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.