The Is/Ought Fallacy in the “Moral” Case for Fossil Fuel

ontological fallacy

Currently one of the more popular arguments for defenders of the fossil fuel industry is that since everyone in industrial societies is currently dependent on fossil fuel, it is wrong-headed and irresponsible to argue that we should stop using fossil fuel. After all, if we are truly dependent on fossil fuel for so many things in our industrial society and currently could not live without it, are we not asking for the quality of human life to be diminished significantly by ceasing to use something so central to our very existence? And shouldn’t we be thanking fossil fuel companies for supplying us with this essential part of our lives and keep encouraging them to find and extract more of it?

The Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas advocacy group, is implicitly using this argument in their current campaign challenging persons to try to live without using any fossil fuels or fossil fuel derived products for five days. They know very well that this will be all but impossible for those persons unwilling to spend their five days naked in the wilderness foraging with their bare hands for nourishment like the reality TV show “Naked and Afraid.” Though some people may like the TV show, we do not want to live that way, so the Western Energy Alliance believes this challenge will convince persons that we should continue to keep using fossil fuels as we currently are.

The problem with this argument is at least two-fold. First, the argument commits the Is/Ought fallacy of deriving an “ought” from an “is.” It is certainly the case that we are dependent on fossil fuels for our current way of life, but that does not necessarily mean that it “ought’ to be so. Yes, our society is structured in such a way that fossil fuel is currently necessary in large quantities for things that are obvious to us like transportation, power production, plastics, and agriculture and for things that most of us are oblivious to like our clothes, makeup, and medicine. Most people would be shocked at all of the things that are currently made out of fossil fuels. But this reality should not keep us from asking the question, “Are there some things for which fossil fuels are currently used that they should be used at a lesser rate or not at all?” We should not simply accept things the way they are if there are better ways of doing them, and this may include using less fossil fuel than we currently do.

The second problem with this argument is that it presupposes that those who are arguing for us to reduce our fossil fuel use are arguing that we should eliminate all uses of fossil fuel entirely and immediately. Those who take the challenge to live without fossil fuels for five days would see clearly how impossible this would be. However, this does not mean that we should not be doing everything we can in society to reduce our use of fossil fuels and for some purposes eliminate our use of fossil fuel altogether. . As Lindsey Wilson points out in her article “Fossil Fuels are for Making Stuff,”: “we’ll continue to use fossils fuels for making stuff where absolutely necessary (steel, plastic,. . . ) but we need to stop using them as our go to energy source for doing things (power, transport, heating and cooling).”

Our choice is not between living naked and afraid for five or more days or simply maintaining the status quo use of fossil fuels. The reality of climate change compels us to move from the “is” of our current fossil fuel use towards an “ought” of less future fossil fuel use where we continue to use fossil fuel when necessary for making things but stop using it in ways that continue to contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that imperil human civilization and our ecological community. The argument that we should continue to be as dependent as we are on fossil fuels because we are as dependent as we are on fossil fuels is hardly a moral case for fossil fuels, it is rather an excuse to maintain the status quo of our current fossil fuel use, which is bringing us a reality of catastrophic climate disruption and will accelerate the sixth great extinction that we are already experiencing.

About Mark Y. A. Davies

Mark Davies is the Wimberly Professor of Social and Ecological Ethics and Director of the World House Institute for Social and Ecological Responsibility at Oklahoma City University. He is the Executive Director of the Leadership, Education, and Development (LEaD) Hub North America of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church and an Oklahoma Humanities State Scholar. Mark has published in the areas of Boston personalism, process philosophy and ethics, and ecological ethics. Dr. Davies serves on the United Methodist University Senate, which is “an elected body of professionals in higher education created by the General Conference to determine which schools, colleges, universities, and theological schools meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with The United Methodist Church.” He and his wife Kristin live in Edmond, OK in the United States, and they have two daughters. The views expressed by the author in this blog do not necessarily represent the views of Oklahoma City University or the United Methodist Church.
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