The importance of epistemic intentions in ascription of responsibility

Scientific Reports 14:1183 (2024)
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We investigate how people ascribe responsibility to an agent who caused a bad outcome but did not know he would. The psychological processes for making such judgments, we argue, involve finding a counterfactual in which some minimally benevolent intention initiates a course of events that leads to a better outcome than the actual one. We hypothesize that such counterfactuals can include, when relevant, epistemic intentions. With four vignette studies, we show that people consider epistemic intentions when ascribing responsibility for a bad outcome. We further investigate which epistemic intentions people are likely to consider when building counterfactuals for responsibility ascription. We find that, when an agent did not predict a bad outcome, people ascribe responsibility depending on the reasons behind the agents’ lack of knowledge. People judge agents responsible for the bad outcome they caused when they could have easily predicted the consequences of their actions but did not care to acquire the relevant information. However, when this information was hard to acquire, people are less likely to judge them responsible.



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Author Profiles

Francesca Bonalumi
Technische Universität München
Christophe Heintz
Central European University

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