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I typically ask this question to my environmental economics students (not original to me):

A company chairman is told a new project will increase profits, but it will definitely cause harm to the environment.

He says, “I don’t care about harming the environment. Let’s start the new project. I just want to make as much profit as possible.”

He proceeds with the project.

QUES: Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

Typically, we see around 40% of the class suggest that yes indeed this person did intentionally harm the environment. We can talk about the psychology and sociology of that later, especially as compared to the number of students that typically say yes to the next question about unintended good. But my point today is a on the political-consistency side. Suppose instead we reframed the question this way:

The President of the U.S. or your local Congressperson is told a new program will increase promote job creation, but it will definitely cause harm to the environment.

She says, “I don’t care about harming the environment. Let’s initiate the program , our economy is in too much trouble not to do so.”

She proceeds with the project.

QUES: Did the politician intentionally harm the environment?

Do you think 40% of my students would still think this was intentional? Should our response in one scenario differ from the other? Remember, people think profit itself is a “dirty” word (pardon the environmental pun), so is that what is the source of the result here? But as you know, profits are a good thing, and of course there is almost no actual evidence that political programs to create sustainable jobs have actually had much success in the past, would you expect that influence the responses here? What nodes of the brain are most of us employing when answering these questions?

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