Illusory One-way: The Knobe Effect and the Theory of Mind

Monika Bystroňová


The aim of this paper is to provide evidence, that seemingly asymmetrical relationship between theory of mind and morality is in fact symmetrical. That is, not only that people use theory of mind to determine whether the agent is blameworthy and did something morally bad (or praiseworthy and did something morally good), but sometimes the moral character of the situation itself might influence people's theory of mind. First, I will make a brief introduction to the theory of mind – what it is, how we use it and how it could be useful to us. Then I will describe the process of evaluation of moral situation with the direction from theory of mind (considering agent's mental states, ascribing concepts to the agent) to morality (make a moral judgment). In this process there is an important concept – the concept of intentional action – which can play a significant role in determining blameworthiness (or praiseworthiness) of an agent: if he acted intentionally, the blame (or praise) should be bigger. Does it really work that way? What about lay people? What is the folk concept of intentional action like? I will try to answer these questions with empirical data provided by Bertram Malle and Joshua Knobe and name five conditions for the folk concept of intentional action. Then, in the light of empirical data gathered by Joshua Knobe, I will try to show that former approach to the relation between theory of mind and morality as one-directional seems untenable. Did the agent brought about some side-effect intentionally? Did the agent achieve something intentionally, even though he did not have enough skill to do it? Results of Knobe's experiments indicate that people are most likely affected by the moral character of the side-effect or the outcome itself. If it is morally bad, agent acted intentionally, but if it is morally good it, agent did not act intentionally – this asymmetry is called “Knobe effect”. Also, I will deal with some objections. Finally, I will discuss some of the legal consequences arising from this newly symmetrical relationship between theory of mind and morality.


theory of mind, morality, mental states, concept of intentional action, experimental philosophy, side-effects, skill, Knobe effect, law

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