Despite the title, this post is not about politics. The Knobe Effect is roughly the following: people consider foreseen side effects to be (more) intentional
(or on purpose
) if those side effects are bad than if they are good. That is, if you do something that has a beneficial foreseen side-effect, you won't be seen as bringing about that side-effect on purpose, but you would if the side effect was harmful or bad. This result has been shown to be experimentally robust in several groups of subjects.
Disputes concerning the Knobe effect arise in the interpretation
of this experimental finding. Knobe himself takes these results to show that our concept of intentional action is essentially tied by our moral sensibilities -- somewhat surprising, since we don't usually think of intention and morality as closely linked. Other philosophers have suggested more 'deflationary' readings of the experimental results; for example, we want to blame someone for bringing about a foreseen, bad side effect of their actions -- and as a general rule of thumb, we only legitimately blame people for things they do on purpose. So on this interpretation, the Knobe effect is seen as a sort of confabulation or rationalization for our practices of praising and blaming -- not as bearing on the very concept of intention itself. Several papers by Knobe and co-authors are available on Knobe's webpage
, along with papers responding to his work. If you prefer your philosophy in blog form, there has been a great deal of discussion of this work over at Experimental Philosophy
Recent events in Lebanon provide an example of the type of situation in which the Knobe Effect appears. Israel intends to destroy Hezbollah's military capabilities, and used various forms of military force as a means to that end. Since much of the Hezbollah forces are located in places with high civilian population density, one foreseen side effect of Israel's use of force to disarm Hezbollah is a tragically high number of civilian casualities.
On NPR, I heard a high-ranking Israeli military official justify his country's military action by saying, in effect: We Israelis are not aiming to hurt any civilians -- our goal is only to stop Hezbollah from launching strikes into Israeli territory. There's two things I wanted to say about this:
(1) If only this high-ranking Israeli offical had read the work of Knobe et al., he would have known that this excuse would not carry much water, if any at all -- we are blamed for foreseen bad side-effects, even if they are unintentional.
(2) My reaction/ intuition in this case is against Knobe's stronger interpretation of the experimental results, and with the deflationists': I think the defense official has a perfectly good grasp of the concept of purpose or intentional action, even when he says "We're not harming Lebanese civilians on purpose." This doesn't sound like "John is a married bachelor" or "This is a square circle" to me.
Labels: ethics, experimental philosophy