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Morals matter: New class explores energy and ethics

MIT team is now developing The Ethics of Energy Policy, scheduled to launch in fall 2015

Leda Zimmerman June 10, 2014 MITEI

It’s not every day that a graduate student has a key role in designing an MIT class, and certainly not one as novel as The Ethics of Energy Policy. For this new class, due to launch in fall 2015, Nathan Lee, researcher for the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and master’s candidate in the Technology and Policy Program, is partnering with Lucas Stanczyk, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science.

There are many contentious ethical problems underlying energy policy, says Lee, but “nowhere in MIT’s curriculum is there an opportunity for students to address these questions directly.” The Ethics of Energy Policy aims to fill this gap. “The idea for the class came from the two of us discussing ethical issues raised by climate change,” says Stanczyk, who taught Lee in a graduate class on political theory. “We started to see that this was one of those very big policy problems that faces us with important ethical dimensions that we tend not to teach at the undergraduate level.”

Today, as the team outlines the class syllabus, collecting readings and identifying relevant case studies, an ambitious agenda is emerging: a rigorous class in applied ethics and philosophical theory grounded in real-world problems. The class, whose development is funded by a grant from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation to MITEI and which is envisioned as part of the Energy Studies Minor, is intended to draw not only engineering undergraduates who plan to work in the energy industry and graduate students who research energy policy issues, but a more general audience, too.

“The class is for anyone who deals with ethical dilemmas related to energy and the environment in their daily lives,” says Lee. “We hope to provide the opportunity for people to reflect on how their own values lead to judgments about these issues—as professionals, as consumers, and as citizens.” And given that “a lot of people at MIT are going to be CEOs of companies someday,” he adds, the instructors would especially like the class to provide a useful framework for thinking specifically about ethical dilemmas confronting business.

Through a combination of lectures and discussions, in-class exercises, and essays, The Ethics of Energy Policy will tackle a range of contemporary topics pointing to the moral dilemmas central to today’s energy and environmental issues: whether the environment is inherently valuable or only because people place value on it; whether climate change generates moral obligations to reduce emissions at the national level, and if so, how nations should share the required burdens and sacrifices; and whether we as individuals and societies have a responsibility to save natural resources for future generations. This last dilemma lies at the core of Lee’s own research. It is a problem, he is finding, that offers a rich source of material for the evolving ethics class.

“Global capitalism is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty at unprecedented rates, and the exploitation of fossil fuels is part of that,” states Lee. “Most people would agree that this is an admirable endeavor. But there is a tradeoff because the more coal plants that get built now, the worse off some people will be in the future—especially in the poorest countries least able to adapt to climate change.” The question for the energy ethics class might be: “Do development goals for today’s poor potentially come at the cost of tomorrow’s poor and, if so, how should we navigate this tradeoff?”

Revealing hidden assumptions

One key objective for the class will be to reveal the frequently unstated ethical assumptions that underlie current energy policy discussions and to determine when these assumptions are morally reasonable or appropriate. “I suspect there will be some surprises,” says Stanczyk, as students closely examine standard methods of evaluating energy and environmental policies.

The primary tool for evaluating climate change abatement policies and energy regulations is cost-benefit analysis. But this economic lens, suggests Stanczyk, “takes for granted certain basic prior questions about the values at stake.” Says Lee, “When using economics as a basis for formulating public policy, you are operating within a certain philosophy about what matters and what doesn’t. We want to take a step back from that, and ask what should be included as matters of public concern, and what weight these different considerations should have.” To put it bluntly, he continues, “Public policy from beginning to end is a values game…and we need to be conscious of what these values are.”

It is this deliberative—even “meta”—analysis of energy policy that will distinguish the new class from other MIT offerings on the subject. Lee promises that with Stanczyk, whose main area of research concerns the normative standards used to evaluate basic social institutions, learning analytic methods won’t be offputtingly abstract. “He’s one of the most accessible philosophers I’ve ever met,” says Lee. “He made me realize that ethics does not have to be fluffy hand waving, that it can be as rigorous as the study of materials science or economics.”

Lee himself brings to the class a solid foundation in the technology and policy arenas, with an undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, work experience with ExxonMobil’s corporate strategic research wing, and climate change policy posts at the White House National Economic Council and the Department of Energy. He arrived at MIT after wading deep professionally and personally into debates on the social cost of carbon. “I thought the climate change debate was sorely in need of a more systematic and transparent discussion of the competing values involved,” he states. Lee came to believe that stepping back from the often fraught discourse on energy policy and seeking the moral underpinnings to these discussions was essential to moving the public debate forward.

“Our effort is to bring an interdisciplinary expertise to bear on the policy, economic, and philosophical aspects of energy and environmental problems,” says Stanczyk. “We’re a good duo,” Lee adds. “We will strike a balance in the class between the philosophical and applied worlds.” The Ethics of Energy Policy is a milestone for both, and likely one for MIT. “These issues of energy, the environment, and sustainability are arguably the most divisive issues of the 21st century,” Lee asserts. “We hope this will provide an opportunity for a structured conversation about the role values play in these issues.”


Nathan Lee received his SM from MIT’s Technology and Policy Program in June 2014. He will begin work on his PhD in political theory at Stanford in the fall.


This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Subscribe today


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