Ethics of the nuclear debate

In class last week we were discussing ethics, and in particular, the different ethical models that can be used when justifying a position.

Ethics is the framework that we apply when we are trying to make a decision about the ‘right-ness’ or ‘wrong-ness’ of a choice. The answers we arrive at depend on what aspects of a choice or the outcome of the choice that we value highly. When people debate a topic, they are trying to prove that their standpoint is the correct or ‘better’ choice, and are actually defending their ethical standpoint as superior to their opponent’s. When you decide which ‘camp’ you align with in a debate, you are making a tacit decision to agree with the ethical standpoint of your side.

From this discussion in class, I want to apply this ethical analysis. To do this I’m going to try to dissect the ethical models used by both sides of the nuclear debate.

It seems, from what I’ve seen so far, that both sides of the nuclear debate use ‘consequentialist’ ethics as the basis of their arguments, but both use it in a slightly different way.

Consequentialism is a branch of ethics that bases its judgement of an action on the outcome of that action. This is in contrast with Deontology, which attempts to judge an action on the morality of the action itself.

The way most pro-nuclear debaters seem to argue, is that the consequences of using nuclear power are minimal (with current technology), and that the consequences of not using nuclear power are disastrous. This is a form on consequentialism that is called ‘state consequentionalism’. State consequentialism bases its judgement on the total outcome of an action, assessed in the frame of the outcome to the state as a whole. In this case, this is being applied in a way to imply that the whole global human society is a ‘state’ and that nuclear power will give a huge (and immediate) benefit to the ‘state’ as a whole.

The anti-nuclear movement is similar, but a little bit more diverse in its ethical arguments. Part of this difference is a more ‘utilitarian’ view of using nuclear power. Utilitarianism is a branch of ethics that falls under consequentialism as well, like the state consequentialism, excepting that there is more emphasis is applied to achieving pleasure.

From what I can tell, the anti-nuclear movement uses utilitarian arguments to argue for renewables over nuclear power. I see this in the fact that the arguments for removing nuclear are based around the idea of using renewables are better (in the long term). This long term vision seeks to give catharsis to anti-nuclear proponents, and society in general, knowing that their energy future is secure.

But the anti-nuclear side also uses a kind of state consequentialism, but in the opposite way to the pro-nuclear advocates. Anti-nuclear campaigners argue that nuclear shouldn’t be used because the risks are too great, and that the ends do not justify the means.

This is why, when you watch debate about nuclear power, most of the time the seem to be arguing the exact opposite of each others’ points. In the video I embedded in the last post, you can see that the debaters make opposing ‘factual’ statements about the capability of renewable energy to cover the baseload energy requirements.

Sat something controversial.