Professor Sean Laurent demonstrates how questions about intentional harming and helping mean different things



Dr Sean Laurent reframes a well-known phenomenon in moral reasoning called the "side-effect effect" to show that people are answering different questions when asked about the intentionality of side-effect harming or helping. Side-effects are unintended secondary outcomes resulting from goal-driven behavior. Previous work observed that when side effects are negative, such as a profit-increasing program also causing environmental damage, most people say this harm is intentional. When side effects are positive, though, few people label side effects as intentional. Because of this, it was concluded that moral information pervasively impacts how people reason about the concept of intentionality.

In a new paper called "Reconstructing the side-effect effect: A new way of understanding how moral considerations drive intentionality asymmetries", Dr. Laurent shows that people define questions about intentionality of side effects in different ways when they are harmful vs. helpful. When side effects are negative, people believe the question is asking whether the person knew the side effect would happen when they acted. When side effects are positive, people believe intentionality questions are asking about what the person wanted to happen or what they were trying to accomplish when they acted. Dr. Laurent argues that instead of pervasively impacting how people reason about intentionality, moral information impacts what mental states seem important when interpreting questions about intentionality, based on broader differences in how people reason about actions that might invite blame or praise.

You can read more about Dr. Laurent's work in the recent LAS press release.

Related Topics