Self-Interest Properly Defined

Here’s a question: if you lie on an employment application in order to get a job, and you do in fact get the job as a result,  was your dishonest behavior in your self-interest?

Most of us would probably say that the lie did advance your short-term interest, although there is a strong likelihood that long-term, simply as a practical matter, your dishonesty would come back to bite you. Thoughtful respondents might go further, pointing out that even when we “get away” with unethical behaviors, such actions tend to make us less aware of the effects of such behaviors on ourselves and others, and ultimately cause us to be worse people than we might otherwise be.

Being a deeply flawed human is arguably not in our self-interest.

Assuming you agree with this analysis of where self-interest properly lies, what can we say about corporations and other financially-interested parties that intentionally and knowingly create public doubt about climate change?

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists didn’t ask that question, but it did explore the “organizational and financial roots of polarization.” (That’s academic-ese for the process of intentionally sowing doubt about settled science.)

Ideological polarization around environmental issues—especially climate change—have increased in the last 20 years. This polarization has led to public uncertainty, and in some cases, policy stalemate. Much attention has been given to understanding individual attitudes, but much less to the larger organizational and financial roots of polarization. This gap is due to prior difficulties in gathering and analyzing quantitative data about these complex and furtive processes. This paper uses comprehensive text and network data to show how corporate funding influences the production and actual thematic content of polarization efforts. It highlights the important influence of private funding in public knowledge and politics, and provides researchers a methodological model for future studies that blend large-scale textual discourse with social networks.

The entire article can be accessed at the link. Basically, it confirms that “uncertainty” is the desired outcome of expenditures made on behalf of fossil fuel interests. (I know you are shocked–shocked–to find that gambling is going on here.)

Many people excuse the efforts of gas and oil and coal interests to slow the development of renewable energy and green practices on the grounds that these companies and lobbyists are acting in their “self-interest.” I have heard people say that, although it is unfortunate, it is understandable that these companies  would try to protect their bottom lines.

It may be understandable (it’s also “understandable” that people steal things they want, or shoot people they dislike), but it is profoundly immoral. And as far as “self-interest” is concerned, delaying widespread recognition of an existential threat to the planet cannot possibly be in the “self-interest” of any of the planet’s inhabitants.

Many years ago, De Toqueville admired Americans for displaying “enlightened self-interest,” or “self-interest rightly understood.” As he explained it,

The Americans…are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

Just like that lie on the employment application, climate-change denial in service of a short-term bottom line will eventually destroy the reputations of the liars. But in this case, the likely damage to millions of their fellow humans–including their own progeny– makes loss of reputation a pretty inadequate price to pay.


  1. It takes two to tango as they say. In this case it is the merchants of doubt and those who buy their lies.
    If you are raised in a world of magical thinking the lies are easy to swallow. If you have learned to rationalize your own behavior at the expense of truth it is easy to do the bidding of others. Case in point: those thousands of voters in Louisiana who repeatedly voted for congressmen who claimed that climate change was not real. The voters chose to believe the lie. They chose it because to do otherwise would mean that they would have to change their own behavior with regards to the planet they inhabited. They would lose something. The idea of enlightened self interest lost to the self interest of greed. And now? Now they have lost everything.

  2. This morning I posted a comment on yesterday’s blog, “Apparently, it isn’t just Flint”. Sorry I don’t know how to copy and paste between Sheila’s blogs because it would serve just as well on today’s issue, “Self-Interest Properly Defined”. It referred to the Trump/Pence disruptive visit to the flood devastated area of Louisiana against the Governor’s request they NOT come for political reasons but would be welcome if they come to help. WTF can public safety officers, continuing responders and destitute survivors do with Play-Doh?

    His visit to Louisiana, like his sudden pseudo support for African-Americans rally (during which a dark-skinned young man wearing a Trump shirt was ejected) and his open-ended but empty, self-serving, apology for his earlier, undefined, comments are are more of his total self-interest lies. His lies are openly and blatantly causing serious complications across this nation and embarrassing us in the eyes of the world. Words do harm us, lies especially, but so far Trump and his lies have run rampant over all minority classes in this country. He needs to do some math; the number of all minorities added together totals more than the white race he claims only he can protect.

    “Self-Interest Properly Defined” defines Donald Trump; with Pence dragging along behind like an incomplete abortion.

  3. And the LA Gov has drained the state funds. MORE Tax breaks for the rich. That did not work out so well for the regular folks. Now what? I bet they want that awful Federal Gov to rescue them.

  4. Theresa,

    “The voters chose to believe the lie. They chose it because to do otherwise would mean that they would have to change their own behavior with regards to the planet they inhabited. They would lose something.”

    Wow! ” Are we ever working on all cylinders this morning.”

    Back to the drawing board on Recalling the Tea Party Mayor of Jacksonville. Hopefully, we can be voting on more than the president in November.

  5. I have often wondered how the energy corporation owners and executives could knowingly destroy the planet, and even today’s atmosphere and air that ee breathe, while knowing that they are actively destroying the future of their children, grandchildren, etc.

    It takes cold selfish hearts to be that greedy.

  6. Marv, Nancy,

    Another example… the Republican response to Obama’s request IN JANUARY for massive funding to fight the Zika threat. NADA! They did nada. And now? Miami Beach’s tourist trade is in jeopardy. AND, we learn that new discoveries about the disease teach us that adults who get it are in jeopardy of brain damage too.

  7. Theresa, Nancy, JoAnn, patmcc, Anthony,

    What we’re all doing this morning on is starting to create enough momentum to overcome the COGNITIVE DISSONANCE of so many Americans in facing up to the truth. I’m confident it can be done. There’s enough time. We’re going to have to lead the charge. No doubt, we have the best leader. So, how can we lose? Enough is enough, with the MERCHANTS OF DOUBT.

  8. I think it is pretty simple. You don’t need fancy theories to explain the actions of corporation obfuscating climate science. They view fossil fuels as money in the bank. They have made huge investments in leases, equipment and technology. They need to maximize shareholder value. At least this is what Milton Friedman told them was their function. They are much like pre civil war slaveholders, unwilling to turn loose their investment even if it meant destroying the entire south. In this case it means destroying much of the planet’s population and ecosystem. They are rich they are building refuges in areas they believe are safe.
    Greed makes them believe morality is a losers game. As long as they have their penthouses, mansions and ranches in Montana why should they care about the little people.

  9. ExxonMobil may be acting in its self-interest by instilling doubt about climate change, but when the company lies about the phenomenon on filings with the S.E.C. that makes the firm subject to penalties. And when it lies in its annual reports to shareholders about the chances of its assets being “stranded” in the ground, that is also illegal.

  10. The very first question asked on the very first day of my very first class toward my MBA was, “What is the purpose of business?” It is interesting to note that none of us had the right answer, so this might be considered our introduction to cynicism. The purpose of business is to MAKE MONEY! Most businesses plan for about 5 years into the future, so they will still profit from what they do now in 5 years. It takes an extraordinary leader to sacrifice short term gain for long term benefit. Most CEOs are NOT extraordinary leaders.

    The rest of us face a post industrial economy that we are not adjusting to very well. We need to develop different skills to survive. We need a vigorous clean energy industry. We also need to decide where the next opportunities will be and plan for education and training to get there. Right now doing these things adds nothing to the bottom line. In 30 years having done those things now will alllow us to survive.

  11. Geraldine,

    “I think it is pretty simple”

    The picture is becoming clearer and clearer. Pretty soon, it is going to become obvious as long as we still have RARE venues of FREEDOM OF SPEECH like this blog.

  12. Replace “business” with the entire Grand Old Party. The end result of framing (a fancy word for telling lies) bad policy to get themselves elected over the past several decades? The Tea Party, The Trump, and the self destruction of their party.

  13. Vince Lombardi – “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This quote by Lombardi is often heard in sports. You can take this idea to the extremes. Professional athletes using steroids to enhance their performance. The so called invisible hand of capitalism, which was supposed to punish bad behavior, is invisible to the point of non-existence. The Volkswagen emissions scandal was a deliberate act of deception. The person who shop lifts at the local big box store will find the weight of the justice system of them. Top Corporate brass will rarely if ever see the inside of a jail cell. Golden parachutes are not for the proles. The philosophy of the multi-national corporations (not stated of course publicly) is anything that interferes with profit by definition must be wrong.

    So if US Standards are too restrictive, just relocate the factory or your Head Quarters off shore to some country that has lax if any standards.

    As a Side Bar from the Guardian – The rate of Texas women who died from complications related to their pregnancy doubled from 2010 to 2014, a new study has found, for an estimated maternal mortality rate that is unmatched in any other state and the rest of the developed world. Just this month, Texas’s health department drew fire for allocating $1.6m of the $18m the state budgets for low-income women’s family planning to an anti-abortion group that does not provide basic health services.

  14. All Capitalism is merely subscribing to its one principle. Make more money regardless of the impact on others. You would think that seeing through that would be universal but Adam Smith assured us 300 years ago that there’s an “invisible hand” (of God?) to make it work.

    There are no free markets in the world that I know of. Every country in every market has found regulation to be required yet people still pray for and to the “invisible hand”.

    It’s the opium of oligarchy.

  15. The fossil fuel industry teaches us to live as we tell our kids not to. Live for today, push what you can’t afford to pay for today off to the future, and declare bankruptcy when it catches up to you (a la Trump).

    Many fall for it. (Probably largely those who live like that.)

  16. Right on Sheila, but you beg the larger question. Now that we know about climate change, what are we going to do about it?

  17. Anita. The list is long. To me the easiest start for individuals is to, when you buy buy your next car, buy a hybrid or electric. No compromise, future proof.

    I many areas now companies will photoelectric your roof for only what you save in electric bills. Costs you nothing.

    Eat less meat.

    Lots of things to do.

  18. I do not think there are any poles that are unique socially, not like the Arctic and Antarctic measures of one enormously large Earth, but only one of those. I listen often to the members of (proper noun) The Ohio Supreme Court in hearings at (proper noun) Ohio locations, usually in their building at (proper noun) Columbus — due East as planned with (proper noun) Indianapolis. The basic juvenile moral question an attorney in a drama would ask a child or person cast socially as a minor is, Do you know the difference between truth and a lie? Then who reads that answer besides the Court Reporter? In a hearing in the smallest administrative review, who would go back to the employment application of a seated public official, or a university hire, to see who did not catch and answer a question about the paper itself? I have read many, many citizens works that contain errors of facts unknown to any the makers of the employment forms themselves, beginning with all the proper nouns in print on that application (School).

  19. Amazing, actually, that, knowing what is known about the tobacco industry’s prolonged and largely successful efforts to ‘prove’ that tobacco use is not a health hazard – a lie finally debunked in our times – that knowing the falsehoods promulgated in the tobacco campaign, the general ‘public’ falls for a different set of falsehoods now being promulgated in the climate campaign by many of the SAME people…

    There is an explanation for some of these lying liars’ behaviour – it is religion. Many of them adhere to an apocalytitcal belief system that preaches that the end of the world is definitely near. Believing this, these individuals further believe that their behaviour cannot change the outcome, but that their place in the future heavenly realm can be secured by proof in this realm of material wealth, et alia, and continue to, and double down on, their wealth building activities. And literally bedamned to the rest. These folks feel guaranteed by their acceptance of Christ as their Savior that they will not be ‘left behind’….

  20. This is great.

    I thought it was going to be about Elizabeth Warren lying about having a native American heritage to get scholarships and jobs. Oops! No one cares about that.

    What temperature should the earth be?
    20 years ago, global cooling.
    5 years ago, global warming.
    Now, climate change.

    When Al Gore (and others) exaggerate the impact, for their own financial gain, just as you accuse corporations of doing, where is the outrage? Fly wherever you want, the plane was going there anyway, buy a few car on credits!!!

    What should the financial impact be to US corporations, and what is the impact, when China, Russia, and developing countries do not care.

    The ol’ “we have to set an example” when it is extremely costly, and everyone else is taking advantage is tiresome.

    We all need to be better stewards of our planet. No one disputes that.

    Evn Native American Elizabeth Warren believes that!

  21. William, this is about what is known by the application of science. You may well prefer a different reality. So do I but what we want matters none at all to the Universe so we’re stuck with reality as it is.

    Reality is that we built civilization and populated the planet using what seemed like the least expensive sources of energy, the most pervasive ingredient in progress with the exception of innovation.

    We’ve discovered otherwise. In fact we’ve discovered that the climate consequences of using fossil fuels makes them way more expensive than we thought both in human lives and treasure. At the same time the cost of using our only source directly has gotten much cheaper. Given that, the only reason not to change comes from those who profit from the status quo.

    Those people have my sympathy. Nobody knew when they picked their field that it would be short lived. Of course that happens every day to countless others in countless other fields and they survive by learning new. So will fossil fuel workers.

    An easier solution though for them is buying minds with the combination of pseudo-science and advertising. It’s a tried and true method.

    We each have to decide between those efforts and science. I choose science.

  22. Pete

    Are you a scientist? No.
    So I didn’t read you.

    You said you have never been a little girl, so you didn’t have an opinion on abortion based on gender alone.

    You are not a scientist with climate change expertise, so, no read. Others?

  23. Gated communities don’t protect against dirty air, and water, rampaging fires, and rising oceans.

  24. William I am an engineer and have studied and taught climate science for 10 years. But that doesn’t matter to climate science. It has determined whst it has. You’ve been unknowingly taught science denial by companies who profit from the status quo.

  25. Pete
    So you are an engineer in the climate change area? Or were you just throwing that out like Elizabeth Warren and her high cheek bones and Indian Heritage.

    I think the impact of climate change has been greatly exaggerated.

    Al Gore, Academy Award, but predictions were wrong. If you say ‘vut the message was right, and it got people to pay attention’ I will rhrow up.

    Carbon credits? Farse.
    Its okay, the plane was going there anyway! Ha!
    No wind power if it ruins the Kennedy’s view.

    Kyoto? Big talk. No one really has to do anything.

    Just a farce.

    One solar storm could end years of nuttiness.

    US companies could go broke, while China, Russia and developing countries do ignore it.

    Warming? Cooling? Change? Volatility?

    Engineer? Crack pot?

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