The Moral Dimension to Energy and Energy Policy

By Jim Granato, Hobby Center for Public Policy

Jim_Granato_EFPick up books on energy policy and you typically find models, data, graphs, and tables. Science and data rule. But that ignores an important area that is harder to define but just as important in determining the correct policy.

James Griffin’s 2009 book Smart Energy Policy is a case in point. There is much wisdom in his book.  True to his background, Griffin, a professor of economics and public policy at the George Bush School of Public Policy at Texas A&M University, focuses on the trade-offs between “cheap, clean, and secure energy” and offers some solutions reflecting his view of a more appropriate way to price energy – particularly fossil fuels.

Yet, policy is more than an exercise in theory, data, and tests. Indeed, what is seldom emphasized in energy policy publications is the moral dimension and the competing visions of “what is right.”

Often the so-called scientific “tools” – theory, data, etc. – lack sufficient acumen to provide policy prescriptions that make us better off.  The question then, is if a policy needs to implemented, what can we do in the face of such scientific uncertainty?

Enter the moral dimension.  We need to discuss the trade-offs about values, but this seldom happens. Imagine, for example, if someone argued there is a moral case for the use of fossil fuels. What would be the moral arguments for and against using fossil fuels. Is there any room for compromise between these competing arguments?

In his The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels Alex Epstein, president and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, presents useful and rare description of the competing moral visions regarding fossil fuel use. In Espstein’s view, the moral dimension to support fossil fuel usage is “human flourishing,” which involves answering the following questions:

  • What will promote human life?
  • What will help us realize full potential in life?

Notice the focus on a human standard of value. What would be an alternative moral viewpoint?   It can be found in the work of environmental activist Bill McKibben. He places greater emphasis on the value of nature. As a result, and in McKibben’s view, human flourishing needs to be temporized to minimize environmental impact.

Whatever your own view, what should not be missed is the added value of incorporating rival moral arguments to policy questions. Is give and take possible between these rival viewpoints?  Maybe.  Maybe not. The other important matter is that even if there are deep moral disagreements, it can only help having the factors that are the source(s) of the dispute open for rational discussion.


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