By calling it the greatest moral challenge of our generation, Kevin Rudd framed climate change as a moral issue. Now as Prime Minister Julia Gillard is putting a price on carbon. So why isn’t she getting credit from people who care passionately about the issue? The reason is the Knobe effect.
According to experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe, people are much more willing to blame a decision maker for bad side-effects than to praise them for good side-effects. And according to the conventional media narrative, Gillard’s decisions on carbon pricing a side-effect of her search for electoral advantage.
When the polls indicated that action on climate change was a vote winner Gillard supported Rudd’s plan for a carbon price. But when public opinion turned, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar went to Rudd and told him to put the plan on ice. According to commentators like Gerard Henderson, Gillard supported this move. Now that her government’s survival depends on the Greens, Gillard is taking action.
Among those who see action against climate change as a moral imperative, Gillard is held responsible for stalling Rudd’s carbon pricing scheme in order to hold onto office. Then when she does decide to take action, her decision is discounted because it’s seen as an effort to hold onto office by appeasing the Greens.
Knobe tested his ideas on how people make moral judgments in a series of experiments. Here’s how he explains the results in The Edge:
The vice president of a company goes to the chairman of the board, and he says, "Okay, we’ve got this new policy. It’s going to make huge amounts of money for our company. But it’s also going to harm the environment." And the chairman of the board says, "Look! I know this policy’s going to harm the environment. But I don’t care at all about that. All I care about is making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s go ahead and implement the policy." They implement the policy and then sure enough, it ends up harming the environment.
And the question then was: Did the chairman of the board harm the environment intentionally?
Faced with this question, most people say, "Yes!" They say the chairman of the board harmed the environment intentionally. And when you first start thinking about why they might say yes to a question like this, it seems like it probably just has something to do with the mental states that this chairman is described as having. So the chairman knows that he’s going to harm the environment, and he goes ahead and does it anyway. Maybe it’s that fact, the fact that he had this particular mental state, that makes people think he did it intentionally.
But we were thinking maybe there’s actually something more complex about it. Maybe part of the reason that people say he did it intentionally is not just his knowledge, or the mental state he had, but the fact that they make this particular moral judgment, the fact that they judge that harming the environment is something morally bad and morally wrong for him to do. So participants in the other condition got a case that was almost exactly the same except for one difference, which is the word harm was changed to help. So the story then becomes this:
The vice president of a company goes to the chairman of the board and says, "Okay, we’ve got this new policy. It’s going to make huge amounts of money for our company and … it’s also going to help the environment." And the chairman of the board says, "Look! I know this policy is going to help the environment but I don’t care at all about that. All I care about is just making as much money as we possibly can. So let’s go ahead and implement the policy." So they implement the policy. And sure enough, it helps the environment.
And now the question is: Did the chairman help the environment intentionally?
But here people don’t give the same response. They don’t say the chairman helped the environment intentionally. Instead they seem to say that the chairman helped the environment unintentionally. But look at what’s happening in these cases. In the two cases, it seems like the chairman’s attitude is exactly the same. In both cases, he knows the outcome is going to occur, he decides to do it anyway, but he doesn’t care about it at all; he’s not trying to make it happen. The thing that’s differing between the two cases is just the moral status of what the person is doing. In one case he’s doing something bad, harming the environment, and in the other case, he’s doing something good, helping the environment. So it seems somehow that people’s moral judgments can affect their intuitions just about whether he did it intentionally or unintentionally.
If Knobe is right, Gillard is in a no-win situation with voters who care about climate change. Unless she can convince people she cares more about the climate than holding onto office, she’ll end up being blamed for stalling on carbon pricing in the past while not getting credit for taking action now.
Read more: Knobe, J. (2003). ‘Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.’ Analysis, 63, 190-193.
Or watch a video: Experimental Philosophy Starring Eugene Mirman.