It is now widely agreed that people's moral judgments can affect their intutions about whether or not a behavior was performed intentionally, but considerable disagreement remains about what exactly this effect might be telling us. Some researchers have suggested that the effect observed for intuitions about intentional action is pointing us toward some more general truth about the fundamental relationship between folk psychology and moral judgment, while others argue that the effect just happens to arise because of some quirky feature of the concept of intentional action in particular.
In hopes of making progress on this question, Dean Pettit and I conducted a series of new studies. In essence, we checked to see whether the effect observed for attributions of intentional action would also arise for other concepts. The answer is that it does. In fact, the very same patterns observed for the concept intentionally also arise for the concepts desire, deciding, intending, in favor of, opposed to, and advocating.
For example, suppose that a person decides to implement a policy. He is trying to attain a particular goal, but he knows that the policy will also bring about a certain side-effect. Did he decide to bring about the side-effect? The typical answer: he did decide if the side-effect was a bad one, but he did not decide if the side-effect was a good one.
Or suppose that a person makes a speech in favor of a policy. He says that we should adopt the policy because it will help us to attain a particular goal, but he also mentions that it will bring about a side-effect. Did he advocate bringing about the side-effect? Once again, people's intuitions depend on the status of the side-effect itself. If the side-effect is bad, he advocated it; if good, he did not.
At this point, Dean and I are thinking that it might not be helpful to continue trying to understand this effect in terms of something very specific about the concept of intentional action in particular. What is needed, it seems, is a deeper and more general theory about the relationship between moral judgment and the rest of cognition.
[For further details, you can download the full paper.]