Thursday, March 20, 2008

Evil Intentions?

Philosophers sometimes worry about the difference between intentional and unintentional actions. This matters because we don't want to hold people morally responsible for things they didn't intentionally do. For instance, when I bump the table causing my gun to fall to the floor, and it goes off and shoots you in the arse, I'm not (usually) morally responsible for that action. Why? Because it wasn't intentional. But its not always easy to see the difference. Consider this puzzle:

Suppose Jack is sitting at a computer terminal and needs to punch in a 10 digit code in order to achieve some end (call it X). He doesn't know the code, but punches in the first 10 digits that come to mind. Low and behold, he gets all 10 right! He achieves X!

Now suppose Jill is sitting at a computer terminal and faces a similar situation, but is trying to achieve Y. She punches in the first 10 digits that come to mind, and voila, she gets them all right. She achieves Y.

Would you say that Jack and Jill achieve their ends intentionally? Remember, they both got really lucky. This is a problem because we don't usually call lucky actions intentional. If I have never played darts in my life, and throw a dart haphazardly at the board, scoring a bulls-eye, we wouldn't want to say that I hit the bulls-eye intentionally, right?

Now consider this: it turns out that Jack was trying to win a lottery game, but Jill was trying to launch a missile carrying a deadly toxin to a heavily-populated area. So,
X= win a lottery game
Y= launch a toxic missile at a heavily-populated area

Would we still say that Jack's winning the lottery game was not intentional? It seems so. When someone wins the lottery, we don't say that they did it intentionally. We usually reserve that sort of talk for things we have some control over, like kicking the dog or setting the evil puppet villain on fire. Those are things we do intentionally.

What about Jill? Would we still say, after the missile explodes and results in the death of hundreds, "Oh, she didn't launch the missile intentionally. It was just a lucky guess." That sounds crazy, but their actions are exactly similar. Is it just the moral difference that accounts for her action's being intentional?

This is what we call an "asymmetry." It seems that we think lucky actions are unintentional if they involve no morally significant consequences, but intentional if they do have morally significant consequences. But in both cases, the luck and the means were the same. It's a little strange. So, the question is this -- is there some other factor that accounts for the difference?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'm following this. Winning the lottery is a positive consequence, and shooting missiles is usually a negative consequence. I don't see how they relate.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

The idea is that they both got lucky in the same way. But, strangely, one seems intentional while the other isn't. As I think about it, I'm wondering if the real difference is not in the intentionality, but in their moral responsibility.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

Your example states that Jack was trying to win the lottery while Jill was trying to launch a weapon. The word "trying" to me, at least, implies intent. Thus, while each entered a random sequence of numbers, there appears to have been intent. In my interpretation, both actions are intentional. And, if the lottery played has the type of pay-off schedule that promotes responding, even as an individual's means for living are expended, and was set up by the municipal government to "supplement" education spending, but wound up replacing the monies previously allocated toward that endeavor (are you keeping up), then both actions are morally reprehensible. I don't know that I agree with your premise stated in the last paragraph (i.e., that there is a difference in interpretation of intentionality based on outcomes). I probably need to go read up on my social psychology.

By the way, if you had never engaged in the morally questionable purchase of a handgun in the first place, it would not have shot me in the arse. I'm fairly certain that parents who's children are unintentional injured by their firearms, are nonetheless considered legally responsible.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Joel -- I feel like I just got taken out behind the woodshed, as one of our band directors used to say. A nice mix of comedy, moralizing and philosophical evaluation.

Conclusion: I need new examples.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

A woodshed moment was not my intent.

Happy Easter.

7:21 AM  

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