Saturday, March 01, 2008

Intent and Experimental Philosophy

Two stories:
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.’


Did the chairman intend to hurt the environment?
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.’


Did the chairman intend to hurt the environment?

A common answer to given to question one is yes; to question two, no. Even though in both situations the chariman had knowledge of a result (i.e., harm or benefit to the environment), but not purpose to cause the event (i.e., his purpose was purely an interest in money). So why the different answers?

I have three thoughts:
(1) In the first story we are comparing costs and benefits (money v. environment), and in the second, there are only benefits (money + environment). In the first situation, depending upon a person's values, they will or will not make the product. In the second, everyone would make the product because there is no downside. This distinction suggests that people's definition of intent depends upon whether a choice needs to be made. In the second story, there is really no choice at all.

(2) Most people can readily think of something that harms the environment, while often "environmentally friendly" products are really something that tends to cause less harm, rather than reducing harm in an absolute sense. For example, driving a hybrid does not remove carbon dioxide from the air, but merely introduces less carbon dioxide. So, when someone thinks about these two stories, they are likely to have a background understanding that the employee in the second story is not actually saying the product will help the environment (for example, a product that removes pollution from the air), but merely cause less of an effect or no effect on the environment.* This background knowledge may influence what they consider intentional. In the first situation there appears to be a change from the status quo to a more polluted environment, in the second, it could be the case that the product merely maintains the status quo instead of making the environment more polluted. If this is the basis for the distinction, it suggests a distinction between action and inaction in determining what is "intentional."

(3) These two ideas different from the initial thoughts of the experimenter, Joshua Knobe, raises concerns that using this type of "experimental philosophy" is not that useful because it is difficult or impossible to (a) eliminate "background" facts in the questionee's mind (even if a question says "assume...," people will not necessary be able to completely eliminate their feelings regarding the probability of the stated assumption), or (b) determine what are the material differences between the two questions.

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