Is it wrong for Eskom to cut power?

2008-04-03 00:00

I am sick of having my power cut at inopportune moments. Not only is this a personal inconvenience to many, but it could potentially cripple South African industry. This carries huge ramifications for the economic stability of our country. I feel that it is wrong for Eskom to cut our electricity. Am I correct in thinking this?

Considerations of the rightness and wrongness of an action can be determined by a number of means: either in relation to the outcomes of an action, in relation to the intention behind the action, or in relation to fulfilling one’s duty.

Looking at the consequences that have arisen as a result of Eskom’s load shedding — ranging from inconvenient disruptions at home, to severe financial losses incurred by business — it appears that one would be justified in charging Eskom’s recent action as ethically wrong. After all, load shedding has generally increased the overall amount of suffering for all concerned. But would this be a fair charge?

While there is no denying that the energy crisis has terrible consequences, we must consider the moral connection between action and outcome, and ask whether that connection is tight enough? It is certainly the case that actions lead to consequences, but can we perform a reverse inference — such that undesirable consequences are necessarily the result of undesirable actions? We cannot. Consider the following — not all praiseworthy actions, such as truth telling, have favourable consequences; and not all morally deplorable actions, such as lying, have unfavourable outcomes. There are certainly instances where telling the truth can cause unnecessary hurt, while telling a lie can prevent it. Acknowledging the level of connection that exists between an action and its outcome necessitates that any attempt to draw a strong moral inference, for instance that load shedding is morally wrong solely on the basis of the unfavourable outcome of increasing suffering, would certainly be an ill- informed and simplistic judgment.

Failing to adequately answer the question on the basis of consequences, we can turn to explore the issue from the conception of intention. We can certainly agree that there is a strong connection between the notion of intention and the role it plays in moral culpability. Blameworthiness is contingent upon the rational choice of the agent. In this respect rightness or wrongness lies in the intention behind the action. Was it Eskom’s intention to initiate load shedding? Not at all — in fact they were aware that the country’s power grid required a vast upgrade and made the necessary presentation to the government, which, serving its own agenda, denied the necessary bureaucratic rubber stamp for Eskom to proceed with said upgrade. In this respect Eskom’s load-shedding programme is a pragmatic response to a situation created by the choice of another party. In this respect Eskom is exonerated of blame, but is it completely free of blame?

To answer this I move to explore the issue in terms of fulfilling a duty. Let us begin by assuming that Eskom has a duty. Electricity is something we need and which Eskom alone has the capacity to provide, hence it must provide it. Withholding electricity from us could be considered to be morally wrong. But Eskom is not withholding electricity from us, it is merely unable to supply it. Is this significant enough to dismiss it of its duty?

Eskom knew of the impending crisis and knew what had to be done to avoid it. Yes it made government aware, but the question is did it do enough? Given that we are experiencing an energy crisis points to the fact that it did not. Surely it ought to have done more to convince the government of the urgency of the situation. And in this respect I feel that Eskom did a moral injustice to South Africans, not because of the consequences

we have to suffer, or because of its intentions, but in its failure

to follow through with its obligations. This is of course provided it does indeed have a duty at all.

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