Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Knobe Effect and Brutality

In this posting I want to consider one of the most famous findings in experimental philosophy. In 2003 Joshua Knobe discovered there is an asymmetry in the way we ascribe intentional acts http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Knobe . The Knobe effect might be described as follows. If the manager of a company knowingly damages the environment in his search for greater profits then his action in damaging the environment is regarded as intentional. However if the same manager of the company knowingly benefits the environment in his search for greater profits then his action is regarded as unintentional. Logically it would seem the two situations are equivalent and we should regard both acts as either intentional or unintentional. Is it possible to explain the Knobe effect?

An interesting attempt to partly explain this effect is provided by Richard Holton and will shortly appear in Analysis, see http://web.mit.edu/holton/www/pubs/Norm&Knobe.pdf . In his paper Holton links the attribution of intentionality to norms. Holton argues whether an action is judged intentional depends on whether in performing the action the agent intentionally violates or intentionally conforms to a norm. Holton further argues intentional violation of a norm just requires that one knowingly violates it. Whilst intentionally conforming to a norm requires that one lets the norm guide one’s actions. It follows according to Holton that there is an asymmetry between violating and conforming to norms and conforming to norms and that this asymmetry is reflected in the way we attribute intentionality. This is an interesting idea but in this posting I want to link the Knobe effect to the vice of brutality.

Most, if not all, experimental philosophers are to some extent unhappy with virtue theory. They would argue our moral responses are essentially guided by external factors such as the situations we find ourselves in rather than internal factors such as character. I do not deny the importance of situations in affecting our moral decisions but I don’t want to downplay the relevance of character. I do not intend to defend virtue theory in detail here but will limit myself to making a few observations. Firstly had I been in the situation of fuehrer in the third Reich I refuse to believe that this situation would have meant that that I would have made the same decisions as Hitler did concerning the Jews and the holocaust. It seems obvious to me that not all people in identical situations act in an identical way. Indeed this conclusion is borne out by experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophy shows in certain situations most people act in a similar way but it does not show all people act in this way. It also seems obvious to me the reason why not all people act in a similar fashion must be connected to our internal dispositions. When and when these dispositions are good dispositions they might be regarded as virtues and the persons holding them may be regarded as having virtuous characters and when these dispositions are bad dispositions they might be regarded as vices and the persons holding them may be regarded as having vicious characters. I will not consider what constitutes a ‘good or bad disposition’ here, for those interested there are plenty of works on virtue ethics. In the light of the above it is clear that virtues and vices are of some importance in our moral decision making.

Brutal behaviour is defined as behaviour that is very cruel or violent and shows no feelings for others, or an act of this type according to the Cambridge Online Dictionary. However I would like to separate the concepts of brutality and cruelty. I accept a brutal person shows no feelings for others but I would argue that paying attention to the feelings of others is an essential element of cruelty, see for instance (Gabrielle Taylor, 2006, Deadly Vices, Oxford, pages 115-6). Let it be accepted that brutal behaviour involves violence without any regard for the feelings of others. It might appear that I would be inaccurate if I called the behaviour of a manager of a company, who knowingly damages the environment in his search for greater profits, brutal. It might be objected brutality is concerned solely with violence towards persons and the manager might be better described as unthinking or inconsiderate. Philosophers must be accurate in the way they use words but I believe the above objection carries little weight. Firstly we can certainly speak acting brutally towards animals. Secondly we might also for instance speak of the Israeli Army acting brutally towards Gaza. It might further objected in response to my second point that when we talk of the Israeli’s Army brutality towards Gaza what we are really talking about is brutality towards the people of Gaza. My reply to this further objection is that it would still seem to make sense to say the Israeli Army acted brutally towards Gaza even if it did not physically harm the people of Gaza because it destroyed people’s homes and destroyed the infrastructure. Accepting the above would make it possible to argue by analogy that it is indeed possible to act brutally towards the environment. If someone destroys habitats and ecosystems he wantonly harms the people, including future people who will be denied these resources, and animals who depend on these habitats and ecosystems.

Even if it is accepted that it makes sense to talk of someone acting brutally, viciously, towards the environment in a search for profits brutality alone offers no explanation for the asymmetry of the Knobe effect. In what follows I want to briefly consider the implications of Richard Holton’s ideas concerning norms and intentionality for virtue theory and intentionality. Recall Holton argues whether an action is judged intentional depends on whether in performing the action the agent intentionally violates or intentionally conforms to a norm. Holton further argues intentional violation of a norm only requires that one knowingly violates it whilst conforming to a norm requires that one attends to the demands of the norm. It follows there is an asymmetry between the conditions necessary for violating a norm and conforming to a norm. I will now argue that such an asymmetry also applies to acting virtuously and acting viciously. Let it be accepted virtues and vices are character traits. Let it be further accepted that virtuous acts naturally flow from a good character. A virtuous person doesn’t have to think about which is the best action in most situations his actions just flow from his character. It might be argued a virtuous person doesn’t intend good actions he just naturally does for the most part good actions. I would argue most people are naturally virtuous to some degree. I must make it clear I am not arguing a virtuous person always acts well. I am only arguing for a probabilistic form of virtue which just requires that a virtuous person usually acts well, see for instance Robert Adams (2006, A THEORY OF VIRTUE, Oxford, page 122). I would suggest not only do most people usually act well but that we naturally expect most people to usually act well. Such a suggestion might well be open to experiment. If my suggestion is correct then it follows when we see someone acting viciously we assume he is acting contrarily to what is natural for most people and hence intends his actions. It further follows there is an asymmetry between virtue and vice with regard to intentionality. If we see someone acting well, acting virtuously, we see his actions as natural rather than intentional whilst if we see someone acting viciously we see his actions as unnatural and hence intentional. Accepting my suggestions means the Knobe effect might possibly be explained by virtue theory. The manager who damages the environment in is search for profits is acting brutally towards nature, viciously, unnaturally and hence intentionally; whilst if he benefits the environment in his search for profits he is acting naturally and hence unintentionally.

I have suggested that the Knobe might be linked to the vice of brutality. My suggestion is based on the premise that if we see someone acting brutally we assume he is acting contrarily to what is natural for most people and hence intends his actions. Is it possible in the light of experimental philosophy to test this premise? Perhaps a modified Knobe experiment, in which it is explained to the participants that the manager damaging the environment is a sociopath or psychologically damaged, might yield different results. Such an experiment would be interesting. In conclusion I have attempted in this post to link virtue theory and the Knobe effect. I myself am unsure as to how successful my attempt has been. Regardless of the success of my attempt this attempt should not be seen as either quirky or some minor enterprise. The Knobe effect is important and robust with regard to intentionality. Praise or blame depends on intentionality. For instance we would blame the manager who damages the environment in his search for profits. It follows the Knobe effect has ethical implications. If virtue ethics is to remain meaningful virtue ethicists must be able to account for these implications.

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