Energy Decisions within an Applied Ethics Framework: An Analysis of Five Recent Controversies

Energy, Sustainability and Society 10 (10):29 (2020)
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Everywhere in the world, and in every period of human history, it has been common for energy decisions to be made in an ethically haphazard manner. With growing population pressure and increasing demand for energy, this approach is no longer viable. We believe that decision makers must include ethical considerations in energy decisions more routinely and systematically. To this end, we propose an applied ethics framework that accommodates principles from three classical ethical theories—virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism, and two Native American ethics (Lakota and Navajo)—all considered from the perspectives of the impacted communities. We illustrate this framework by evaluating five recent energy decisions: the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Navajo Nation’s possible transition from coal to solar, hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, uranium mining in Virginia, and the construction of the Xiaolangdi Dam in China. An applied ethics framework is preferable to existing ethical analyses because it can serve to sharpen arguments for (un)ethical decisions and action. Rather than treat ethical reasoning as a matter of opinion, we argue that applying ethical principles in a universal and standardized way adds rigor to energy sector decisions by presenting a position available for objective scrutiny. Because our framework identifies which aspects of a targeted action (if any) must adjust to improve ethical merit, it can serve as a practical tool for improving decision-making as we enter a new era of energy transitions.

Author Profiles

C. Tyler DesRoches
Arizona State University
Giovanni Frigo
University of North Texas


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