Israel, Lebanon, and the Knobe Effect

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Perhaps this (or a corollary) accounts for some of the seeming (at least to me) disparity in the reaction to the actions of Israel and Hezbollah.

On the one hand, Israel is loudly condemned for accidentally killing civilians -- in the sense that, conspiracy theories aside (I don't mean to make this political, either), the Israelis were not actually intending to strike non-military targets. That is, Israel is blamed for an unintended, accidental bad outcome.

On the other hand, Hezbollah is condemned less vociferously as it fires rockets into towns. In this case, the intention is to kill civilians, but since the rockets are unguided, this outcome is more or less accidental. So here is an intended, accidental bad outcome.

So perhaps it's the case that when the outcomes are bad but accidental, the unintentional outcome is somehow seen as worse. Perhaps because there's a sense that someone "screwed up" or "should have done/known better." Let's design a survey!

(I must admit, I'm skeptical of the whole experimental philosophy project -- sorry, Josh -- since it, like all experimental situations, is artificial. It never tests the whole network of considerations that come into play when one makes moral judgments. Even in this post, I've ignored things like the scale of the outcome, the "avoidability," perceived or otherwise, of the outcome, and countless other factors.)

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Folk psyhcology (how we do to recognize that other people act in terms of intentions, desires, emotions...)is the scaffolding of moral cognition. When we recognize that something is done intentionally we are prone to judge it as moral (bad, wrong,...)so the equation is ceteris paribus whenever an intention is present the "moral detector system", as if an "alarm system" would be, is ready to warning. (in fact many of the visual areas and brain networks involve in detecting biological motion [goal directed movement seen in animals and humans]are part of the "moral brain")

We do not blame a natural disaster when it blown away our homes but we do blame people that are responsible to manage in due curse the incoming of a natural disaster becuase they are intentional. They can prevent or imped under the range of their control (an aspect of intentionality)a natural disaster.

That was evolutionary adaptive before more conceptual and symbolic abilities with justificatory reasons came during our philogenetic history in our ancestral enviroments. Judge something as moral when we recognize intention, and then with the progressive development of cognition in boad sense sccrutinize in more detail that something.

With respect to the "artifical objection" of the methodology used by the experimental philosophy movement, i don´t know to my lights any form to contol and isolate varibales than design cases, vignettes... specific to show the causal interaction of pehenomena under study which in any case are inform from empirical studies on moral cognition (using advance techniques such as fMRI) coping with the artificality or lack of ecological validity by means of convergent or trinagulation of methods (the use of two or more methods to reach a conclusion. Whilst experimental philosophy is using some kind of behavioural method other disciplines are using physiological methods and altogether making sense of morality)