Reconstructing the side-effect effect: A new way of understanding how moral considerations drive intentionality asymmetries.

Sean M. Laurent, Brandon J. Reich, Jeanine L. M. Skorinko
  • Journal of Experimental Psychology General, January 2019, American Psychological Association (APA)
  • DOI: 10.1037/xge0000554

People think about unintended harms and benefits in different ways

What is it about?

Imagine someone doing something simple, something that few people would think twice about, in order to get something they want. This is not particularly interesting. However, imagine further that the person knows that doing this thing will also lead to something bad happening, but the person does not care about this harmful side effect. Compare this with a case where the same person does the same thing for the same reason, but instead, the side effect is good (i.e., helpful). Although everything except the side effect is the same in both cases, most people label the bad side effect as intentional, but few call the good side effect intentional. Why? Although the full explanation is more nuanced, one suggestion is that moral considerations impact the extent to which behaviors are seen as intentional. We offer a different explanation, based on the idea that people think very differently about unintended harms and benefits. Because of this, most people interpret questions asking about intentional harming as asking whether the person intentionally did something they knew would lead to harm. In contrast, they interpret questions about intentional helping as asking whether the person was trying to help or if the person acted in order to help. We conclude that moral considerations do not affect how people think about intentionality. Instead, moral considerations influence what information people think is important to consider when they are asked to evaluate morally-charged behaviors.

Why is it important?

If moral considerations, such as whether an action leads to a good versus bad outcome, influence whether people think the action was performed intentionally, then actions leading to more negative outcomes are more likely to be viewed as intentional. This matters because intentionally-caused harms are evaluated more negatively and punished more severely than unintended harms. By showing that people believe questions about the intentionality of harmful and helpful side effects are asking different things and that people apply the concept of intentionality in similar ways across harmful and helpful cases when other aspects of the situation are taken into account, we demonstrate that actions leading to harm are not viewed as more intentional than actions leading to benefit.

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The following have contributed to this page: Sean Laurent