Ethical and Moral Aspects of Energy Use

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The production and use of energy gives rise to a wide range of ethical and moral issues. Worldwide there are four general energy options available, each of which can raise significant ethical questions. We can continue to rely primarily on fossil fuels, presently estimated to account for more than 80 percent of worldwide energy use. Second, we could shift to greater reliance on nuclear energy. Third, we could develop alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power. A fourth alternative would focus on conservation and energy efficiency and seek to decrease the overall demand for energy.

Continuing dependence on fossil fuels raises several major ethical issues. Ethical questions concerning our responsibilities to future generations are raised by the fact that fossil fuels are a nonrenewable energy source, so that every barrel of oil or ton of coal burned today is forever lost to future generations. Further, the by-products of fossil fuel combustion pose hazards to both present and future generations.

Nuclear energy also faces major ethical challenges. Nuclear power generates toxic wastes that remain hazardous for thousands of generations. Even assuming that the operation of nuclear power plants can be made safe, disposal of nuclear wastes can jeopardize the health and safety of countless future people. Further, the proliferation of nuclear technology that is necessary for generating nuclear energy also raises ethical concerns of international peace and security.

Energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal power are often proposed as renewable and non-polluting alternatives to fossil and nuclear fuels. But here, too, ethical challenges must be faced. Over the short term, alternative energy sources will likely be more expensive relative to fossil and nuclear fuels. Such price differentials mean that safer and cleaner energy sources will more likely be available to wealthy countries and individuals while the poor will continue relying on more dangerous and polluting energy sources. As a result, questions need to be raised concerning equality and fairness in the distribution of alternative energy sources. Further, development of these alternative technologies may require government subsidies and incentives, which can raise additional questions of freedom, fairness, and equality.

Finally, conservation and energy efficiency also raise ethical challenges. A significant decrease in energy consumption is possible in only two ways: we significantly decrease demand or we significantly decrease the population of people demanding energy. Either option raises major questions concerning values such as individual freedom of choice, property rights, fairness, and equal opportunity, as well as ethical issues regarding population policy, standards of living, and quality of life.


We can begin to focus on the specific value issues involved in energy by reflecting on the nature of ethics itself. At the start of a dialogue on ethics, Socrates once said that "we are dealing with no small thing but with how we ought to live." There is no more fundamental ethical question than this: How ought we to live? But as Socrates understood, this question can be interpreted in two ways. "We" can mean each one of us individually, or it may mean all of us collectively. Taken in the first sense, ethics is concerned with how I should live my life, with the choices I ought to make, with the type of person I should be. We can refer to this sense of ethics as morality. Taken in the second sense, this question refers to how we ought to live together in society. Ethics in this sense raises questions of public policy, law, institutions, social justice. To distinguish this sense of ethics from morality, we can refer to these as questions of social ethics.

Although important questions of individual morality can be involved with energy issues, the production and use of energy primarily raises questions of social ethics and public policy. This emphasis can be explained simply by the magnitude of energy issues. Such questions as resource conservation, global warming, nuclear waste disposal, and pollution will not be resolved through individual action alone. However, before turning to the public policy perspective, it will be helpful to consider some aspects of individual energy choices.

Some would argue that energy policy ought to be left to individual choice. In such a situation, some individuals may choose a frugal and conservative lifestyle that demands relatively little energy resources. One thinks here of the common environmental adage "live simply so that others may simply live." Other individuals may choose a more energy-intensive lifestyle. Either way, one could argue that the choice ought to be left to the moral values of individuals.

This option is favored by those who defend economic markets as the most ethically appropriate approach to public policy. This view argues that individual consumers, relying on their own preferences, should be free to choose from a variety of energy options. The working of a competitive market would then guarantee the optimal distribution of both the benefits and burdens of energy production. Consumers who value safe and clean energy sources would be free to choose wind or solar power and, presumably, would be willing to pay more for these benefits. Assuming a social system in which government subsidies were eliminated and external costs such as pollution were fully internalized, this economic arrangement would most efficiently satisfy the greatest number of individual desires while also respecting individual freedom of choice.

Defenders of this approach could point to the deregulation of the electric utility industry within the United States during the late 1990s as an example. As the industry becomes deregulated, a number of new firms stepped into the market to offer consumers a wider range of energy choices. In many areas, consumers who are willing to pay higher prices are able to purchase energy generated from environmentally friendly, "green" sources.

There are major problems with this individualistic approach to energy policy, however. The ideal market of economic theory exists nowhere in reality. Further, even market defenders acknowledge cases in which markets fail. Significantly, some paradigmatic examples of market failure, such as the externality of pollution and monopolistic control of production, are associated with the production of energy. More importantly, perhaps, crucial ethical questions can be missed if we only consider the perspective of individual values and choice.

Consider how a single individual might deliberate about the consumption of fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels increases the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and strong evidence suggests that this can lead to global warming. Given this scenario, does morality require that individuals refrain from driving automobiles?

To answer this question an individual might well weigh the benefits of driving a private car against the costs of increased greenhouse gas emissions. An average car might burn between two and three gallons of gasoline each hour. Given that an average driver might drive only a few hours each day, the amount of fuel burned in this activity will make little difference in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Weighed against the convenience and freedom of driving one's own car and the market-established price of gasoline, it may well be reasonable for an individual to decide that there is no significant moral issue involved in driving.

However, if we extend this line of reasoning across a large population, a decision that seems minor to an individual can turn out to have enormous social implications. If millions of people make the same seemingly reasonable decision and burn millions of gallons of gasoline each day, the atmospheric consequences are significant. We are here faced with ethical and policy questions that would never arise from an individual's point of view. For example, we might consider increasing taxes on gasoline, requiring automobile manufacturers to improve mileage efficiency, subsidizing mass transit, providing tax incentives for alternative fuel transportation, or even prohibiting private automobiles in urban areas. The crucial point is that none of these questions would ever arise from the perspective of an individual facing a single choice. Recognizing that these are important ethical questions that deserve consideration, we recognize the need for treating public policy questions as distinct from individual moral questions.

A second inadequacy of the individualistic approach is that it can underestimate the influence which social practices have upon individual choice. As individuals, we pursue goals based on our interests and desires. But a complete ethical analysis should include an examination of the source of those interests and desires.

If we take consumer demand as a given, then the major task for energy policy is to produce enough energy to satisfy that demand. Alternative policies will then be judged in terms of how well they accomplish that task. But when we recognize that the demand for an energy-intensive lifestyle is a product of social and cultural factors, and that these factors themselves can be influenced by public policy, then we see the need to ask questions that might ordinarily be ignored by individuals.

For example, should we pursue policies that would discourage energy use and encourage conservation? Are all uses of energy equally valid on ethical grounds? Should energy producers be discouraged from advertising, or should they be required to promote conservation? Should poor, less-developed countries receive subsidized energy resources from the developed, industrialized countries? Again, these are questions that are raised only from a public policy perspective. Clearly, an adequate ethics of energy must move beyond moral questions and focus on social and public policy perspectives.


Turning to social ethics, we can distinguish two general types of ethical questions that pertain to energy policy: questions of justice in the present, and questions concerning our responsibilities to future generations. Issues concerning social justice for present generations can be categorized in terms of debates between utilitarian (maximizing beneficial consequences) and deontological (acting in accord with moral principles and duties) approaches to ethics. Ethical questions concerning future generations involve both the content and the very existence of such duties.

Utilitarian ethics holds that energy policy ought to be set according to the general ethical rule of maximizing the overall good. For example, if oil exploration in an Arctic wilderness area would produce greater overall social happiness than would preservation of the wilderness area, utilitarian ethics would support exploration. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethics in which good and bad policy is a function of the consequences that follow from that policy. Policies that increase net social benefits are right, those that decrease net social benefits are wrong. Thus, utilitarianism employs what can be thought of as an ethical cost-benefit methodology, weighing the benefits and harms of various alternatives and promoting that option which proves most useful in maximizing benefits over harms. Because energy is something valued only for its usefulness, utilitarian ethics seems well suited for establishing energy policy.

Explained in such general terms as maximizing the good, utilitarianism is an intuitively plausible ethical theory. Disagreements occur when defenders attempt to specify the content and meaning of the good (or "happiness"). An important contemporary version of utilitarianism identifies happiness with the satisfaction of individual desires or, simply, getting what one wants. Sometimes identified as preference utilitarianism, this view equates the good with the satisfaction of individual preferences and is closely associated with the goal of microeconomic efficiency. This particular version of utilitarianism has had a profound impact on energy policy, especially energy policy as it is found in liberal democratic societies. From this perspective, the goal of energy policy is to optimally satisfy the demand for energy while minimizing any potential harms that might result.

Two trends within this general utilitarian approach dominate energy policy. One holds that there are experts who can predict policy outcomes, determine relative risks and benefits, and administer policies to attain the goal of maximum overall happiness. These experts, trained in the sciences, engineering, and the social sciences, are best situated to predict the likely consequences of alternative policies. Scientific understanding of how the world works enables these experts to determine which policies will increase the net aggregate happiness. This version of utilitarian thinking typically supports government regulation of energy policy and, as a result, is often criticized on ethical grounds as involving paternalistic interference with individual decision-making and property rights.

A second trend within the utilitarian tradition argues that efficient markets are the best means for attaining the goal of maximum overall happiness. This version would promote policies that deregulate energy industries, encourage competition, protect property rights, and allow for free exchanges. In theory, such policies would direct rationally self-interested individuals, as if led by an "invisible hand" in famed economist Adam Smith's terms, to the optimal realization of overall happiness. As with the approach that relies on energy experts, the market approach agrees that the goal of energy policy ought to be the optimal satisfaction of consumer demand.

Both approaches share two fundamental utilitarian assumptions. First, utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethics that determines right and wrong by looking to the results of various policies. Second, they hold that ethics ought to be concerned with the overall, or aggregate, welfare. Deontological ethics (the word is derived from the Greek word for duty) rejects both of these assumptions.

Committed to the ethical maxim that the ends don't justify the means, deontological ethics rejects the consequentialism of utilitarianism for an ethics based on principles or duties. There are many cases in which ethics demands that we do something even if doing otherwise would produce greater overall happiness. On this view, right and wrong policy is a matter of acting on principle and fulfilling one's duties. Respect for individual rights to life and liberty or acting on the demands of justice are common examples of ethical principles that ought not be sacrificed simply for a net increase in the overall happiness.

An especially troubling aspect of utilitarianism is the emphasis on collective or aggregate happiness. This seems to violate the ethical principle that individuals possess some central interests (to be distinguished from mere preferences) that ought to be protected from policies aimed simply at making others happier. Most of us would argue that individuals have rights that ought not to be sacrificed to obtain marginal increases in the aggregate overall happiness. Our duty to respect the rights of individuals, to treat individuals as ends in themselves, and not as mere means to the end of collective happiness, is the hallmark of deontological ethics.

Nowhere is this concern with individual rights more crucial than in questions concerning the justice of energy policy. Distributive justice demands that the benefits and burdens of energy policy be distributed in ways that respect the equal dignity and worth of every individual. A prima facie violation of justice occurs when social benefits and burdens are distributed unequally. Particularly troubling inequalities occur when the benefits of policy go to the powerful and wealthy, while the burdens are distributed primarily among the poor and less powerful.

Consider, as an example, the logic of a policy decision to build and locate an electric generating plant or oil refinery. Economic considerations such as the availability of ample and inexpensive land, and social considerations such as zoning regulations and political influence, would play a major role in such a decision. In practice, this makes it more likely that plants and refineries, as well as waste sites and other locally undesirable land uses, will be located in poorer communities whose population is often largely people of color.

Evidence suggests that this is exactly what has happened. Beginning in the 1970s, sociologist Robert Bullard studied the location of hazardous and polluting industries within the United States. He found that many such industries, including many electric generating plants and oil refineries, are disproportionately located in minority communities. This is not to claim that there has been an intentional social policy to unfairly burden minority communities. But it does suggest that the economic and political factors that give rise to such decisions have much the same practical effect. Upper income levels disproportionately benefit from inexpensive energy to fuel consumerist lifestyles, while lower income minority communities carry a disproportionate burden of energy production.

Much the same has been said on the international level. Debates concerning international energy justice occurred frequently during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Kyoto conference on global warming in 1997. Representatives of the less developed countries argue that industrialized countries have long benefited from readily accessible and inexpensive energy resources, which have been primarily responsible for the proliferation of greenhouse gases and nuclear wastes. However, after having attained the benefits of this lifestyle, the industrialized countries now demand a decrease in greenhouse emissions, conservation of resources, and a reduction in the use of nuclear energy. These policies effectively guarantee that the non–industrialized world will remain at an economic and political disadvantage. Many argue that justice would demand industrialized countries carry a heavier burden for decreasing energy demands, reducing greenhouse emissions, storing nuclear wastes, and for conserving non–renewable resources. Influenced by such reasoning, the majority of industrialized countries accepted greater responsibility at the Kyoto conference for reducing greenhouse gases.

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of energy production and use might be justified. Utilitarians have no in-principle objection to unequal distribution. If an unequal distribution would create a net increase in the total aggregate amount of happiness, utilitarians would support inequality. Deontologists would argue that these practices treat vulnerable individuals as mere means to the end of collective happiness and, thus, are unjust and unfair. Such central interests as health and safety ought not be sacrificed for a net increase in overall happiness. Moral and legal rights function to protect these interests from being sacrificed for the happiness of others.

Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin suggests that individual rights can be thought of as "trumps" which override the non-central interests of others. Public policy issues that do not violate rights can be appropriately decided on utilitarian grounds and properly belong to legislative bodies. However, when policies threaten central interests, courts are called upon to protect individual rights. The judiciary functions to determine if rights are being violated and, if so, to enforce those rights by overruling, or "trumping," utilitarian policy.

Critics raise two major challenges to deontological approaches. Many charge that deontologists are unable to provide a meaningful distinction between central and non-central interests. Lacking this, public policy is unable to distinguish between rights and mere preferences. From this perspective, the language of rights functions as a smoke-screen raised whenever an individual's desires are frustrated by public policy. The inability to distinguish central from non–central interests has given rise to a proliferation of rights claims that often obstructs effective public policy.

Critics might cite the NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon as a case in point. A small minority is sometimes able to thwart the common good by claiming that their rights are being violated when, in fact, this minority simply does not want to bear its share of the burden. The cessation of nuclear power plant construction within the United States might provide an example of this. By claiming that nuclear plants threaten such rights as health and safety, opponents to nuclear power have been able to block further construction. If, however, there is little evidence of any actual harm caused by nuclear plants, these opponents may have succeeded in obstructing a beneficial public policy by disguising their preferences as rights. A similar claim could be made concerning debates about locating such locally undesirable but socially beneficial projects as oil refineries and electric generating plants.

A second challenge argues that deontologists are unable to provide a determinate procedure for deciding between conflicting rights claims. Even if we can distinguish rights from mere preferences, effective policy needs a procedure for resolving conflicts. Returning to the analogy of trump cards, deontologists are challenged to distinguish between the ace and deuce of trumps.

Consider, for example, one possible scenario that could follow from the Kyoto Protocol on carbon reduction. Developing countries claim, as a matter of right, that the United States should bear a greater responsibility to reduce carbon emissions. Failing to do so would violate their rights to equal opportunity and fairness. One means by which the United States could meet the Kyoto targets would involve significantly scaling back its energy-intensive agriculture and military sectors. However, because the United States is a major exporter of food products and because its military protects many democracies throughout the world, these options might well threaten the basic rights to food, health, and security for many people in the developing world. In turn, that could be avoided if the United States scaled back its industrial rather than agricultural or military sectors. But this would threaten the freedom, property rights, and economic security of many U.S. citizens. Deontologists are challenged to provide a decision procedure for resolving conflicts between such rights as equal opportunity, fairness, food, health, security, property, and freedom. According to critics, no plausible procedure is forthcoming from the deontological perspective.


Many energy polices also raise important ethical questions concerning justice across generations. What, if any, responsibilities does the present generation have to posterity? This question can be raised at many points as we consider alternative energy policies.

Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource. Whatever fossil fuel we use in the present will be forever lost to posterity. Is this fair? The harmful effects of global warming are unlikely to occur for many years. Should we care? Is it ethical to take risks with the welfare of future generations? Nuclear wastes will remain deadly for thousands of generations. Does this require us to change our behavior now? Do we have a responsibility to invest in alternative energy sources now, even if the benefits of this investment go only to people not yet born? Given the energy demands made by increasing populations, what is an ethically responsible population policy?

In many ways, debates surrounding our ethical responsibility to future generations parallel the debates described previously. Utilitarians are concerned with the consequences that various policies might have for the distant future. Committed to the overall good, utilitarians must factor the well-being of future people into their calculations. Some argue that future people must count equally to present people. Others, borrowing from the economic practice of discounting present value of future payments, argue that the interests of present people count for more than the interests of future people. Counting future people as equals threatens to prevent any realistic calculation from being made since the further into the future one calculates, the less one knows about the consequences. Discounting the interests of future people, on the other hand, threatens to ignore these interests since, eventually, any discount rate will mean that people living in the near future count for nothing.

In contrast to this utilitarian approach, some argue that future people have rights that entail duties on our part. For example, in 1987 the UN-sponsored Brundtland Commission advocated a vision of sustainable development as development "which meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of the future to meets its needs." This suggests that future people have an equal right to the energy necessary to meet their needs. However, if future generations have a right to energy resources in an equal amount to what is available to us, we would be prohibited from using any resources, because whatever we use today is denied forever to the future. On the other hand, if future generations have a right to use energy resources at some point in the future, why do we not have an equal right to use them today?

As can be seen from these examples, even talking about ethical responsibilities to future people can raise conundrums. Some critics claim that talk of ethical responsibilities to distant people is nonsense and that present energy policy should be governed solely by a concern for people living in the present and immediate future.

Two challenges are raised against claims that present generations have ethical responsibilities to future generations. The first is called the problem of "disappearing beneficiaries." Consider the claim that present generations ought to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels to ensure a future world protected from the harmful effects of global warming. The defense of this view argues that future people would be made better-off by this decision. But we need to ask "better-off" than what? Intuitively, we would say that they will be better-off than they would have been otherwise. However, this argument assumes that the people who benefit will be the same people as those who would exist if we adopted the alternative policy of continued reliance on fossil fuels. Yet alternative policy decisions as momentous as international energy policy, population controls, or significant conservation measures, would surely result in different future people being born. When we consider alternative policy decisions, we actually are considering the effects on two, not one, sets of future people. The future population that would be harmed by our decision to continue heavy use of fossil fuels is a different population than the one that would benefit from major conservation programs. Thus, it makes little sense to speak about one future generation being made better or worse-off by either decision. The potential beneficiaries of one policy disappear when we choose the alternative policy.

The second challenge is called the argument from ignorance. Any discussion of future people and their happiness, their needs and preferences, their rights and interests, forces us to make assumptions about who those people might be and what they will be like. But realistically, we know nothing about who they will be, what they will want or need, or even if they will exist at all. Since we are ignorant of future people, we have little basis to speak about our responsibilities to them.

The implication of these arguments is that energy policy ought to be set with due consideration given only to present generations. While we might have responsibilities which regard future people (present duties to our children affect the life prospects of future generations), we have no direct responsibilities to future people. We can have no responsibility to that which does not exist.

Plausible answers can be offered to these challenges. While we may not know who future people will be, if they will be, or what their specific interests and needs might be, we do know enough about future people to establish present ethical responsibilities to them. Just as in cases of legal negligence where we hold individuals liable for unintended but foreseeable and avoidable harms that occur in the future, it can be meaningful to talk about foreseeable but unspecific harms to unknown future people. Surely we have good reasons for thinking that there will be people living in the future, and that they will have needs and interests similar to ours. To the degree that we can reasonably foresee present actions causing predictable harms to future people, we can acknowledge the meaningfulness of ethical responsibilities to future generations. While the present may not have specific responsibilities to identifiable future people, it does make sense to say that we have responsibilities to future people, no matter who they turn out to be.

What might our responsibilities to the future be? How do we balance our responsibilities to future people against the interests, needs, and rights of the present? Perhaps the most reasonable answer begins with the recognition that we value energy not in itself but only as a means to other ends. Thus, the requirement of equal treatment demanded by social justice need not require that future people have an equal right to present energy resources but, rather, that they have a right to an equal opportunity to the ends attained by those resources. Our use of fossil fuels, for example, denies to them the opportunity to use that fuel. We cannot compensate them by returning that lost energy to them, but we can compensate them by providing the future with an equal opportunity to achieve the ends provided by those energy resources. Justice requires that we compensate them for the lost opportunities and increased risks that our present decisions create.

While there are practical difficulties in trying to specify the precise responsibilities entailed by this approach, we can suggest several general obligations of compensatory justice. First, our responsibility to the future should include a serious effort to develop alternative energy sources. Continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power places future people at risk. Justice demands that we minimize that risk, and investment in alternative energy sources would be a good faith step in that direction. Arguments of this sort could justify government expenditures on research into fusion and renewable energy sources. Second, we have a responsibility to conserve nonrenewable resources. Wasting resources that future people will need, especially when we presently have the technology to significantly increase energy efficiency, makes it more difficult for future people to obtain a lifestyle equal to ours. Finally, it would seem we have a responsibility to adopt population policies and modify consumption patterns to moderate worldwide energy demand over the long term.

Joseph R. DesJardins

See also:Conservation of Energy; Culture and Energy Usage; Government and the Energy Marketplace.


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Ethical and Moral Aspects of Energy Use

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