What Experimental Philosophy Can Teach Us About Trump’s Goodness


President Donald Trump is a source of bad. But he is also a source of unintentional good. And it is conceivable that either through his deliberate actions or simply by inertia he will cause further good to this country. If we are to get a full picture of Trump’s presidency and identify when action should be taken and when matters should just run their course, we must learn to discern objectively between the two.

The problem is that we, humans, are biased toward intentionality when it comes to ascribing praise or blame. In the experimental philosophical literature, this phenomenon is called the Knobe Effect. The short of it is that “the perceived goodness or badness of side effects of actions influences people’s ascriptions of intentionality to those side effects.” (You can read the paper here.)

In the paper, Knobe presents the following thought experiment:

The chairman of the board of a company has decided to implement a program. He believes:

  • that the program will make a lot of money for his company
  • that the program will also produce some other effect x.

The chairman doesn’t care at all about effect x. His sole reason for implementing the new program is that he believes it will make a lot of money for the company.

The experimental question is: Did the chairman bring about the side-effect (x) intentionally or unintentionally?

I don’t want to get too into the weeds on this one. The crux of the experiment is that your answer will depend on whether the side-effect is morally blameworthy or morally praiseworthy; in other terms, is it good or bad.

In the experimental vignette, the research participants were told that the chairman of the board knew that the program would “help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.” The chairman says that he doesn’t care about harming the environment; he just wants to turn a profit. In this case, “82% of the research participants said the agent [chairman] brought about the side-effect intentionally.”

When the research participants were told that the chairman of the board knew that the program would “help us increase profits, but it will also help the environment,” 77% said that the chairman did not bring about the side-effect intentionally. They performed this same experiment with a less charged plot (lieutenants and a squad of soldiers) and found virtually the same asymmetry.

Aside from the fact this is one of my favorite experiments in experimental psychology, I think it bears mention given the current political climate.

The experiment demonstrates that we have a bias toward intentionality and praiseworthy/blameworthy side-effects. When you couple that with a personal bias toward a particular person, it can be difficult to parse out the good from the bad in an objective way.

In this instance, my concern is less about giving politicians credit where it is due, but rather my concern is that we won’t readily distinguish good outcomes from bad ones—or at the very least desirable from undesirable outcomes—because our cognitive moral bias and our personal bias, blind us.

As we move forward, I suggest we keep this experiment in mind and judge each outcome on its own merit as opposed to jumping to ascriptions of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, lest we miss the forest for the trees.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Common Principles and | Andrew R. Calderon

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