered essential help throughout the process of researching and writing this paper.

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Correspondence to Mark T. Phelan.

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Phelan, M.T., Sarkissian, H. The folk strike back; or, why you didn’t do it intentionally, though it was bad and you knew it. Philos Stud 138, 291–298 (2008).

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  • Experimental philosophy
  • Action theory