Gettier and Moral Judgment

A series of recent experimental studies by James Beebe, Wesley Buckwalter and others have shown that people’s moral judgments can actually impact their intuitions about knowledge. In a striking new paper, Buckwalter reports three experiments showing that this effect can even arise for Gettier cases.

For example, in one of his studies, all participants were told about a mayor who decides to sign a contract with a local corporation. But participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions.  In one, participants were told that the mayor believes (on good evidence) that the contract will create jobs and thereby help the community; in the other, they are told that he believes the contract will cut jobs and thereby harm the community. Either way, they then receive some surprising information about what happens to the contract:

The corporation, however, didn’t take any chances.  They secretly switched the contract with a totally different one right before the mayor signed it.  By changing all the fine print, in some cases the opposite of what the mayor thought he was signing, the corporation could be sure it got what it wanted.  Sure enough, shortly after the mayor signed the contract, a number of members of the community [got/lost] jobs, and the mayor received a huge donation to his reelection campaign.

Participants were then asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the sentence:

The mayor knew that by signing the contract he would create/cut jobs.

Strikingly, the responses differed radically between conditions. When participants were told that the mayor’s action created jobs, they showed the expected reluctance to say that he had knowledge… but when they were told that the action cut jobs, they were perfectly happy to say that he knew exactly what he would be doing!

I find these results extremely surprising and interesting, and I would love to hear any thoughts people might have about how they might be explained.


Gettier and Moral Judgment — 5 Comments

  1. Hey Joshua,
    I think these results are interesting but not at all surprising given what we’ve learned about the folk use of “intentionally” given the tendency to treat “knowingly” and “intentionally” as closely connected. (That wasn’t a rain on your parade sort of comment, not intentionally at any rate. It just seems that this data is part of a larger pattern of data that we’ve already surprised us in the past.)

    I’m curious about what work the folk moral judgments actually play in these results and similar results. Can’t we get similar results by using non-moral pros and cons? (It’s been a while since I’ve tried this stuff, but I think when I experimented with X-phi I could get my students to show similar asymmetries using examples involving car colors that the buyer liked/disliked. If liked but didn’t play a role in decision making, they don’t say intentionally. If disliked, they say intentionally.)

  2. I think that it’s worth remembering that ‘knowledge’ is a very strong word for philosophers, but not so much for non-philosophers.

  3. Hey Clayton,

    Certainly you’re right to point out that this effect is an extension of previous work done suggesting a moral component for knows, as well as for the application of a host of different folk psychological and causal concepts. Also you’re totally right to point out that there’s a debate about whether or not the asymmetric application of these things is generally best described as an effect of moral factors specifically, as opposed to maybe a more general thing concerning norms (see for instance Uttich & Lombrozo 2010 paper in cognition).

    I was thinking though that readers of this blog might be interested to see just how readily people are willing to attribute knowledge to Gettierized subjects here just based on the goodness or badness of the outcome of the case. Suppose that what I suggest in the paper is wrong, and that the factor associated with good/bad outcome isn’t only just about morality. But still, what should we make of the fact that people are attributing knowledge so strongly in these cases?

  4. Hey Wesley,

    I haven’t read the Uttich & Lombrozo piece, I stopped following the literature on the side-effect effect a while back. It seemed to me that Knobe’s example of the racial identification law was pretty good evidence for the hypothesis that the folk use of “intentional” wasn’t a good guide to their moral judgments (the evidence that the folk harbor sympathies for such laws seemed rather thin).

    I’m not saying that your results shouldn’t be of interest to readers of the blog, only that the observations would be consistent with a pattern (that’s why I said that it wasn’t surprising, which I hope you didn’t mean that someone shouldn’t be checking).

    I don’t know what to make of these cases. I do wonder, however, about whether it’s right to say that the folk are attributing knowledge in these cases. Isn’t the more conservative way of reporting the data to say that the folk use of “knows” is influenced by non-epistemic factors? I can never tell if we’re warranted in saying anything stronger about these sorts of results.

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