Tails I win, Heads you lose

Natasha Mitchell of ABC (Australian Broadcast Corporation) interviews two experimental philosophers, Joshua Knobe and Eduoard Machery about our judgments of a person’s actions — specifically whether we are consistent in judging their intent to do good or bad.

From the interview transcript:

Natasha Mitchell:

You’ll meet a new breed of thinkers today. They call themselves experimental philosophers and one provocative symbol of their movement is a YouTube video featuring an armchair going up in flames with the belting anthem, ‘Under this big wide sky there’s room for every school of thought, let’s take it to the streets and the parks, let’s take it back to the primary source and find out who we really are.’

Traditionally of course philosophy has been done by appealing to intuition and argument. Well this crew are collecting data by doing experiments that make people think, yes, but are more thought experiments.

Joshua Knobe: Well as you know instead of thinking of us as presenting a challenge to this ancient tradition, I would see us more as kind of going back to the way that philosophy has traditionally been done. So you look at older works of philosophy, say, in the 19th century, you go back and look at Nietzsche or Marx or Mill, you find these people were really interested in human nature and thinking about questions about what human beings are really like. And then in the 20th century there was a kind of movement away from that, a movement toward thinking about the kind of questions one could just address from the armchair. Experimental philosophy really moves back to this earlier kind of traditional approach to philosophy, really thinking about human beings and how they actually think and feel in order to address those philosophical questions.

Natasha Mitchell: That’s Joshua Knobe from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. So let’s start with one of the provocative scenarios he presents to people in his experiments—and what would you think?

Joshua Knobe: So, suppose that a vice-president goes to the chairman of the board and says OK, we’ve got this new policy., It’s going to make huge amounts of money for our company but it’s also going to harm the environment. And the chairman says, look, I know this policy is going to harm the environment but I don’t care at all about that, I only care about making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s implement this new policy.

Now the question is, did the chairman of the board harm the environment intentionally? So what would you say in that instance?

Got your answer? Now return to the example and change “harm” to “help”. Now the question is, did the chairman of the board help the environment intentionally? If your first answer is yes and your second is no, you’re like most people.

You can read (or choose to listen) to it all here.

Thanks to Mind Hacks where you can find more thoughts. More about experimental philosophy here.

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