The Echoes of the Mind (79-4) Intention


If intentional actions require intentions, then what do intentions require? ~ American philosopher Ryan Wasserman

In a 2003 study by American ethicist Joshua Knobe, people were asked about intention in 2 hypothetical scenarios. In the 1st, a CEO is asked about going forward with a new project that would increase profits but harm the environment. The CEO replies that he does not care about the environment, only about making as much profit as possible. The project proceeds, whereupon profits rise while the environment is harmed.

In the 2nd vignette the CEO is asked about a new project that would increase profits and help the environment. The CEO replies that he does not care about the environment, only about making as much profit as possible. The project proceeds with the predicted results.

For the 1st story, 82% of those asked said that the CEO intended to harm the environment. Conversely, for the 2nd scenario, only 23% thought that the CEO intended to help the environment.

If a consequence of an action is foreseen but not intended, then that consequence is a side effect. The perceived goodness or badness of side effects of actions influences people’s ascriptions of intentionality to those side effects. ~ American philosopher Adam Feltz

The Knobe effect refers to the asymmetrical logic that is applied to moral judgment. Foresight is considered sufficient to ascribe intentional harm.

What matters most in making moral judgments is our belief that we will cause harm, rather than our desire to cause harm. ~ American psychologist Fiery Cushman

Inconsistently, a beneficial or benign side effect is only adjudged intentional by expression. Credit is not given unless the outcome is announced as desirable beforehand.

In adjudging the intention behind a positive side effect, indifference makes a difference: caring is crucial.

The Knobe effect is the phenomenon where people tend to judge that a bad side effect is brought about intentionally, whereas a good side effect is judged not to be brought about intentionally. ~ Adam Feltz

Under the Knobe effect, when someone’s behavior is seen as violating a socially acceptable norm (more), the assumption is that the behavior is intentional.

When people construe a particular action as morally bad, they are more likely to describe the individual performing that action as actively bringing about the outcome. ~ Fiery Cushman

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The capacity to recognize a behavior as intentional is a central component of human social cognition. People may be incapable of thinking about behavior in any other way. ~ Austrian American psychologist Betram Malle

Intention requires desire (to achieve an outcome) and belief (that the desired outcome is possible by the contemplated action). The impetus of an intentional action stems from volition and involves awareness and skill.

Construing intentions is an extension of the innate inclination to understand cause and effect. Both efforts are aimed at rendering the world predictable.

Unless the stakes are high, such as adjudging criminal intent in a court proceeding, people do not carefully reason about intention. Instead, intentional behavior is heuristically recognized. If the sheer appearance of intention is compelling, then it must be: surmise is sufficient.

Mental mirroring can play a role in inferring intention. If an observed behavior triggers self-identification of the action as willful, then the perceiver sees the observed behavior in others as deliberate. Behaviors in others that one considers acts of volition in oneself are assumed purposeful.

If rote inference fails, perspective-taking is called upon: intention is determined by mentally placing oneself in someone else’s proverbial shoes.

Skill in theory of mind is the basis to reason about others’ desires, intentions, and beliefs. The link with morality is obvious: when we judge that someone intended and appeared to cause an outcome, we hold that person more morally responsible than if the outcome was accidental.

While attributing intention is universal, men and women may differ somewhat in their assessment of it. Cultural factors may also be involved. Such discrepancies owe to the influence of morality in assessing intention.

People differ in their moral compasses. Whether an outcome has moral implications affects the assessment of intention. Side effects without moral import are perceived as slighter, and purpose less significant; and vice versa.

People’s moral appraisals affect apparently non-moral concepts, including intention and causation. ~ Fiery Cushman

The distinction being doing something and allowing something to happen is important in moral appraisal. The converse is also true: moral assessment affects judgment about doing/allowing. A bad outcome or side effect is more likely to be construed as an active act than a passive allowance.

Praise and blame are apportioned by responsibility and intent. The intriguing aspect of the Knobe effect is that the arrow may point the other way: outcome may indicate intention.

Ex post facto reasoning can also filter in. Regretting a bad side effect reduces judgment of intentionality.