A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
Environmental Virtue Ethics
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
Virtue ethics can be particularly helpful for any kind of leadership
because they nurture the formation of character, the lasting
habits of the heart and mind necessary to effect positive change
in the world. Developing personal and community virtues can
provide a framework for sustained engagement with the ethical
life. Given the seriousness of our environmental crises and
the challenges these pose to human societies, the need for environmental
virtue is all the more crucial. Many people today want to live
a good life in relationship to nature and the environment, and
virtue ethics help us to understand what that means. Environmental
leaders need strength of character, grounded in virtue, to sustain
them over a lifetime of service in urging others to care for
the Earth as well. This lesson introduces virtue ethics, describes
the classic virtues in light of the environmental crisis, and
describes how to cultivate "new" environmental virtues.
The term "virtue" can be traced back to the Greek
philosophers. During the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas developed
this branch of ethics within his broad theological vision. A
century ago, "virtue" was commonly conceived rather
narrowly to mean sexual morality. Virtue ethics are presently
a field of increased scholarly and popular interest. By proposing
virtue ethics, we can invite audiences to think about ethics
less as a matter of conforming to external principles. Concern
for ethical matters outside of ourselves is important, but we
can be more persuasive if we can blend this with considerations
of personal and community character. Virtue ethics addresses
the deeper sense of the human person. Virtue ethics focuses
less on what is "out there," and more on what kind
of person one must become in order to live the good life. Fundamentally,
virtue describes the formation of character, the development
of lasting habits, that can help a person live a good life.
A "habit" is a useful word for describing the practice
of virtue. A virtue is a good habit, whether of mind or heart.
It is a power, an internal characteristic to act well. It is
combining a sense of the will and the mind. It is a fusion of
these things, to act on behalf of value. The person of virtue
is a person of character, expressing their values through the
decisions they make in their daily life. Our planetary environment
is in crisis in part because human beings often treat it as
an afterthought. Environmental virtue ethicists would say, we
want to be environmentally concerned all the time, in how we
collectively treat the Earth. So a virtuous person is not someone
who would occasionally do the right thing, but rather consistently,
out of a matter of habit.
Four cardinal virtues in an environmental context
Thomas Aquinas proposed four primary Christian virtues: justice,
prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Regardless of one's own
faith commitment, these can be a sound basis for engaging in
environmental leadership. What follows is a presentation of
these "classic" virtues, interpreting their meaning
in light of our contemporary environmental crises.
Justice for Aquinas means giving to each person, and each its
creature, its due, in other words, what it needs to life a full
life. Aquinas understood the moral and theological significance
of the created world to invite humans to consider our duties
to it. What are our ethical obligations to the natural world?
How do we make decisions about resources that accord each his,
her, or its due? This is an appropriate virtue to develop as
we consider the global extinction of endangered species as well
as the hundreds of millions of people who lack the environmental
resource necessary to live a life of dignity. We need the virtue
of justice today to help move away from mere charity, from merely
feeling sad for those who are suffering. The virtue of justice
requires a response from us, requires us to act justly, to take
action to foster just relationships between people and the Earth.
How do we reform social institutions so that they do not force
people into situations where their dignity is compromised? How
can we foster the kind of character that cares about fairness
and equity in the world?
Prudence is the intellectual habit that wisely assesses the
means necessary to accomplish the end at which you are aiming.
Another more common word for this might be wisdom. Prudence
and environmental ethics invites us to consider these means,
to have the capacity to make wise judgments in complex trade
offs. This is a critical habit to develop for those seeking
a more sustainable world. Sustainability means meeting the needs
of the present generation without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their needs. It always requires a
balance between competing needs, and thus making wise choices.
Another word for prudence is far-sightedness. This would suggest
that we take precautionary action now, and assume the responsibility
for environmental protection over time, rather than push problems
off on future generations. The responsibility
principle is a contemporary expression of prudence.
Temperance can best be understood as restraint or self control.
This virtue exists in tension with our American culture's appetite
and materialistic values. The United States has the world's
highest per person level of consumption, and people around the
globe have destroyed forests, fisheries, and ecosystems to support
our way of life. Many industrial processes to create consumer
goods generate or dump large quantities of toxic chemicals,
and these have a much greater chance of harming disadvantaged
communities than wealthy ones. As old fashioned as "temperance"
sounds, this virtue is a highly relevant ethic that can be used
to moderate consumption. One relatively simple way to express
solidarity with those suffering environmental injustice can
be to reduce one's consumption, especially of materials that
require the use of toxic chemicals for their production. Temperance
is an antidote to greed. Voluntary simplicity is an expression
of the virtue of temperance.
Fortitude, or bravery, is more commonly described as courage.
The vocation of working for any positive environmental change
challenges us to cultivate an attitude of hope. The information
scientists report about the state of the world can be truly
frightening, and has caused many people to shut this news out.
Humans can readily become paralyzed by fear. We can feel that
we are powerless to make a positive change. Virtue ethics challenge
us to move beyond our negative feelings and focus on what kind
of person we want to be, what kind of character will help us
live out our commitments. This kind of hope, rooted in our habit
of mind and heart, is precisely what we need to bring to situations
where environmental injustices are being perpetrated. Courage
can give us the perseverance to struggle for justice in the
face of discouragement.
Developing "new" environmental virtues
Some ethicists are proposing that the environmental crisis is
so serious that we have to create a fresh approach to human
virtue. They argue that re-imagining the classic cardinal virtues
in an environmental context is good, but not good enough to
meet the challenge today. The relationship between modern human
society and nature is so out of balance that a new set of attitudes,
a fresh approach to virtue must be proposed. In fact, much of
the environmental literature of the past few decades is based
on virtue. Some examples include: cultivating a new attitude
toward the environment, living within ecological limits, or
developing an authentic respect for nature.
Some of the emerging environmental virtues include care, respect,
compassion, and love. Contemporary environment virtue ethics
marks a shift away from individuals performing heroic acts,
and instead proposes a relational consciousness of a broader
conception of the common good. Environmental virtue ethics appeals
to the development of environmentally conscious character, but
How do we acquire these virtues? In the tradition of virtue
ethics, taking good actions will allow one to develop good practices.
We can make ourselves want to do the right thing more if we
begin to practice the right way of behaving. As that happens,
we develop a habit of a greater desire for the good. Virtue
ethics proposes that people can develop character by putting
virtues into action. We can acquire virtue by our actions, and
a virtuous person will act in a virtuous manner.
Virtue ethics is inclined toward action. Virtue ethics suggests
that ideas alone do not suffice for ethics. The person who has
virtue feels a responsibility to act, and feels that one's character
is strengthened by expressing, however tentatively, virtue in
action. The ethical life to be consistent requires action, requires
engagement; it demands commitment, and virtues can guide us
on this journey.
How do we encourage other people to develop in virtue? Especially
those who do not agree with our environmental values? It is
not enough to simply throw ideas or values at other people.
Virtues can provide the basis for engaging those who think differently,
who do not perceive issues of environmental degradation in the
A narrative, or a story we tell about the world and our role
in it, plays a strong role in virtue ethics. We all tend to
think of our practices in terms of narratives, as explaining
how we live out virtues in our lives. Then virtue ethics makes
the additional step: in our stories we assume notions of character,
what kinds of virtues that they are going to achieve success
in the stories in our lives.
One fruitful strategy for fostering environmental virtue ethics
can be found in sharing our stories of the earth, such as the
exercise in Lesson One. Environmental leaders, such as John
Leopold or Rachel
Carson, have inspired many by relating how they lived in
relationship to the earth. Virtue ethics readily emerge when
we share stories about what we care about most.
1. Who stands out for you as living an exemplary environmentally
virtuous life? In other words, who is your environmental hero?
2. Which environmental virtue appeals to you most at this time?
What are you doing to cultivate it?
For more reading:
Ronald Sandler and Philip Cafaro, Environmental Virtue Ethics,
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education,
Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University
David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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