Experimental philosophy of others’ intentions

Photo by Flickt user nick russill. Click for sourceToday’s ABC Radio National All in the Mind has a fascinating discussion on how we attribute intentions to other people which covers some surprising and counter-intuitive examples of how our understanding of other people’s desires are biased by the situation.

There’s a great example depicted in this YouTube video which I highly recommend, but essentially the example is this:

A vice president of a large company goes to the CEO and says “We have a new business plan. It will make huge amounts of money for the company, but it will also harm the environment”.

The CEO says “I know the plan will harm the environment, but I don’t care about that, I’m just interested in making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s put the plan into action”.

The company starts the plan, and the environment is harmed.

The question is, did the CEO harm the environment intentionally? As it turns out, most people say yes to this question.

Now have a think about this similar scenario.

A vice president of a large company goes to the CEO and says “We have a new business plan. It will make huge amounts of money for the company, but it will also help the environment”.

The CEO says “I know the plan will help the environment, but I don’t care about that, I’m just interested in making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s put the plan into action”.

The company starts the plan, and the environment is helped.

The question is the same – did the CEO intentionally help the environment in this case.

Curiously, most people say no. Despite the CEO making the same decision in both cases.

The programme is full of many more fascinating examples of how our judgement of intention is affected by the outcome rather than the decision the person makes.

However, I wonder whether our judgements are clouded by the notion of responsibility rather than purely intention, where we place much greater social weight on responsibility for damaging actions, than beneficial ones.

This area is largely being explored by the new area of ‘experimental philosophy‘ that aims to empirically test our assumptions about traditionally philosophical issues.

Link to AITM on ‘The philosophy of good intentions’.

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