“Even if Gleick’s lie was morally right, it was strategically wrong.”
In “Should Global-Warming Activists Lie to Defend Their Cause?“, Scientific American columnist John Horgan writes:
When, if ever, is lying justified? I talked about this conundrum this week in a freshmen humanities class, in which we were reading Immanuel Kant on morality. Kant proposed that we judge the rightness or wrongness of an act, such as breaking a promise, by considering what happens if everyone does it. If you don’t want to live in a world in which everyone routinely breaks promises, then you shouldn’t do so.
That’s a fine principle, in the abstract, but my students and I agreed that in certain situations lying is excusable. Shouldn’t you lie if your girlfriend asks you if you like her new haircut? If your boss, who’s a vindictive bastard, asks your opinion of his new business plan? What about lying in order to reveal a plot that you believe imperils all of humanity?
That brings me to the latest scandal to emerge from the debate over global warming…
Kant said that when judging the morality of an act, we must weigh the intentions of the actor. Was he acting selfishly, to benefit himself, or selflessly, to help others? By this criterion, Gleick’s lie was clearly moral, because he was defending a cause that he passionately views as righteous. Gleick, you might say, is a hero comparable to Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who in 1971 stole and released documents that revealed that U.S. officials lied to justify the war in Vietnam.
But another philosopher my students and I are reading, the utilitarian John Stuart Mill, said that judging acts according to intentions is not enough. We also have to look at consequences. And if Gleick’s deception has any consequences, they will probably be harmful. His exposure of the Heartland Institute’s plans, far from convincing skeptics to reconsider their position, will probably just confirm their suspicions about environmentalists. Even if Gleick’s lie was morally right, it was strategically wrong.
I’ll give the last word to one of my students. The Gleick incident, he said, shows that the “debate” over global warming is not really a debate any more. It’s a war, and when people are waging war, they always lie for their cause.