Colloquium: Blame in Action: Intentionality, Moral Evaluation, and Mens Rea Philosophy

It is usually worse to harm someone intentionally rather than accidentally. This is reflected in criminal punishment and the extent of moral blame. Recently Joshua Knobe has discovered that our ascriptions of intentional agency involve an asymmetry (known as the Side-Effect Effect): when an agent is indifferent with respect to an effect of his intended action people tend to say he brings it about intentionally when the effect is harmful but not when it is beneficial. We tend to assign blame in the former case but no praise in the latter. It has been argued that this reveals that our judgments of blame contaminate our ascriptions of intentional agency. This in turn may well lead to partiality in the courtroom. I criticize this line of reasoning and argue instead that the asymmetry reveals something important about our notion of intentional agency and its relation to legal and moral responsibility. Liability and blame usually require conduct (actus reus) and fault (mens rea). When an agent is
indifferent with respect to a harm that falls within the purview of her responsibility, what actually motivates her is out of sync with what should motivate her. This misalignment provides the basis for the claim that she acts intentionally, which will often mean she is at fault. Our notion of intentional action serves to mark such misalignment, which is why judgments of intentionality provide useful input for responsibility ascriptions. As praise requires intended (rather than mere intentional) agency, no purpose would be served by ascribing intentionality in the case of beneficial effects with respect to which the agent is indifferent.

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