How Gillard fell victim to the Knobe effect

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.

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12 years ago

I’m not sure I buy the Knobe effect analysis entirely.

I think in everything we do, there’s an implication that we do not cause harm while we do it. Although the chairman doesn’t actually care one way or another about the environment, I think we all assume that when a business goes about its business, it does so scrupulously (come to think of it, many people assume the exact opposite…)

Now, I doubt there’s anyone who thinks harming the environment is positive — sure, there might be reasons for doing so, but, all things being equal, harming the environment is one of those moral absolutes (and so we don’t get into an argument about what does and doesn’t harm the environment, let’s say that in the chairman’s case, harming the environment means pollutants seeping into a river and killing all the wildlife).

The chairman knows that’s wrong — he just doesn’t care. Thus, he intentionally harms the river for his own company’s gain — and it’s intent in this case because any action comes with the implication that it does not cause harm.

12 years ago

She’s also getting Flak because she blatantly lied about introducing a carbon tax, and the fact that she’s never won an election.

12 years ago

I can’t help but feel that this is simply omission bias reshashed, which if remember correctly was in the early papers that Kahneman got the Nobel prize for. Perhaps someone needs to do a little bit of a literature search on cogntive biases in decision making, for which there is a mountain of stuff, before renaming things other people did 40 years ago — this is of course also a standard problem for health planners, where you need to convince people why taking things like vaccinations are worth the risk, so it’s not like it was ever some litte bit of obscure work. I imagine the next thing he’ll be telling us is that your mood affects the extent of your good/bad attributions, and that if you’re in a bad mood or depressed, you’re more likely to attribute things to the negative than the positive, and perhaps he’ll think that’s novel also.

paul frijters
paul frijters
12 years ago

sounds like old fashion protestantism to me: the degree to which the actions inform us about the degree to which the person deciding something cares about a greater good. By not having a positive reaction to the positive externality, the chairman signals the absence of that fixed trait and is hence not credited with anything. You argue the analogy holds because by changing with te winds on climate policy, Gillard signals there is no fixed trait greens want to see in her.

Whilst I see the argument I doubt it applies to Gillard. If the argumentation above held, her popularity should have been steady, not declining. She has lost votes not due to changes in climate policy but due to others things.

Also, where is the evidence that consistency matters in Australian politics?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
12 years ago


think of a child that accidentally damages the environment by, say, spilling a bucket of paint whilst playing. That is a bad side effect but many of us wouldn’t blame the child. Why not? Because we don’t ascribe to a child the responsibility to be aware and look out for these things, i.e. we infer much less about the child from the side-effect than we do from the actions of an adult. So whether the onlookers deduce these things in full recognition of all the mechanisms, or whether they use a quick moral heuristic that comes to the same thing, it does seem we are looking at a variant of protestantism here.

KB Keynes
KB Keynes
12 years ago

only problem is Yobbo is wrong.

If it were a carbon tax then no companies would be buying permits. It is an ETS with a fixed price which then converts to a floating price.

Gillard’s problem is that she could never explain why there had to be a change of leadership.

The problems over the ETS will pass once it comes in and the alleged disaster doesn’t come to fruition however this Government and Gillard seem to be able to create problems from nothing and are incapable of selling ice creams on a hot day

12 years ago

I don’t think much of Knobe’s work if this is all there is to it. I seems to fall into the the typical social sciences paradigm:

1. Think of a highly contrived situation on which to base an ‘experiment’.
2. Pretend that the results of your ‘experiment’ are a universal law of human nature.
3. Wait for people to simplify the results even further.

David Walker
12 years ago

My first reaction is the same as calyptorhynchus’s (!). What is presented as a puzzle of logic vs human behaviour may actually be a minor insight into the moral content we give to the word “help”. It may well be that people see “harm” as an objective result, but view “help” as implying some moral purpose.

I could say that I’d have to read the paper, but in my depressing experience most philosophers rush to declare the importance of these sorts of results. And they rarely get called on their lack of care, either.

I came across an article the other day bemoaning the fact that people don’t trust experts anymore. I suspect this sort of stuff is giving “expertise” a bad name.

Interestingly, KNobe seems to be at least interested in how people behave in the real world. But he doesn’t seem to have got to the stage of being humble in drawing conclusionss.

In that spirit … I haven’t gone through Knobe’s work, so I may be doing him a disservice.