Tuesday, April 03, 2018

On Cotton and Fossil Fuels

Essay assignment: Compare and contrast the cotton industry in the United States in 1850s to the fossil fuel industry in 2018.

Let me start with a point of contrast. There is very little that we can attribute to the fossil fuel industry in 2018 which is as blatantly evil as chattel slavery based on race. Any attempt to say that the current owners and operators in the fossil fuel industry are “as bad as” the owners and operators of cotton plantations in the 1850s would be a mistake.

However, important similarities do exist, and they are matters of moral significance.

Recently, I was asked why I thought the founding fathers, with their belief that all men are created equal and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, would still endorse slavery. I had argued that the founding fathers believed in the existence of moral facts and meant for the phrase referencing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be a reference to these moral facts. Yet, they seemed to ignore a very clear application of these moral facts. How could that happen?

I argued that slavery appeared in the Constitution for the same reason that we do not have a carbon tax. There are entrenched interests whose wealth and power depends on a system that would be threatened if they admitted to certain facts.

The fossil fuel industry – its owners, managers, and employees – are engaged in activities that will destroy cities in some cases and, in a few cases, destroy whole nations. They will kill millions of people and cause great deal of suffering to hundreds of millions more.

Yet, they are blind to the moral wrongness of their actions. In the case of fossil fuel production, the owners and operators of the fossil fuel industry do not want to see themselves as villains. Therefore, they blind themselves to facts that would lead to that conclusion. In this case, they are blinding themselves to hard and fast scientific facts.

In the same way that the fossil fuel industry is motivated to accept bogus science in defense of their institutions, the same was true of the cotton industry in 1950. Case in point: The "theory", proposed by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, 1851, that, while slavery is the natural and comfortable condition for mentally healthy blacks, some blacks suffered from a mental disorder he called "drapetomania," which motivated the slave to attempt to escape slavery. One can prevent a slave from developing drapotomania by treating the slave with some measure of kindness and comfort. However, once afflicted, the best treatment for this illness was said to be a judicious application of a whip.

Certainly, if people who can blind themselves to well-established scientific fact backed up by stacks of evidence, we should not be surprised to discover that people can blind themselves to “softer” moral facts such as the idea that blacks also have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The desire that plantation owners and operators had to see themselves as good people while still preserving the system that gave them wealth and power blinded them to that which, to somebody who could view the situation more objectively, are blatantly obvious moral facts.

The purpose of my reference to the planation system is to point out what can happen to people who are, in many ways, decent human beings. There is little doubt that many plantation owners and operators were, in the bulk of their lives, decent human beings. They loved their children, took care of their elderly parents, helped their neighbors, participated on civic projects. They held to the same principles against lying, repaid their debts, kept their promises, refrained from taking their neighbor’s property without consent, at least so long as they were dealing with other white people. They had many reasons to consider themselves decent human beings.

However, they suffered from a moral blindness that prevented them from seeing themselves as moral monsters with regard to their treatment of a certain part of the population whose interests did not concern them.

Owners and operators of the fossil fuel industry are suffering the same effect.

This, in itself, explains how this problem arises and perseveres in the population of plantation owners and operators in the one case, and fossil fuel industry owners and operators in the other. It does not explain how these ideas are spread throughout a population who (1) do not own slaves, or (2) do not own or operate businesses in the fossil fuel industry.

The notion here is that not all rationalizations are alike. People seeking to rationalize the wrongs inflicted on others in pursuit of their own wealth and power are going to test several different rationalizations. Those that succeed will grow and spread and become more widely adopted, while those who fail will disappear, never to be heard from again. Now that we have the owners and operators of the cotton/fossil fuel industry seeking to dismiss the wrongs they inflict on others, we can look at the techniques they used and ask, “Why are these the ones that succeeded in a wider population?”

Before going on, I would like to add that the owners and operators of the fossil fuel industry has a significant advantage over the owners and operators of the cotton industry. The fossil fuel industry has the capacity to hire public relations firms that know how to create surveys and focus groups who will tell them which messages will work. They maintain lists of contacts with the media that they can use to spread the ideas that the research shows them will work.

What works, among human beings, is a message of tribalism. One needs to pick out or identify a tribe, give it the message that “we” are morally superior to “them” and if “them” wins, then “us” will suffer unduly.

In the case of the plantation owners in the first half of the nineteenth century the tribal message that worked was racism. “We white people are morally superior to them black people. Them black people are only fit to be slaves. Nature and God built them that way. Rest assured, fellow white people, you are more like us than like them. Though, if you allow the abolitionist to win, the abolitionist will make you politically equal to the blacks. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”

The fossil fuel industry has found its mark, not in racial tribes, but in political tribes. In the 1850s, it was “supporting slavery and other policies useful to the economic and social interests of the plantation owners made you a member in good standing of the white race,” now it is, “supporting the policies useful to the economic and social interests of the fossil fuel industry makes you a member in good standing of the conservative party”. And, just as the 1850 message was accompanied by the claim that the white race is morally and intellectually superior to the black race, the 2018 message is that the conservative political movement is morally and intellectually superior to the liberal movement.

“They are beneath you – only worthy of the contempt and condemnation of decent people like us – and certainly you would rather be one of us than one of them.”

And that, then, is how the fossil fuel industry of 2018 is like the cotton industry of 1850. It is made up of people whose economic and social status depends on being blind to the moral wrongs of their action, who have adopted a message that feeds into the tribal instincts of a general population to promote an idea that “we” are better than “them” and that to be counted “one of us” you will have to adopt these attitudes useful to preserving the social and economic status of those in this industry.


Lawd Cheesy Crust said...

Are you on twitter? Always looking to follow literate atheists.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, apparently, I am . . .

I set up an account a while back, but (more or less) abandoned it because I could scarcely think of anything useful to say in so few characters. I prefer full arguments.

Yet, it seems that I set things out such that my facebook posts show up on my twitter account - and I have followers and everything.

I'm going to have to check this out.