Tim Scanlon's new book Moral Dimensions provides an elegant account according to which an agent's mental states are relevant to the question as to whether that agent is blameworthy but not to the question as to whether the agent's behavior itself is morally wrong.
As the philosopher Kristen Bell points out to me, however, the empirical data indicate that people's actual judgments show exactly the opposite pattern. People's wrongness judgments actually depend more on the agent's mental states than their blame judgments do.
The key data here come from the work of the psychologist Fiery Cushman. (See Experiment 1 in the article here
.) Cushman devised a series of vignettes that allowed him to systematically manipulate information both about consequences and about the agent's mental states. He could then check to see how each of these types of information influenced people's judgments about wrongness and about blame.
Here, for example, is one of his vignettes:
Jenny is taking a class in sculpture. She is assigned to work with a partner to weld
together pieces of metal.
Jenny does not want to burn her partner’s hand. Jenny only wants to weld
together the metal.
Jenny does not think that if she welds a piece of metal that her partner is holding
the heat will travel down the metal and burn her partner’s hand. Jenny thinks that
the metal will weld without causing her partner any injury at all.
Jenny welds the metal, and her partner’s hand is burned.
One can then create a version with different consequences by replacing the ending with: 'Jenny welds the metal, but her partner happens to let go and is not burned at all.'
And one can create a version with different mental states by replacing the middle with: 'Jenny wants to burn her partner’s hand. Jenny think that if she welds a piece of metal that her partner is holding the heat will travel down the metal and burn her partner's hand.'
The results revealed a surprising pattern of judgments. As predicted, information about the consequences had more impact on blame judgments than it did on wrongness judgments. More strikingly, not only did information about the mental states have an impact on wrongness judgments, it actually had more of an impact on wrongness judgments than it did on blame judgments!
These results come as something of a surprise, pointing, as they do, to a picture that is very different from the one Scanlon offers in his recent book. I would love to hear any thoughts you might have about what to make of all this.