Bringing moral responsibility down to earth

Journal of Philosophy 105 (7):371-388 (2008)
Thought experiments have played a central role in philosophical methodology, largely as a means of elucidating the nature of our concepts and the implications of our theories.1 Particular attention is given to widely shared “folk” intuitions – the basic untutored intuitions that the layperson has about philosophical questions.2 The folk intuition is meant to underlie our core metaphysical concepts, and philosophical analysis is meant to explicate or sometimes refine these naïve concepts. Consistency with the deliverances of folk intuitions is a sign that the philosopher is making contact with his object of interest. In order to explore folk concepts, people are often asked to provide their intuitions about a state of affairs in some alternate universe or possible world, one that differs in particular, precise ways from the way things are in the actual world. Here we provide evidence that people’s intuitions about moral responsibility sometimes diverge across worlds even when the facts about these worlds are the same. Which world one considers actual affects at least some philosophical judgments, suggesting that it is not just possible worlds to which our intuitions are tied. We will present several possible explanations for the asymmetry we have identified, and we’ll consider some implications for philosophical intuition.
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