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Energy decisions within an applied ethics framework: an analysis of five recent controversies


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.


The majority of global greenhouse gas emissions arise from energy conversion and consumption [1]. Transitioning towards carbon-free and affordable energy resources will be among the most important decisions we will make to protect human habitability on Earth [2]. Energy decisions have many ethical dimensions, including significant effects for members of present and future generations. In some cases, energy decisions can determine who lives and dies, cause irreversible changes to the planet, or lock societies into harmful infrastructures or socio-economic arrangements that perpetuate for centuries. Therefore, these decisions should not be made without regard to ethics. In response to recognizing the ethical dimensions of energy decisions, a growing number of energy scientists and scholars have called for greater attention to ethics in energy research [3, 4], ethics training for energy workers, and a form of “Hippocratic Oaths” for energy decision makers to “do no harm” [5]. While some researchers have responded to these calls with a set of “energy justice” principles [6], we propose principles of energy ethics to serve as a practical guide for energy decision-making.Footnote 1 This alternative approach is intended to complement, not supplant, other normative approaches to energy ethics [8].

This short communication introduces a framework for making ethical energy decisions in real-world scenarios, illustrating how policy makers and others can use it. The proposed framework (Table 1) is designed to be flexible and accommodate principles from multiple ethical perspectives (virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism, Lakota Sioux, and Navajo) simultaneously. Each principle is described in Table 1. To be clear from the outset, we remain neutral on the correctness or truth of any particular ethical theory or principle. Instead, our main goal is pragmatic. The framework is intended to contribute meaningfully to the growing and vibrant field of energy ethics by employing a plurality of well-established and philosophically defensible ethical principles that illuminate our obligations to others, providing a set of high-level guidelines for making practical decisions.Footnote 2

Table 1 Applied ethics framework


Next, we describe example cases in Table 2. We have selected five recent and high-profile energy decisions as examples: the Dakota Access Pipeline [19], the Navajo Nation’s transition away from coal and possibly to solar [20], hydraulic fracturing in Washington County, PA [21], uranium mining in Virginia [22], and the construction of the Xiaolangdi Dam in Jiyuan, Henan Province, China [23].

Table 2 Energy ethics cases

Each of the foregoing cases was controversial and had profound social, ecological, and economic implications for communities beyond the decision makers. The cases span a variety of cultures, countries, and combinations of social actors. They were selected to show a variety of positions in favor of or against the primary controversial action. Collectively, these cases begin to capture the diverse dimensions and complexity of current global energy transitions. These transitions often involve multiple decisions with unique nuances. At the broadest level, it remains uncertain which fuel(s) will be “best,” both practically (in terms of technology and economics) and ethically. There is no consensus on the best single energy resource or technology. For instance, we continue to combust oil and produce avoidable emissions, while its other uses are largely emission-free, such as lubrication, hydraulics, and making other materials such as polyesters and plastics (which are also controversial in terms of waste management and extraction). Solar energy is a model renewable source, but producing photovoltaic panels involves mining and the use of potentially toxic chemicals which are difficult to recycle. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels but still creates significant emissions. Nuclear energy generation does not emit carbon but threatens radioactivity events with a high human cost and involves difficult waste management. Hydropower has been a staple renewable energy useful as a baseline power supply, but it displaces populations of humans or non-humans. Beyond these more noticeable concerns, there is a plethora of other ethical worries for each of the selected cases, in terms of their intertwined human, cultural, and ecological dimensions. Without a standardized method for conducting ethical evaluations, these controversies will endure. The primary motivation for proposing our framework and constructing ethical arguments is to transparently establish the reasoning that justifies (or condemns) an action.

With the ethical principles and details of our cases established, we can apply our framework to the cases in Table 3, below. For the sake of simplicity and exposition, we ignore the option of applying multiple principles to individual cases, simultaneously. Instead, we limit our analysis to a single ethical principle for each case.

Table 3 Five example applicationsa

Each example in Table 3 consists of three components: (1) details of the case, including the relevant decisions (or actions) under consideration; (2) the principles and terminology of the ethical theory being applied; and (3) a verdict in favor of (or in opposition to) the targeted action.Footnote 3 Our framework and modeled case analyses are intended to serve as a template for others, especially energy decision makers and researchers in the field, to conduct their own ethical analyses of geographically and culturally diverse energy decisions. Moreover, we hope that our framework can serve to organize and systematize the literature on energy ethics to establish a new research agenda that involves new applications (i.e., other controversial energy decisions) of our framework.

Although we evaluate each case from the perspective of one ethical principle, a more thorough analysis would evaluate each case with multiple principles in the framework since any principle can create an ethical objection and thereby require some response to maintain ethical integrity. For practical purposes, it seems reasonable to suppose that a targeted decision or action judged to be ethical by multiple principles simultaneously will provide stronger evidence for believing that the decision or action is ethical compared to an action that is only judged to be ethical when applying a single principle.


A growing chorus of energy researchers has called for infusing ethics into “real-world” energy decisions. Because the energy sector is a major source of the greenhouse gases that bring about rising temperatures, we should encourage energy researchers to scrutinize the ethical merit of many energy decisions, such as the paradigmatic cases we evaluated. Overall, we believe that taking energy ethics for granted during the Anthropocene would be a grave mistake.

While other scholars have proposed disparate methods of applying ethics to energy decisions, there is still no agreement on the best way to proceed. Scholars using the term “energy ethics” do not always integrate well-established ethical principles into their research, making their adoption of the term problematic and perhaps misleading. Although we do not expect our approach to instantly forge a consensus, our objective has been to advance the field of energy ethics. We have proposed to conceive of energy ethics as applied ethics, rather than as energy justice, descriptive ethics, or metaethics, as found in the literature. An applied ethics framework can serve to scrutinize future energy decisions with various ethical principles and prioritize the perspectives of those most affected by the decision. This short communication simply provided a sample of this approach, which we hope will galvanize the conversations on energy ethics as applied ethics, which could eventually burgeon into a thriving interdisciplinary field of research.


Energy ethics as applied ethics highlights ethical problems that deserve the attention of energy decision makers. Our framework allows crude but effective ethical prescriptions in concrete cases that may be culturally sensitive. Moreover, our framework offers a shared language and rules so that more attention can be directed to the decision at hand. Promoting an operational, solutions-oriented approach to ethical analysis entails going beyond merely identifying problematic situations to proposing solutions. With energy ethics as applied ethics, decision makers possess a conceptual tool to analyze contentious energy projects. Although there may be no decisive way to determine which ethical principle or set of principles that practitioners should select for evaluating energy decisions and actions, a general two-step recommendation might consist of the following:

  1. 1.

    The local ethical perspective should be prioritized and used as the first evaluative lens.

  2. 2.

    The practitioner or decision maker must judge the ethically relevant aspects of the decision at hand and choose the most plausible ethical principle(s) to employ.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.


  1. While justice, ethics, and law are sometimes conflated, these concepts are separate and distinct. For example, what is just need not be ethical and vice versa. We do not have the space here for a complete analysis of this conceptual issue, but interested readers can find further details online [7].

  2. We reasonably assume that, other things being equal, energy decision makers wish to make ethical decisions.

  3. To be clear, decision makers who employ this framework for evaluating the ethical merit of energy decisions make value judgements. Whether implicit or explicit, one should expect that a policy maker’s personal values, interests, and beliefs will influence their ethical analysis [8].


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We are grateful for the constructive feedback provided by two anonymous reviewers and an editor of this journal.


CTD received funding support from ASU LightWorks for this research.

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JB designed the research and conducted primary data analysis for the case studies. GF, SB, CTD, and MP collaborated with JB to develop the framework. All authors edited and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to C. Tyler DesRoches.

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Bethem, J., Frigo, G., Biswas, S. et al. Energy decisions within an applied ethics framework: an analysis of five recent controversies. Energ Sustain Soc 10, 29 (2020).

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