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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Six

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and 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.

Introducing virtue

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 in community.

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 same way.

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 Muir, Aldo 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 and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009