Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 3. Which Virtues?

Virtues are good or desirable traits or habits of character, cultivated tendencies to act one way or another in response to particular circumstances. The standard by which a character trait may be judged a virtue or a vice is human thriving in the context of the broader moral and political community.

Obviously, there is considerable room for disagreement about such judgments. Even so, I would like now to propose a partial list of virtues that seem to me conducive to the development of a sound energy policy and a sustainable civilization.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 2. Why Virtue?

I here offer three broad lines of argument for the necessity of personal virtue.

First, to dismiss any role for personal virtue is to take a one-sided view of technological systems, placing all causal efficacy on the side of technical hardware and institutional software while reducing ordinary people to passive recipients of whatever the system happens to allow them. This suggests a grim technological determinism, or at least an unquestioned hegemony for powerful players in business and government. Instead, I would opt for the view that technological systems are heterogeneous, with the choices and actions of ordinary people playing a part in giving the system its shape. To use the language of technology studies, technological forms are both cause and effect of social forms. [2]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 1. Outside-In Or Inside-Out?

[Here is the second installment of the paper. If you're just starting, refer to the previous post for the introduction.]

To get at the nugget of truth in the Vice President’s statement, it is worth attending to the situation of ordinary people whose part in the system of energy production and distribution is primarily that of consumers. I have in mind those of us who are not policy makers, scientists, engineers, corporate executives, nor holders of any position of apparent influence over the future of the infrastructure. These are ordinary citizens and consumers, watching and worrying about the price of gasoline or of natural gas, making decisions about how to get by with less.

What is energy policy to them?

A Case for Personal Virtue: Introduction

[This is the first installment of the paper I submitted to the IEEE Energy2030 Conference; I presented a poster based on the paper yesterday at the conference.]

In April 2001, Vice President Cheney remarked that “conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” His remark was widely read as a snide dismissal of environmentalists and other advocates of any alternative to a policy aimed primarily at increasing the supply of fossil fuels, especially petroleum.

I would like to start by acknowledging that the Vice President was correct on one count: personal virtue is not a sufficient basis for a comprehensive energy policy. That said, there is plenty of room to disagree with him on other points.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Today I attended the first day of the IEEE Energy2030 Conference in Atlanta, a gathering primarily of engineers with a few industry executives and government officials . . . and one philosopher. The general topic was the creation of a sustainable energy infrastructure, somehow, between now and 2030.

In the course of the day I detected a number of basic assumptions at work in the background, mainly unquestioned but, I think, eminently questionable.

1) Growth in per-capita GDP is good in itself.