SELF-INTEREST VS. ETHICS

In the quote taken from Stephen Gardiner’s essay, he contrasts approaches to climate change based on ethics with approaches based on self-interest. Gardiner separately argues that self-interest is “at best a side issue and at worst just another vehicle for procrastination and moral corruption.”17 To help understand the force of this view, it is worth examining what it would mean to pursue our selfinterest with respect to climate policy. Does it lead to moral corruption?

Self-interest, I will argue in chapter 6, demands that we pursue aggressive policies to reduce emissions, policies that are far more ambitious than those currently on the table. The core reason is that current emissions levels risk causing terrible harms in the relatively near future, harms that will affect us, our children, and our grandchildren.18 To prevent these harms, we need to reduce emissions rapidly. Because of the vast fossil fuel infrastructure, reducing emissions rapidly requires acting now. The United States alone has to replace about $6 trillion of durable infrastructure. This will take time. Even if it is likely that the worst of climate change will not happen because the climate is more stable than we currently think, the risk of very bad outcomes is sufficient to mean that it is in our self-interest to act now.

The worry with following self-interest is that it might be in our self-interest to pollute, leaving others to bear the consequences. If I can be better off by polluting, why should I care that you are worse off, at least if I just follow pure self-i nterest? Perhaps we need to invoke moral or ethical concerns for others to address the problem.

Self-i nterest, however, need not support this sort of behavior. To see why, suppose we live around a plot of land that everyone can use without charge. Because it is free to use, everyone throws their garbage on the open land, and we expect that soon the land will be polluted and unusable, creating a great loss.

It is in our self-interest to find a way to govern the use of the land. Ungoverned, the common land is tragically wasted. Governed, we can maximize its value by determining whether and how we use it. We might charge people to use it so that they take the costs into account when making choices. We might impose caps on its use. We might come up with a market-based mechanism to determine use. Or we might provide explicit rules for how it is to be used and by whom. Regardless, it is in our self-i nterest to prevent overuse because doing so preserves the value of the land, making us better off.

Finding a way to limit the use of the land might require an agreement of the people in the community or if there is a government, a decision by the government that reflects and enforces the will of the community.19 It might require rules and regulations. Self-interest may not mean free markets in the sense of no controls on pollution.

Reaching an agreement may be difficult. People who currently throw their garbage on the land for free might object to limits. They are used to using the land for free and might view free use as a right. And they might be powerful enough to prevent community action. In some real world cases, resources were wasted because of overuse. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed details cases where societies failed to govern their resources wisely.20 These societies ultimately failed, creating a great loss.

We might say that failing to govern the land, allowing everyone to use it as a garbage dump, is unethical because it hurts other users of the land. Perhaps some people throw in more garbage than others, or someone or their parents threw in more in the past. We might call on ethics to tell us what to do with the common resource.

Better governance of the land, including rules that prohibit free dumping, however, can arise solely as a result of the pursuit of self-interest. It is in our self-interest to manage the land to maximize its value, to prevent it from being wasted. We think it tragic when a society fails because it did not govern its resources wisely. Those societies acted foolishly. They failed to wisely pursue their own ends. It was perhaps unethical but it was also just foolish.

This precise reasoning holds for the use of the atmosphere. Climate change is caused by people dumping their garbage—carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases—into the atmosphere. Wise use of this vital resource would limit or entirely prohibit this dumping. Wise use is in our selfinterest. The argument, moreover, works across space—the people currently situated around the common land or all of us currently using the Earth’s atmosphere—and across time—the people alive now and in the future.

Acting in one’s self-interest to protect a common resource is not the same as acting selfishly or acting based on narrow and short-term pay-offs. It is not the same as money-grubbing or caring only about the immediate future. It encompasses all sorts of views of the good life. The Greeks called this idea eudaimonia, the totality of things one cares about. It encompasses caring for others. Back- to-nature hippies are pursuing their view of the good life and, therefore, self-i nterest. So are Wall Street bankers. Spending resources to educate my children is in my selfinterest because I care about them. But even using narrow notions of self-i nterest, it is in our self-i nterest to wisely govern use of the atmosphere, to reduce emissions, starting now, and to do so rapidly. We need to do so to prevent very serious harms to ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. This is not morally corrupt.

 
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