THE BLOG

Deontology, Consequentialism, and Why the Clean Tech Industry Should Care

07/01/2013 01:08 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2013

Ever hear about deontological rules? If you care about clean energy policy, it's time you should. Deontology is "the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules."

Why on earth is a clean-tech communications blog talking about this? Because a wonky new study just out in Social Psychological and Personality Science caught our eye. "Religiosity, Political Orientation, and Consequentialist Moral Thinking" has findings with significant implications for the ways we go about marketing clean tech policy to policy makers.

In an ideal world, clean energy wouldn't be a political football but a value proposition based on the best science, the best economics, and the best public policy. On those grounds, clean energy would win the battle for market share -- and for the hearts and minds of consumers -- easily. It's clear that we have appeal across partisan lines. As former Tom DeLay Communications Director John Feehery pointed out on NPR Tuesday morning: "Most wind energy manufacturers are in Republican districts, and most wind energy production comes out of Republican districts. So for Republicans to be against wind energy, they're hurting their own constituents." And, as new polling shows, Americans support clean energy overwhelmingly, and across partisan lines.

The thing about disrupted, incumbent sectors is that they don't take the threat of disruptors lying down. The fossil lobby is aggressively pushing back on clean energy scaling with influence peddling and disinformation, such as the phony Solyndra "scandal."

If clean energy markets are government-shaped, then policy is important. And, policy is made by policy makers -- politicians, basically. Clean energy cannot win without bipartisan support, and, since Solyndra, the great quest has been to win or win back (depending on how you look at it) Republican support in Congress and statehouses. The wind industry has done this well, and others have to find their paths to Republican support.

That's where the "Consequentialist" study is valuable. Thinking about pitching clean energy on a climate change consequences basis to conservative base voters? Don't go there. You have to make a values pitch. The study finds conservative voters value system can "eschew consideration of the consequences of an act in their moral judgments, even when the consequences would optimize welfare for the greatest number of people or prevent even worse outcomes." The study found these voters have a strong "commitment to deontological rules or sacred values."

As dire as the climate science is getting, a segment of voters that carries great weight with Republican elected officials doesn't respond to -- and is even turned off by -- consequence-based case making for clean energy. For clean economy communicators, that means we have to be flexible enough in how we talk about clean energy to appeal to where Americans of different persuasions perceptually start. We should have a deontological approach to evolving our presentation of clean energy's pitch so we connect with people's actual perceptual starting point -- rather than where we think they should be.