Friday, August 7, 2020

A value asymmetry in double effect reasoning

The Knobe effect is that people judge cases of good and bad foreseen effects differently with respect to intention: in cases of bad effects, they tend to attribute intention, but not so in cases of good effects.

Now, this is clearly a mistake about intention: there is no such asymmetry. However, I wonder if there isn’t a real asymmetry in the value of the actions. Simplify by considering actions that have exactly one unintended side-effect, which is either good or bad. My intuition says that an action’s having a foreseen bad side-effect, even when that side-effect is unintended and the action is justified by Double Effect, makes the action less valuable. But on the other hand, an action’s having a foreseen good side-effect, when that side-effect is unintended, doesn’t seem to make the action any better.

Let me try to think through this asymmetry intuition. I would be a worse person if I intended the bad side-effect. But I would be a better one if I intended the good side-effect. My not intending the good side-effect is a sign of vice in me (as is clear in the standard Knobe case, where the CEO’s indifference to the environmental benefits of his action is vicious). So not only does the presence of an unintended good side-effect not make the action better, it makes it worse. But so far there is no asymmetry: the not intending of the bad is good and the not intending of the good is bad. The presence of a good side-effect gives me an opportunity for virtue if I intend it and for vice if I fail to intend. The presence of a bad side-effect gives me an opportunity for vice if I intend it and for virtue if I fail to intend.

But maybe there still is an asymmetry. Here are two lines of thought that lead to an asymmetry. First, think about unforeseen, and even unforeseeable, effects. Let’s say that my writing this post causes an earthquake in ten years in Japan by a chaotic chain of events. I do feel that’s bad for me and bad for my action: it is unfortunate to be the cause of a bad, whether intentionally or not. But I don’t have a similar intuition on the good side. If my writing this post prevents an earthquake by a chaotic chain of events, I don’t feel like that’s good for me or my action. So perhaps that is all that is going on in my initial value asymmetry: there is a non-moral disvalue in an action whenever it unintentionally causes a bad effect, but no corresponding non-moral value when it unintentionally causes a good effect, and foresight is irrelevant. But my intuitions here are weak. Maybe there is nothing to the earthquake intuition.

Second, normally, when I perform an action that has an unintended bad side-effect, that is a defect of power in my action. I drop the bombs on the enemy headquarters, but I don’t have the power to prevent the innocents from being hit; I give my students a test, but I don’t have the power to prevent their being stressed. The action exhibits a defect of power and that makes it worse off, though not morally so. Symmetry here would say that when the action has an unintended good side-effect, then it exhibits positive power. But here exactly symmetry fails: for the power of an action qua action is exhibited precisely through its production of intended effects. The production of unintended effects does not redound to the power of the action qua action (though it may redound to its power qua event).

So, if I am right, an action is non-morally worse off, worse off as an exercise of power, for having an unintended bad effect, at least when that bad side-effect is unavoidable. What if it is avoidable, but I simply don’t care to avoid it? Then the action is morally worse off. Either way, it’s worse off. But this is asymmetric: an action isn’t better off as an exercise of power by having an unintended good effect, regardless of whether the good side-effect is avoidable or not, since power is exhibited by actions in fulfilling intentions.


Helen Watt said...

Is it always a sign of vice not to intend a good effect though? Imagine you are rescuing a friend from drowning: wouldn't it be vicious not virtuous (because frivolous and unfocussed) to start intending things like a good workout, making sure you still have a squash partner next week etc?

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's interesting. I suppose it may have something to do with the limitations of our minds that we cannot think and feel too many things at once, and so if we're thinking of the minor benefit, we're distracted from the major one.

But vary the case slightly. To rescue your friend from drowning, you need to press either a red or a blue button. Both rescue your friend and each is equally easy to press. But if you press the red button, your friend won't play squash with you (maybe because your friend made a frivolous promise never to play squash with someone who pressed a red button on this particular day). So, you press the blue button. Why? To have a squash partner next week. Nothing wrong here! But now suppose the red button is unavailable. Why should your intention in pressing the blue button be any different than when the red button was available? After all, the benefits are the same.

Maybe we should just think of the intention as not a separate act of thought, but something like a background intending of all the relevant goods, which is revealed through counterfactuals like my multiple button case.

Helen Watt said...

You're right - maybe it's not a 'thought too many' in the case where you're confronted explicitly by a choice of buttons. But it's a bit more disturbing if the explicit thought of squash-next-week (or just a work-out swimming to the rescue) pops up out of nowhere. Humans with our limited minds as you say should maybe try and think less of such things when our friends are in urgent need. People with correct amounts of empathy might not think of them at all.

Again, less disturbing if it's not an explicit intention of squash but just a background intending of relevant goods as you say. Maybe you're generically intending 'my friend will live, that will be great for my friend and her family, and we'll also have nice times in the future'.

But I'm not sure that works with goods unrelated to your friend's welfare like your getting a workout swimming to the rescue (though I suppose even a good person might start thinking of the workout during a long and tedious swim especially if they were confident of success, the friend wasn't visibly terrified etc).

Alexander R Pruss said...


Our university swimming pool has been closed since March. I think I would find it very difficult not to think "Yay! I get a swim!" :-) But it's true that rejoicing in something isn't the same as intending it.

At this point I am starting to rub up against the difficult question of what constitutes an intention.

If getting the workout is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for me jumping in, then I am intending the workout. If I modify my rescue in order to get a workout (e.g., I could have sent my dog, who is just as good as me at rescuing the drowning, but I jumped in myself), then I am intending the workout. But if the workout is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for my action, and my action is in no way modified to get a workout, then in what sense am I intending it?

Here is one sense in which I might be intending the workout. I may have a background disposition to tweak my action to ensure the workout when doing so does not impede the rescue. In fact, no tweaking is necessary. But because I have that background disposition, I am still intending the workout.

Here is another sense. If I have free will, there is a small chance I will choose against rescuing my friend, because of some morally insufficient reason like not wishing to get my clothes wet or having lately found the friend annoying. By keeping before my mind's eye all the benefits--including the selfish ones--of the rescue, I slightly increase the probability that I will rescue him. (E.g., the benefit of the workout partly offsets the damage to the clothes.) So it may be that even though the workout is neither necessary nor sufficient for my action, it nonetheless increases the probability of the action, and that might make it count as intended. (Though perhaps I still don't count as intending it, because maybe then it turns into a Triple Effect case??) And it now seems like it is a good thing that one intend all the goods, even the minor ones, that favor the right action, because this maximizes the chance of my actually following through on the decision.

Helen Watt said...

Yes – very hot here too. Time to find someone to rescue, definitely!

Rejoicing isn’t intending, that’s true – but not sure an intention has to be necessary or sufficient or a potential behaviour-modifier to be an intention at all. Imagine a boastful intention to show off my swimming skills (perhaps in the sight of a hated rival) where I still need an excuse in the shape of my drowning friend (who I would want to rescue exactly the same way in any event).

Wouldn’t some intentions be slightly mad to form in the circumstances – such as creating a pleasing wave-pattern as I swim? But if I’m annoyed by my friend, maybe you’re right and I need to marshall such intentions just in case (though not immoral intentions like discomfiting my hated rival).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Our summer has been less hot for our area than usual. I don't think we exceeded 40C yet. But it's still unpleasant with the indoor options being limited.

The wave pattern is a good point. There are some people who think that causally nearly inevitable consequences of intended things are always intended. Aquinas sounds like he thinks this. When I argue with these people, I like to use examples like: "If I move my arm, I don't intend to increase the kinetic energy of the air molecules, even though this is causally nearly inevitable."

Maybe, though, a good person commends all their actions to God, and intends all the goods that God can draw out of these actions, under the description "whatever God can make out of it." So maybe a good person intends the beautiful waves, but not explicitly, simply under the description "whatever other goods follow" or "whatever God makes of it"?