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The Side Effect Effect: Test How Morality Affects Your World View

See how "objectivity" is colored by whether an outcome is negative or positive with a simple thought exercise by experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe

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People sometimes feel that their ordinary way of making sense of the world is objective and impartial, but a growing body of research suggests that there might be more to the story. This research suggests that people's moral judgments can actually exert a surprising influence on their whole understanding of the world around them.

In one early study of this issue, I looked at the way people typically think about the "side effects" of human actions.

Imagine a scene in a corporate boardroom. The chairman is considering a new policy. He says: "I know that this policy will harm the environment, but I don't care at all about that. All I care about is making as much money as possible. So let's go ahead and do it." The company adopts the policy, and sure enough, the environment is harmed.

Now consider a seemingly straightforward question:

Did the chairman of the board harm the environment intentionally?

Versions of this question have been given to participants in literally hundreds of experiments, and in each case, the result has been the same. People tend to say that the answer is obviously yes. The chairman knew perfectly well that he was going to be harming the environment and decided to go ahead anyway. So clearly he did it intentionally.

But now suppose that we make just one minor change in our story. We will leave almost everything the same, but we will switch around the nature of the outcome. This time, instead of saying that the policy "harms" the environment, we will say that the policy "helps"the environment.

Let’s go through the story again in this new version. We are back to the corporate boardroom, but this time, the chairman’s speech is just a little bit different: "I know that this policy will help the environment, but I don't care at all about that. All I care about is making as much money as possible. So let's go ahead and do it." The company adopts the policy, and sure enough, the environment is helped.

Now consider the corresponding question:

Did the chairman of the board help the environment intentionally?

If you are like most participants in the experiments, your reaction to this second version is very different from your reaction to the first. Faced with this second version, most people say that the answer is obviously no. The chairman was not at all trying to help the environment; he just wanted to make money. So clearly he was not helping intentionally.

But notice that the two versions are almost exactly the same in every way. In both cases, the chairman knows he is going to be bringing about an effect. In both cases, he does not care at all. The only difference is whether the effect is something morally bad (harming) or something morally good (helping). So it looks like something very strange is happening here. People’s judgments about whether what the chairman did was good or bad are somehow influencing their judgments about whether he did it "intentionally" or "unintentionally."

Recent work in experimental philosophy has found this same sort of effect in numerous other areas. Moral judgments seem to influence judgments about whether a person "causes" something, whether a person "knows" something, whether a person is actually "doing" something or merely "allowing" it. But why is all of this happening? At this point, there are many conflicting hypotheses—and a whole series of intriguing experimental results—but no one really knows for sure.

Learn more about Knobe's work in his November 2011 Scientific American article: "Thought Experiments"

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