The Concept of Intentional Action A Case Study in the Uses of Folk Psychology – Experimental Philosophy by Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols
A question now arises about the relationship between folk psychology and scientific psychology. To what extent are they similar, and to what extent different?
Note:LE NOSTRE INTUIZIONI SU QUEL CHE PENSANO GLI ALTRI SONO CORRETTE?
I will focus on just one aspect of folk psychology—our folk-psychological concept of intentional action. People normally distinguish between behaviors that are performed intentionally (e.g., raising a glass of wine to one’s lips) and those that are performed unintentionally (e.g., spilling the wine all over one’s shirt).
The key claim here will be that—strange as it may seem—people’s intuitions as to whether or not a behavior was performed intentionally can sometimes be influenced by moral considerations. That is to say, when people are wondering whether or not a given behavior was performed intentionally, they are sometimes influenced by their beliefs about whether the behavior itself was good or bad.
Note:CORTO CIRCUITO TRA MORALE E INTENZIONE
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 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 harmed. Now ask yourself: Did the chairman of the board intentionally harm the environment?
Note:PRIMA STORIELLA DEL MANAGER
Faced with this question, most people (though certainly not all) say that the answer is yes.
Note:LA RISPOSTA PIÙ COMUNE: SÌ. IL CRIMINE È INTENZIONALE
For suppose that we replace the word ‘harm’ with ‘help,’ so that the vignette becomes: 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, and 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.”
Note:PICCOLA VARIANTE NELLA STORIELLA
This one change in the vignette leads to a quite radical change in people’s intuitions. Faced with this second version, most people say that the chairman did not intentionally help the environment.
Note:E ORA LA RISPOSTA INTUITIVA CAMBIA IN MODO INCOERENTE
The results were clear and compelling: 82 percent of subjects who received the story about environmental harm said that the chairman harmed the environment intentionally, whereas only 23 percent of subjects who received the story about environmental help said that the chairman helped the environment intentionally.
The effect continues to emerge when the whole experiment is translated into Hindi and run with Indian subjects (Knobe and Burra 2006); it emerges when subjects are only four years old (Leslie et al. 2006); it emerges even when the experiment is run on subjects who suffer deficits in emotional processing due to lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (Young et al. 2006).
How then are we to make sense of the fact that moral considerations sometimes influence people’s application of the concept of intentional action?
Note:PERCHÈ UN’ INTERAZIONE TANTO SINGOLARE E ASIMMETRICA?
I want to suggest is that there is another use of the concept of intentional action in light of which the influence of moral considerations really does make sense. The claim is that people’s concept of intentional action should not be understood simply as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior.
Note:FORSE IL CONCETTO DI INTENZIONE HA UN ALTRO SENSO
the structure of the cases in which people’s intuitions appear to be influenced by moral considerations.
Note:QUANDO SI VERIFICA L’INTERAZIONE?
First, let us consider the debate surrounding the role of trying and foresight. Some philosophers think that trying is a necessary condition for intentional action (Adams 1986; McCann 1986); others argue that a certain kind of foresight can actually be sufficient even in the absence of trying (Ginet 1990). The distinction between these two views comes out most clearly in cases of what might be called side effects. An outcome can be considered a ‘side effect’ when (1) the agent was not specifically trying to bring it about but (2) the agent chose to do something that she foresaw would involve bringing it about. The question is: Will people think that the agent brought about such an outcome intentionally?
INTENZIONALITÀ, TENTATIVO MIRATO E PREVEDIBILITÀ. INTENZIONALITÀ ED EFFETTI COLLATERALI
But when we study these cases systematically, we end up with a surprising result: people’s intuitions appear to be influenced by the moral qualities of the side effect itself. Specifically, people seem to be considerably more willing to say that the agent brought about the side effect intentionally when they regard that side effect as bad than when they regard the side effect as good.
Note:SORPRESA: IN MOLTI CASI CONSIDERIAMO INTENZIONALE SOLO L’EFFETTO COLLATERALE NEGATIVO
Consider a case in which an agent is trying to perform a behavior and actually does succeed in performing that behavior. And now suppose that the agent didn’t really have the skill to perform that behavior in any reliable fashion, so that ultimately the agent only manages to succeed through sheer luck. Has the agent performed the behavior intentionally? According to some philosophical analyses, the answer is yes (e.g., Brand 1984); according to others, the answer is no (e.g., Mele and Moser 1994).
Note:ABILITÀ E INTENZIONALITÀ. VOODOO
Jake desperately wants to win the rifle contest. He knows that he will only win the contest if he hits the bulls-eye. He raises the rifle, gets the bull’seye in the sights, and presses the trigger. But Jake isn’t very good at using his rifle. His hand slips on the barrel of the gun, and the shot goes wild . . . Nonetheless, the bullet lands directly on the bull’s-eye. Jake wins the contest. Faced with this case, most people think that it would be wrong to say that Jake hit the bull’s-eye intentionally…. But now suppose that we consider a case that is quite similar in certain respects but in which the behavior would normally be regarded as immoral: Jake desperately wants to have more money. He knows that he will inherit a lot of money when his aunt dies. One day, he sees his aunt walking by the window. He raises his rifle, gets her in the sights, and presses the trigger. But Jake isn’t very good at using his rifle. His hand slips on the barrel of the gun, and the shot goes wild . . . Nonetheless, the bullet hits her directly in the heart. She dies instantly. Changing the moral significance of the behavior in this way leads to a quite substantial change in the pattern of people’s intuitions. Faced with this second vignette, people overwhelmingly say that Jake hit his aunt intentionally.
Note:IL CASO DI JACK IL PISTOLERO IMBRANATO: RICONOSCIAMO INTENZIONALITÀ SOLO QUANDO COMBINA GUAI. PERCHÈ?
Klaus is a soldier in the German army during World War II. His regiment has been sent on a mission that he believes to be deeply immoral. He knows that many innocent people will die unless he can somehow stop the mission before it is completed. One day, it occurs to him that the best way to sabotage the mission would be to shoot a bullet into his own regiment’s communication device. He knows that if he gets caught shooting the device, he may be imprisoned, tortured, or even killed. He could try to pretend that he was simply making a mistake—that he just got confused and thought the device belonged to the enemy—but he is almost certain that no one will believe him. With that thought in mind, he raises his rifle, gets the device in his sights, and presses the trigger. But Klaus isn’t very good at using his rifle. His hand slips on the barrel of the gun, and the shot goes wild . . . Nonetheless, the bullet lands directly in the communications device. The mission is foiled, and many innocent lives are saved. Here most people feel that Klaus did hit the communications device intentionally.
Note:KLAUS. IL SOLDATO IMBRANATO MA BUONO. A LUI RICONOSCIAMO INTENZIONALITÀ
***COME SPIEGARE L’ASIMMETRIA? IL MODELLO MELE***
he suggests that people hold an explicit belief that an agent can be blameworthy for performing a behavior only if that agent performed the behavior intentionally.
IPOTESI MELE: INTUIAMO CHE PUÒ ESSERCI CONDANNA SOLO SE C’È INTENZIONE
When they encounter a case like that of the executive harming the environment, their tacit competence might spit out the conclusion: ‘This behavior is unintentional.’ But then they might think: ‘Wait! The agent is clearly to blame for his behavior, and agents can only be blameworthy for performing intentional actions. So the behavior in question just must be intentional after all.’
Note:COSA AVVIENE NELLA TESTA DI UNA PERSONA? PRIMA CONDANNA POI TORNA INDIETRO A METTERCI L’ AINTENZIONE
I tried to create a situation in which people would come to believe that a behavior can be blameworthy even if it is not intentional. Subjects were given a story about an agent who performed a behavior unintentionally but seemed clearly to be deserving of blame. (The story concerned an agent who harms other people while driving drunk.) Subjects were then asked (a) whether or not the agent acted intentionally and (b) whether or not the agent was to blame for his behavior. As expected, almost all subjects answered no to the first question and yes to the second. Immediately after answering this question, subjects were presented with a case in which moral considerations usually have an impact on people’s intentional action intuitions… The answer is that the moral status of the behavior continues to have an impact even in this situation. As in previous studies, subjects were far more likely to classify the behavior as intentional when it was morally bad….
Note:MA NON SEMPRE LA CONDANNA IMPLICA INTENZIONE. IL CASO DELL’ UBRIACO
the effect might be due entirely to conversational pragmatics. The basic idea is that people are describing blameworthy behaviors as ‘intentional’ because they want to avoid certain unwanted implicatures. When a person utters the sentence ‘He didn’t do that intentionally,’ there is often a clear implicature that the agent is not to blame
Note:È TUTRA UNA QUESTIONE DI RETORICA
people’s use of this word is no sure guide to their application of the corresponding concept. Factors like conversational pragmatics may influence people’s use
Note:INTENZIONE. UNA PAROLA CHE USIAMO IN MODO INACCURATO
We can determine whether or not people regard a given behavior as intentional by looking at their use of the phrase ‘in order to.’ It seems that people are generally unwilling to say that an agent performed a behavior ‘in order to’ attain a particular goal unless they believe that the agent performed that behavior intentionally.
Note:ECCO UN METODO ALTERNATIVO PER CAPIRE SE ATTRIBUIAMO INTENZIONALITÀ
Faced with the harm vignette, people generally think it sounds right to say: ‘The chairman harmed the environment in order to increase profits.’ But, surprisingly enough, people who have been given the help vignette do not generally think it sounds right to say: ‘The chairman helped the environment in order to increase profits.’
Note:RITESTARE LE IPOTESI. ESITO
Presumably, this asymmetry in people’s use of the phrase ‘in order to’ reflects an asymmetry in people’s views about which behaviors were performed intentionally (Knobe 2004)…. There seems not to be any direct connection between being blameless and not performing an action in order to attain a goal….
Note:EVIDENTEMENTE NON C’È SOTTO SOLO RETORICA
***IL MODELLO NADELHOFFER***
the data are best explained in terms of the distorting effects of people’s feelings of blame. The key idea here is that moral considerations play no role at all in the fundamental competence underlying people’s concept of intentional action. However, when people classify an agent’s behavior as immoral, they may quickly come to feel that the agent is deserving of blame. This feeling then distorts their reasoning,
Note:TRATTASI DI SEMPLICE BIAS
two distinct stages in the process of moral assessment. First we make a judgment as to whether or not the behavior itself is bad and then—depending on the outcome of this first stage—we may end up making a judgment as to whether or not the agent deserves blame. Where in this whole process does the concept of intentional action appear? The commonsense view works something like this: On this model, people determine whether the behavior itself is bad without making any use of the concept of intentional action.
IPOTESI DI MODELLO SENSO COMUNE: MALE+INTENZIONE=COLPEVOLEZZA. È UN MODELLO CHE PERO’ NON SPIEGA LE STRANE INTERFERENZE TRA MORALE E INTENZIONALE
Nadelhoffer, Malle, and Nelson therefore propose that the process sometimes works more like this: On this model, people do not use the concept of intentional action to determine whether or not the agent is blameworthy. Instead, they assign blame before they have even applied the concept. Then they apply the concept in such a way as to justify the blame they have already assigned.
IL MODELLO DISTORTO IPOTIZZATO DA NADELHOFFER: MALE=>COLPEVOLE=>INTENZIONE
people were making some kind of error.
Note:LA GENTE SBAGLIA, SEMPLICE
There is, however, another plausible way to make sense of the data reported thus far. Perhaps the process actually works like this: This third model can make sense of the fact that people’s moral judgments sometimes influence their intuitions as to whether or not a behavior was performed intentionally,
TERZO SCHEMA: IL MALE EVOCA INTENZIONALITÀ. NOI VOGLIAMO UN COLPEVOLE
The basic idea is that people’s judgment that the behavior itself is bad can influence their intuitions as to whether the behavior was performed intentionally
Instead of arguing explicitly against the view that moral considerations play some fundamental role in folk psychology, these authors simply propose alternative models and then try to show that their models provide plausible explanations of the data. The presumption seems to be that, if any alternative model can provide a plausible explanation, that model is to be preferred over the hypothesis that moral considerations really are playing a role in folk psychology.
Note:PERCHÈ NON SI VUOLE AMMETTERE CHE L’INTENZIONE SCATURISCE DA UN GIUDIZIO MORALE ANZICHE’ GENERARLO?
the basic purpose of folk psychology is to enable people to predict each other’s behavior or to offer them some other form of quasiscientific, purely naturalistic understanding. When folk psychology is understood in this way, it seems that it would be pointless for moral considerations to play any real role.
Note:MOTIVO: DOBBIAMO PREVEDERE I COMPORTAMENTI ALTRUI. SE L’INTENZIONE E’ UN BUON PREDITTORE VA SEMPRE POSTO PRIMA (ANCHE QUANDO I CONTI NON QUADRANO).
we can start out with the data and try to figure out what the data might be telling us about the nature of folk psychology.
Note:NATURALMENTE ESISTONO APPROCCI ALTERNATIVI
it seems that people are generally inclined to give an agent more praise and blame for behaviors they regard as intentional than for those they regard as unintentional.
Note:REGOLA GENERALE: PIÙ NTENZIONE, PIÙ MERITI E PIÙ COLPE
we should note that the three features we encountered in our discussion of intentional action—trying, foresight, and skill—play a crucial role in the process by which people normally assign praise and blame…. when people are wondering how much praise or blame an agent deserves, their conclusion will sometimes depend on whether or not the person was trying to perform a given behavior, whether she chose to do something that she foresaw would involve performing that behavior, whether she had the skill to perform that behavior reliably….
Note:SFORZO MIRATO, PREVISIONE, ABILITÀ… GLI INGREDIENTI DELL’INTENZIONE
A behavior is shmintentional if and only if the agent had skill and either trying or foresight….
Note:DEFINIZIONE DI SUPERINTENZIONALE: COMPORTAMENTO CON SFORZO PREVISIONE E ABILITÀ
The problem is that different features are relevant to different behaviors and that shmintentionality is therefore more relevant to praise and blame judgments for some behaviors than for others.
Note:NON ESISTONO REGOLE GENERALI
We noted above that there is a puzzling asymmetry in people’s intuitions about intentional action in side-effects cases. People seem to be far more inclined to say that an agent brought about a side effect intentionally when they regard that side effect as bad than when they regard it as good.
Note:LA PAZZA ASIMMETRIA
people generally give the agent considerably more praise and blame for ‘lucky successes’ when they regard those successes as immoral or morally good than when they regard them as achievements.
Note:IN NOI NON C’E’ SOLO UN PREDITTORE, C’E’ ANCHE UN MORALISTA. IL MORALISTA CHE È IN NOI RICERCA INTENZIONE
People’s intentional action intuitions seem to exhibit a certain flexibility, such that they look for different features when confronted with different behaviors, and they tend to consider in each case the specific features that would be relevant to determining whether the agent is deserving of praise or blame.
Note:PER QUESTO SIAMO COSÌ ELASTICI NELL’ INTUIRE LA PRESENZA DI INTENZIONALITÀ. LA COSTRUIAMO AD HOC NEI SINGOLI CASI PER POTER MORALIZZARE
The key claim will be that people’s intentional action intuitions tend to track the psychological features that are most relevant to praise and blame judgments. But—and this is where moral considerations come in—different psychological features will be relevant depending on whether the behavior itself is good or bad.
Note:IPOTESI ALTERNATIVA PARTENDO DAI DATI: L’ATTRIBUIZIONE DI INTENZIONALITÀ SEGUE QUELLA DI COLPEVOLEZZA O MERITO
we in no way deny that the concept of intentional action is often used in the tasks of prediction and explanation. Nor do we deny that it is adequate for these tasks—that it can do a decent job of fulfilling various scientific purposes.
ATTENZIONE: QUESTO NON SIGNIFICA CHE L’INTENZIONE TALVOLTA NON SIA ALL’INIZIO DI UN PROCESSO. SI TEORIZZA SOLO L’ESISTENZA DI SITUAZIONI DIFFERENTI TRA LORO NON OMOGENEE