Samsaran pointed to a story about some work experimental philosopher Eddy Nahmias did. I’m not sure what I think about experimental philosophy. To learn more I went to Joshua Knobe’s Web site. Knobe linked to this video as well as to a paper (PDF) he did where he explores the experiment in depth.
One of Knobe’s conclusions in the paper is that scientific reasoning and moral reasoning don’t appear to be separate processes but jumbled together. We’re moral creatures through and through.
But there’s an angle to this experiment that occurred to me watching the video that doesn’t come up in Knobe’s analysis. The basic outlines of the experiment is subjects are are asked to consider two scenarios:
1) The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.”
The chairman of the board answered, “I don‟t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.
2) The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.”
The chairman of the board answered, “I don‟t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.
Overwhelmingly subjects attribute the intention to harm the environment, but do not so much attribute intention to helping the environment.
The president’s intention is clear in both scenarios, to make profit. What’s missing from the analysis is what people know about making profits. Ordinary people may not be able to expound on the topic in economics of externalities, but I suspect people have a good grasp on how externalities work in the real world.
So of course hurting the environment is likely when the intention is making profit. Helping the environment is theoretically possible, but much less likely. Externalities deal with the difference between private and social costs. As a rule of thumb, the intention to maximize profits means minimizing private costs at the expense of social costs.
I think people always want to feel that we’re good people. So we have an uneasy relationship with the morality of making profits.
Knobe makes this experiment carry a lot of weight about what it says about moral reasoning. But not taking into consideration the way people understand profit making enterprises makes me question whether Knobe’s conclusions are substantial enough.