Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Intention and credence

In a paper on Double Effect, I offer this kind of an example. Jim has sneaked into a zoo on a mission to kill the first mammal he sees at the zoo, because a very rich eccentric has informed him that he’d give a very large sum of money to famine relief if Jim did that. Jim sees the zookeeper and kills him, reasoning that zookeepers are mammals, and hence the kill will satisfy the eccentric’s condition. In the paper, I argued that Jim need not be intending to kill a human being even if he knows the zookeeper is a human being. His intention need simply be to kill that mammal. Of course, this is still a murder, and hence I argue that the Principle of Double Effect should not be formulated in the classical way in terms of intentions.

I think a lot of people are incredulous of my claim that Jim can know that the mammal he is shooting is a human being and yet not intend to be killing a human being. It’s just occurred to me that there may be a way to help overcome that incredulity by making the story more gradual. Jim first sees a shadowy figure in the dark in the primate enclosure very far away. He assumes it’s an ape, and aims his rifle. However, he doesn’t want to miss, so he comes a couple of steps closer. As he gradually approaches, he has a very vague impression that there is something a little human-like about the movements of that primate. He thinks to himself, however, that apes are close relatives to humans, so it’s almost certainly still an ape. But as he approaches, his evidence that what is before him is a human rather than an ape increases. Finally, by the time he’s close enough to shoot, the evidence is conclusive: he knows it’s a human. But he doesn’t care a whit—the only thing that matters to this callous individual is that it’s a mammal. So he shoots and murders.

Let’s suppose that Jim’s credence that the mammal is human goes from 0.0001 to 0.9999 as he walks forward. At the 0.0001 point, it’s clearly not Jim’s intention to kill a human being. Nor at the 0.5000 point. Nor even at the 0.5001 point. Could it be that Jim’s intention becomes one to kill a human being once his credence gets high enough for him to count as believing, or maybe even knowing, that this is a human being? But it is implausible that a merely numerical increase in the credence suddenly forces a change in Jim’s intention. Intention just does not seem to be degreed in a way that lines up with the degreed nature of Jim’s credence.

So, what should we say? I think it is this: Whether Jim’s credence was 0.0001 or 0.9999 at the time of the shot, as long as he was acting callously and not caring about whether the victim is ape or human, he accomplished the death of a human being. This accomplishment (or something close to it) makes him a murderer. Of course, at the 0.0001 credence point, it would be hard to prove in a court of law that he accomplished the death, that he shot without caring whether the victim is ape or human, caring only that the victim was a mammal.


Angra Mainyu said...


I don't think the fact that he accomplished the killing is relevant with respect to the morality of his action.
Granted, legally there is a difference, and in at least one common sense of the word "murderer" (but I'm not sure all of them), he's not a murderer if the bullet does not kill the zookeeper.
But for example, if the zookeper turned the bullet amazingly quantum tunnels out of harms way, Jim's behavior is every bit as immoral, in my assessment. What seems to matter when it comes to the degree of immorality of his behavior are things like Jim's intent, beliefs, knowledge, etc., but not the actual results. Do you think it's more immoral if he kills the zookeeper?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree it's no more immoral if he kills the zookeeper, though there are some other normative differences.

Here's my best story about what is wrong in the action. Suppose that the zookeeper survives, or suppose for that matter that it's not a zookeeper but a gorilla dressed in a zookeeper suit (assuming gorillas aren't persons). Jim's action plan is equivalent to this: to kill that mammal whether or not it is a person. Being callous, he may not explicitly think the "whether or not clause", but I'm adding it to clarify what his commitments in the action are. That is a wicked and murderous plan, because by committing oneself to this plan, one commits oneself to commit a murder under some circumstances, namely the circumstances where the mammal is a person. Whether these circumstances eventuate does not affect the immorality of the commitment to the plan.

But what makes it wrong to commit oneself to a murder under some circumstances is that murder is wrong. The commitment to a plan that includes murder is wrong derivatively from the wrongfulness of murder. But it is no less wrong than a murder.

The "commit" here is a different kind of "commit" from the one in promises. I am not sure what it is. This is very difficult material, and my level of confidence on the theory behind it is low. But I am confident that Jim doesn't intend to kill a person, and that what he is doing is morally on par with murder no matter what eventuates.