Immoral Professors and Malfunctioning Tools: Counterfactual Relevance Accounts Explain the Effect of Norm Violations on Causal Selection

Cognitive Science 43 (11):e12792 (2019)
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Causal judgments are widely known to be sensitive to violations of both prescriptive norms (e.g., immoral events) and statistical norms (e.g., improbable events). There is ongoing discussion as to whether both effects are best explained in a unified way through changes in the relevance of counterfactual possibilities, or whether these two effects arise from unrelated cognitive mechanisms. Recent work has shown that moral norm violations affect causal judgments of agents, but not inanimate artifacts used by those agents. These results have been interpreted as showing that prescriptive norm violations only affect causal reasoning about intentional agents, but not the use of inanimate artifacts, thereby providing evidence that the effect of prescriptive norm violations arises from mechanisms specific to reasoning about intentional agents, and thus casting doubt on a unified counterfactual analysis of causal reasoning. Four experiments explore this recent finding and provide clear support for a unified counterfactual analysis. Experiment 1 demonstrates that these newly observed patterns in causal judgments are closely mirrored by judgments of counterfactual relevance. Experiment 2 shows that the relationship between causal and counterfactual judgments is moderated by causal structure, as uniquely predicted by counterfactual accounts. Experiment 3 directly manipulates the relevance of counterfactual alternatives and finds that causal judgments of intentional agents and inanimate artifacts are similarly affected. Finally, Experiment 4 shows that prescriptive norm violations (in which artifacts malfunction) affect causal judgments of inanimate artifacts in much the same way that prescriptive norm violations (in which agents act immorally) affect causal judgments of intentional agents.



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Jonathan Phillips
Dartmouth College

References found in this work

Causation.David Lewis - 1973 - Journal of Philosophy 70 (17):556-567.
Counterfactuals.David Lewis - 1973 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 36 (3):602-605.
Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference.Judea Pearl - 2000 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 64 (1):201-202.
Cause and Norm.Christopher Hitchcock & Joshua Knobe - 2009 - Journal of Philosophy 106 (11):587-612.

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