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The bigger the crime, the more likely we are to find someone guilty

When we judge somebody, it’s not sufficient for us to know that they’ve caused harm; we also think it’s important to find out whether they intended to do what they did. If a mother leaves her child alone to make a picture and comes back to find paint all over the floor, it’s not enough to see that her son caused the mess to decide he deserves a telling off, the mum also needs to know whether he deliberately tipped the paint pot over or accidentally knocked it as he reached for his brush.

When the mother is deciding whether she thinks her darling boy deliberately tipped paint on the floor it shouldn’t matter whether the floor is in the kitchen or that it has spread onto the new hall carpet. The harm done has nothing to do with whether it was intentional or not. Yet I know from my own childhood that the defence ‘I didn’t mean to, Mum,’ was much more likely to be accepted when the damage was minor.

It’s not just my mum who looks at the consequences of an act before deciding how responsible the perpetrator is. We all do.

Consider the following scenario. A company boss considers starting a new program. His advisers tell him that the project will increase profits, but will also harm the environment. He thinks about it, perhaps puffs on his cigar, before saying ‘I don’t give a damn about the environment one way or the other. All I want to do is make as much money as I can. Get the project started.’ His minions scurry away, implement the decision, make a fat profit for the company, and the environment is damaged. The question is not whether the project was justifiable, but whether the boss intentionally harmed the environment. Given a similar story, the overwhelming majority of people who were asked said that the chairman did intentionally damage the environment.

But contrast this with a different scenario. The same boss is considering another scheme. He’s told that the development will make money, but will also help the environment. The chairman responds ‘I don’t give a damn about the environment one way or the other. All I want to do is make as much money as I can. Get the project started.’ The program is executed, profits are made, and the environment is improved. Did the company’s boss intentionally help the environment? Faced with this account, most people say that the improvement in the environment was unintentional.

Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.

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