Blame And Intent

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 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.

How much blame do you think the chairman deserves for what he did (from 0-6)? Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

Those were questions posed to the people who read the story quoted above (Knobe, 2003). If you’re like most people, you’re probably basking in some sweet moral outrage right about now at the thought of the hypothetical chairman’s action; the kind people of fantasy-land will have to drink from polluted rivers, leading to the death of imaginary fish populations, harming the livelihood of the poor fishermen who were going to kill them anyway, and they all have the chairman to thank for it. To make the example a little more real, think about how certain economies recently took a big hit due to shady business practices, leading to some people occupying Wall Street getting a face full of pepper spray. 82% of participants said the chairman acted intentionally, and deserved to be blamed at about a 5 on average.

So now that we’ve established that the chairman definitely should be blamed for what he did since he was acting intentionally, do me a favor: go back to the original quote and read it again, replacing “harm” with “help”, then answer those first two questions, just replacing “blame” with “praise” and “harm with “help” again.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably really handsome. If you’re anything like the participants in the study, your answers to the questions probably did a 180; of course the chairmen doesn’t deserve praise for what he did and he certainly didn’t act intentionally. In fact, 77% of participants now believe the chairman did not act intentionally and deserves to be praised at about 1.5.

Remember how I said people are bad at logically justifying their decisions and evaluating evidence objectively?

Let’s consider these results in light of the moral wiggle room research I presented last post. When the dictator can choose between a similar interest $6/$5 option or a $5/$1 option, they probably won’t be judged positively, no matter which they choose; if they pick the first option, well that was in their interest anyway so the judgment should be neutral, and if they pick the second, they’re just a spiteful dic…tator.  When someone has to choose between the conflicting payoffs, either $6/$1 or a $5/$5 split, they probably have a chance for some social advancement in the latter choice -it’s only moral if you give something up to help someone else – but plenty of room for moral condemnation with the former.

What would people’s judgments be of dictators who had the $6/$? or a $5/$? payoff and chose to not know? My guess is that it would fall somewhere between the neutral and negative side, closer to the neutral side. Even though their reputation may suffer somewhat due to their willful ignorance, people seem to take definite harm into account more than potential harm (drunk drivers suffer lower penalties than drunk drivers who hit something/someone by accident, essentially meaning it’s more “against the law” to be reckless and unlucky than just reckless. Judging actions morally by their outcomes is another topic, no less interesting).

But what about the poor, misunderstood dictators? I’d also guess that the dictators would rate their behavior quite differently than the crowds of people with colorful signs and rhyming chants about who or what has “got to go”. Those in the similar interest group would probably say they behaved morally positively and did so intentionally – and who are we to question their motives? – as would those in the conflicting group who chose the $5/$5 split. The ones who chose the $6/$1 would probably rate their behavior as neutral, justifying it by saying it was an economic decision, not a moral one. Those in the ignorant condition would probably rate their behavior somewhere between morally positive and neutral, after all, they didn’t intentionally hurt anyone, nor do they know they even hurt anyone at all, so, you know, they’re probably upstanding people.

References: Knobe, J. (2003). Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language. Analysis, 63, 190-193

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