The past decade has witnessed a deeply polarized debate about the potential and use of biofuels as an alternative energy source. The phrase “Food vs Fuel” has hovered over and, indeed, has defined many of these public debates. Abandoning nuance, this has lead to increasingly entrenched views about the potential role of biofuels in a transition to a more sustainable society. An important disadvantage of this oversimplification has been the dichotomous framing of a single issue (food versus fuel) that now dominates the debate and, more importantly, does not really contribute to a greater understanding of whether biofuels have the potential to serve society in the shift to a more sustainable way of living. Worse, it has the potential to affect society in disadvantageous ways. This is because of the power of framing as a constructed portrayal that often operates as a popular heuristic. Yet, if the solution is to “re-frame” the discussion, other ethical challenges arise. Questions of when? by whom? why? from what perspective? and on what basis? raise significant concerns about the ethical underpinning of an act of changing a dominant frame even when that initial frame possesses clear shortcomings.

This work examines the ethical issues in reframing in science communication, using the case of the biofuels debate to illustrate 1) how ethical issues in “reframing” differ from those in “framing” 2) the presence of ethical issues in the aesthetics of reframing and 3) that the ethics of reframing are closely associated with issues of public policy.

While it is true that a spectrum of interests may motivate reframing, this paper makes the case for a normative view of the ethics of reframing from a policy perspective. Recognizing the limitation that ethical obligations may conflict with other types of rights and duties, I identify several core ethical principles for reframing and apply them to the current biofuels debate.

Finally, this work proposes a framework for what constitutes ethically supportable reframing and its essential intersection with public policy. The ethical terrain of reframing must regard both purpose (in the imposition of responsibility and obligations) as well as respect rights. Consequently, while I conclude that a consequentialist approach can provide a defensible grounding for ethical obligations, it must operate within certain deontological constraints.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

The ethics of reframing
The case of biofuels

Robin Pierce   J.D., PhD. Delft University of Technology

The past decade has witnessed a deeply polarized debate about the potential and use of biofuels as an alternative energy source. The phrase “Food vs Fuel” has hovered over and, indeed, has defined many of these public debates. Abandoning nuance, this has lead to increasingly entrenched views about the potential role of biofuels in a transition to a more sustainable society. An important disadvantage of this oversimplification has been the dichotomous framing of a single issue (food versus fuel) that now dominates the debate and, more importantly, does not really contribute to a greater understanding of whether biofuels have the potential to serve society in the shift to a more sustainable way of living. Worse, it has the potential to affect society in disadvantageous ways. This is because of the power of framing as a constructed portrayal that often operates as a popular heuristic. Yet, if the solution is to “re-frame” the discussion, other ethical challenges arise. Questions of when? by whom? why? from what perspective? and on what basis? raise significant concerns about the ethical underpinning of an act of changing a dominant frame even when that initial frame possesses clear shortcomings.

This work examines the ethical issues in reframing in science communication, using the case of the biofuels debate to illustrate 1) how ethical issues in “reframing” differ from those in “framing” 2) the presence of ethical issues in the aesthetics of reframing and 3) that the ethics of reframing are closely associated with issues of public policy.

While it is true that a spectrum of interests may motivate reframing, this paper makes the case for a normative view of the ethics of reframing from a policy perspective. Recognizing the limitation that ethical obligations may conflict with other types of rights and duties, I identify several core ethical principles for reframing and apply them to the current biofuels debate.

Finally, this work proposes a framework for what constitutes ethically supportable reframing and its essential intersection with public policy. The ethical terrain of reframing must regard both purpose (in the imposition of responsibility and obligations) as well as respect rights. Consequently, while I conclude that a consequentialist approach can provide a defensible grounding for ethical obligations, it must operate within certain deontological constraints.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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