Democracy and Rational Self-Interest

by Ray Grigg

Democracy is described as that system of government in which we get what we deserve. While it has civilized societies by accentuating the better side of our human character, it has also made us vulnerable to one of our most serious failings. This failing is identified and explored by Dale Jamieson, a professor of philosophy and law, in his 2014 book, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed.

Jamieson argues that our failure to successfully address global climate change — probably the most serious threat ever to confront humanity — stems from the structure of democracy itself. As a system that responds to the collective concerns of its citizens, it cannot avert an emerging crisis until the majority of voters recognize and accept the danger. For this to happen, a plurality of people must become duly informed, reach the same conclusion, and then elect the governments that will initiate the preventative measures. Such measures, however, usually induce risk and discomfort by unsettling the established order, and the promised benefits seem remote compared to the ease of continuing with those entrenched behaviours that are proving to be environmentally destructive.

Unfortunately, the root cause of climate change is the carbon-based energy that provides almost all the material amenities of our modern civilization. Assuming democracy’s citizens are true to the process of acting in their “rational self-interest”, then they should be able to address even such a structural problem of enormous complexity. But this expectation is not as reassuring as it seems because it makes two important assumptions that deserve scrutiny.

First, the founding principles of modern democracy, as formulated by French philosophers during the 18th century’s Enlightenment, assumed that people were inherently rational and, if duly informed, would make rational decisions. But current psychology has a very different view of the dynamics that guide human behaviour. While reason may be an active component in our thinking, it is usually used retroactively to justify a decision already made emotionally. We are not thinking beings who feel; we are feeling beings who think. Advertising skillfully exploits this human quality — want is not a rational process. Neither are social pressures. Politics is mostly the art of persuading us by emotional means. Cycles in market economies, noted Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the US Federal Reserve, are largely driven by the “animal spirits” of “irrational exuberance”.

And second, the “self-interest” that has occurred throughout our evolutionary history has mostly been advanced by our ability to deal effectively with the present and the immediate; the gradual, distant and conjectural are relatively foreign to the dynamics that constitute our psychological makeup.

But our current environmental problems demand exactly those qualities that we have in short supply — a rational understanding that expands beyond our present circumstances and immediate interests to include future generations and even other species.

This discrepancy between our psychology and the complexities of an emerging environmental crisis presents a formidable obstacle for us. The decisions we are required to make today seem to be for a remote future that requires us to redesign our technologies, alter our habits and adjust our wants for something as insubstantial as a scientific prediction. We don’t want to think and act this way — even inevitabilities are abstract in our psychology. The essence of our challenge, then, is to overcome a survival strategy that no longer fits our circumstances.