Ethics Roundtable Questions Assumptions About Moral, Causal Judgment


“People think morally bad acts are more intentional than good ones, regardless of the moral goodness or badness of the person,” Joshua Knobe, professor of philosophy, psychology, and linguistics at Yale University, said to an audience at the Ethics Roundtable on March 8, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition.

Knobe discussed his theory of the relationship between causal and moral judgments and the “Knobe effect”—what happens when people assume that an unintended negative side effect of something was done intentionally but do not assume the same when the unintended effect is positive.

He explained the usual thinking is that if one can determine whether a person caused an outcome, one also can determine whether that person can be blamed for the outcome. But Knobe said there is a growing body of evidence that this isn’t always how we process information. Instead of our causal judgment affecting our moral judgment, the reverse often happens.

Knobe offered an example that he used in a recent study: There’s a jar of pens on a desk, and only administrative assistants can use them. Still, professors often come by and take pens. One day, both an administrative assistant and a professor each take a pen, and there are none left for the next person. When asked who caused the problem for the lack of pens, most people say it was the professor. Knobe argues this is because people make a moral judgment first, finding that the professor did something he or she was not supposed to do and therefore has a greater effect on the outcome. In similar experiments, even when the result is something good, people tend to say that it was caused more by the actor they view as “bad.”

He added that people’s judgments are also acutely affected by what they view as “normal.”

“Moral judgment of normality drives who’s guilty more than anything else,” Knobe said.

The Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition, under the direction of Lawrence Solan, the Dan Forchelli Professor of Law and Director of Graduate Education, is devoted to exploring how developments in the cognitive sciences – including psychology, neuroscience and linguistics – have dramatic implications for the law at both theoretical and practical levels.