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Morality and folk psychology

Page history last edited by Victoria Yupangco 13 years ago

Morality and folk psychology



The question of whether morality assumes a causal role in Folk-psychology is contentious—some researchers posit that morality could not influence folk-psychological judgments, whilst others argue for the contrary. Joshua Knobe has undertaken the task of addressing this issue, claiming that empirical evidence suggests that morality can affect the folk-psychological assessment of actions.


Knobe defends his view by examining morality’s relations with three folk-psychological elements (viz., intentions, reasons, and values) — an examination done through experimental philosophy. The next three sections briefly describe the relationships observed as well as the experiments conducted in which these relations were found.


On Morality and Intentionality:



It is generally accepted that the INTENTIONALITY or unintentionality of an action affects how one regards that same action from a moral perspective. What is not so well-accepted is whether this causal influence can work the other way around as well. In other words, can one’s moral stance on action x affect one’s ascription of intentionality to x? Empirical evidence affirms this possibility, indicating that one’s labelling of an action as ‘INTENTIONAL’ is influenced by how he views the action from a moral standpoint.


Knobe’s experiments found that when individuals were presented with a pair of stories or events that are similar in every regard, except for certain key words that differ in their moral status, the individuals’ attribution of INTENTIONALITY to those respective stories differed as well. For instance, in one story, Knobe made it such that ‘harm’ to the environment would be incurred if action x were implemented in pursuit of increasing company c’s profits. In the companion story, however, Knobe replaced the term ‘harm’ with ‘help’; the ‘harm’ is perceivably immoral, whilst the ‘help’ is perceivably moral. When individuals were told that action x was implemented with the ‘harm’ incurred or ‘help’ done to the environment, it was found that the majority ascribed intentionality to the ‘harm’ case but not to the ‘help’ case. These resultant differences suggested that one’s attributing INTENTIONALITY to an action may be contingent on his moral perception of that same action.



On Morality and Explanatory Reasons:



In addition to the indication that morality can affect an agent’s perception of whether an action is INTENTIONAL, it appears that morality is also able to “affect people’s use of reason explanations.” An example of a reason explanation would be “Bob did x in order to/ so that y,” in which y is the reason used to explain why x occurred. So, according to Knobe, it could be the case that morality impacts one’s evaluation of whether y is a plausible reason in explaining why x.


To get a better grasp of what the above means, consider the following examples offered by Knobe in his experiments:


1.) The chairman harmed the environment in order to increase profits.


2.) The chairman helped the environment in order to increase profits.


It was found that the majority of participants felt inclined to say that the first proposition was intuitively correct, whilst the second not so much. Again, the only difference in these two statements lies in the words that presumably indicate different degrees of morality, viz. ‘harm’ and ‘help.’ Apparently, this ‘harm’/ ‘help’ difference was sufficient to result in the majority of the participants’ viewing each proposition’s coherence differently.  



On Morality, Desires, and Values:



Knobe argues that the distinction drawn between desires and values might be grounded in individuals’ senses of morality. In other words, when one classifies an attitude towards object o as either a desire or value, such a classification may find its basis in moral judgments.


Knobe lists a group of features (whereby each feature has a certain weight) that one may look for when ascertaining whether an attitude is a value. This list includes features such as first-order and second-order desires towards object o.


Though Knobe asserts that this group of features may be sufficient on their own in value-recognition, he claims that there may be a moral feature that can assist in the act of recognising value. This moral feature entails whether o is perceived to be morally good. Again, in his experiments for value-recognition, he presented two stories—one in which the character of the story felt a pull towards a “morally good” action, and one in which he felt a pull towards a “morally bad” action. These two experiments basically had the same structure, with the only variation being the different goals which the character wished to attain and promote.


Interestingly enough, in these experiments, participants seemed predisposed to claim that the “morally good” object was what was valued, whilst the “morally bad” object was what was desired. This again corroborates Knobe’s proposal that morality has a role in folk-psychology.


In sum, Knobe’s experiments are meant to illustrate how individuals’ folk-psychological concepts—namely intentionality, reason explanations, and values—can be impacted by moral viewpoints.



Rejecting Morality’s Influence on Folk-psychology— An Alternative View:



Edouard Machery has conducted similar experiments on intentional action in which there is a certain object o that is desired. His experiments yielded the same type of incongruent results, but Machery proposed a different hypothesis—maybe the influential factors in intention-ascription are not morally grounded, but based on costs and benefits.


How did Machery come to support such a position? In his experiments, Machery also gave two scenarios, both of which were practically the same in all respects. The only difference between the two was the side-effect that would result from action x’s being done to attain object o (or promote goal g) in each story. Instead of providing participants with a side-effect as large as ‘harm incurred to the environment’ or ‘help to the environment,’ Machery presented small-scale side-effects that were construed by the majority as ‘morally neutral.’ In both scenarios, agent A desired object o. In order to attain his goal, A had to perform a certain action x. But here lies the difference: In the first scenario, A wants o, performs action x, but in performing action x, there is an additional cost c he has to pay in order to get o. He is still willing to pay c in order to get o. In the second scenario, A still wants o, and has to perform x to get o. However, there is no c for him to pay, but instead he gets another thing t in addition to o. Here, he is willing to acquire t as well as o after having performed x.


What Machery discovered was that these experiments yielded asymmetrical results (with the majority associating intentional action with the first scenario, but not the second), like Knobe’s, but these could not have been resultant from morality’s influence since the by-products were viewed as morally neutral. What this demonstrates is that perhaps it is not morality that sways agents in their folk-psychological analyses; rather, it could be their consideration of the costs and benefits reaped in performing a certain action that are aimed at a certain goal.





Experimental philosophy and Folk-psychology








  • Knobe, J. (2007). Folk Psychology: Science and Morals. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp. 157-173). Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Machery, E. 2008. The Folk Concept of Intentional Action: Philosophical and Experimental Issues. Mind & Language, 23, 165-189.


- Victoria Cara Yupangco, University of Toronto

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