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Environmental Virtue Ethics

  1. Ronald L. Sandler

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee090

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Sandler, R. L. 2013. Environmental Virtue Ethics. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

Environmental ethics (see Environmental Ethics) is the study of the ethical relationships between human beings and the natural environment, including the nonhuman individuals that populate and constitute it. It involves developing a proper understanding of the human–nature relationship, identifying the goods and values that are part of or emerge from that relationship, determining the norms (rules/principles) that those goods and values justify, and applying those norms to generate guidance on environmental issues and interactions. Environmental virtue ethics is that part of environmental ethics that concerns character (see Virtue Ethics). The core questions of environmental virtue ethics are these:

  1. What makes a character trait an environmental virtue or environmental vice, and which particular character traits (i.e., attitudes and dispositions) are environmental virtues and which are environmental vices? That is, what are the character norms of environmental ethics?

  2. What is the role of environmental virtue ethics (or an ethic of character) within environmental ethics?

After a brief background on the history of environmental virtue ethics, this essay addresses these questions in turn.

History of Environmental Virtue Ethics

  1. Top of page
  2. History of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  3. Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice
  4. Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics
  5. Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  6. References
  7. Further Readings

Reflections on character and virtue are prominent in the work of early and influential environmental thinkers. For example, voluntary simplicity (or temperance) is central to Henry David Thoreau's environmental ethic (see Thoreau, Henry David). According to Thoreau, simplicity is conducive to happiness because it leads to an uncluttered life and mind, which can focus more readily on those things that have real and lasting value, such as beauty, nature, justice, and friendship:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. … To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. (1951: “Economy,” Pt. 1)

Whereas Thoreau emphasizes the relationship between character and flourishing, Aldo Leopold emphasizes the link between character and activity. On his view, proper treatment of the environment is only possible when we change our perspective on it and cultivate love and respect toward it:

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect … That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. (1968: viii–ix)

Like Leopold, Rachel Carson believes that cultivating virtue is central to appreciating the value and beauty of the natural world. For her, wonder is a preeminent environmental virtue, since “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction” (1999: 94). Like Thoreau, Carson also believes that wonder toward nature enriches one's life:

It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood … I should ask that … each child in the world be [given] a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, and alienation from the sources of our strength. (1956: 42–3)

These early and influential environmental thinkers are not atypical in their use of virtue concepts and language. Louke van Wensveen conducted a review of the post-1970 environmental literature and found that virtue language is diverse, dynamic, integral, and pervasive within environmental discourse. She catalogued 189 distinct virtue terms and 174 distinct vice terms, and did not find “a piece of ecologically sensitive philosophy, theology, or ethics that does not in some way incorporate virtue language” (2000: 5).

Although virtue language and concepts always have been ubiquitous and integral within environmental discourse, recognition of environmental virtue ethics as a distinct aspect of environmental ethics is more recent. In 1983, Thomas Hill published an article in which he asked the reader to imagine a person who chooses to cut down and pave over an entire wooded lot so as to avoid the costs of maintaining it, as well as to increase the amount of sunlight coming into his home. Hill argued that neither the language and concept of utility nor the language and concept of rights captures fully what is disturbing about the person's behavior. On Hill's view, there is something troubling that goes beyond the action itself and is captured by the question, “What sort of person would do a thing like that?” This suggests that virtue has significance to environmental ethics beyond its disposing its possessor to perform right actions. Providing an account of an environmentally virtuous person (i.e., providing substantive accounts of environmental virtues and vices) and articulating the relationships between environmental virtue and right action (i.e., characterizing the roles of environmental virtue within environmental ethics) have since become increasingly prominent projects within environmental ethics.

Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice

  1. Top of page
  2. History of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  3. Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice
  4. Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics
  5. Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  6. References
  7. Further Readings

One of the core projects within environmental virtue ethics is specifying which character traits are environmental virtues and which are environmental vices. A character trait is a disposition to take certain types of considerations as reasons (or as motivational) for action or emotion under certain types of circumstances. Different people have different character traits if they are disposed to respond differently toward the same types of considerations. For example, a person who is moved neither emotionally nor to action by the suffering of others (when she is in a position to help alleviate the suffering) is indifferent, whereas a person who is empathetic and tries to alleviate the suffering (when in an appropriate position to do so) is compassionate. The two people are disposed regarding the same thing – that is, the suffering of others; however, they are differently disposed.

A character virtue (hereafter just “virtue”) is a well-justified character trait (see Virtue). It is a disposition to respond to considerations in the world in excellent ways. If the suffering of others is bad, and one is indifferent to it (or aims to cause it), then one fails to respond well to a morally salient fact about the world. Therefore, cruelty and insensitivity toward the suffering of others are vices, and compassion toward others is a virtue. To paraphrase Aristotle (see Aristotle), a virtuous person is disposed to respond to the right thing, for the right reason, and in the right way, while also having the right desires and feelings about it (Aristotle 1985). Specifying what counts as “right” for each of these is the primary project of virtue theory.

There are several competing virtue theories, but the most prominent ones share this crucial feature: what constitutes right responsiveness is largely determined by the goods and values in the world (and the nature of those values), as well as by the relevant facts about the agent (and her situation). When a character trait is justified as a virtue at least in part by environmental goods and values – be they instrumental goods (e.g., natural resources, ecosystem services, or recreational opportunities), intrinsic values (e.g., aesthetic or spiritual values), or inherent worth (i.e., the value of environmental entities in and of themselves) – it is an environmentally justified virtue. Care for living things, appreciativeness of natural beauty, and moderation in use of natural resources are examples of environmentally justified virtues. Nonmaleficence toward nonhuman living things, insensitivity to natural beauty, and profligacy in the use of natural resources are some corresponding vices.

Different virtues have different fields or spheres of operation. Compassion, for example, is a virtue regarding the suffering of others. It is not operative (and does not provide guidance) in a situation where one's activities or decisions do not impact the well-being of sentient others. Compassion is not operative when skipping stones. Loyalty is a virtue that is operative only when dealing with people (or, perhaps, places) with which one has an appropriate history. Loyalty is not operative with strangers. A virtue is an environmentally responsive virtue if it is an excellent character trait whose field of operation includes some aspect of the natural environment. Wonder toward nature, compassion toward animals, and restraint regarding the use of natural resources are examples of environmentally responsive virtues. Incuriousness toward nature, cruelty toward nonhuman animals, and profligacy in the use of natural resources are some corresponding vices.

Some virtues are productive. They aim at bringing something about. Compassion aims at reducing suffering and wonder aims at increasing understanding, for example. Other virtues, such as gratitude and appreciation, are primarily expressive or receptive. Virtues that are productive of environmental ends – that is, that aim at protecting or promoting environmental goods and values – are environmentally productive virtues. Ecological sensitivity, temperance regarding material goods, and perseverance (e.g., in the domain of environmental advocacy) are environmentally productive virtues. Hubris regarding our ability to control the environment, apathy regarding environmental issues, and intemperance in consumptive practices are some corresponding vices.

Environmentally justified virtues, environmentally responsive virtues, and environmentally productive virtues are each a (not mutually exclusive) type of environmental virtue. Because not all environmental virtues are environmentally responsive virtues, the environmental virtues are not just character traits operative in natural contexts (e.g., when walking in the woods or studying barnacles). Among the environmental virtues are traits that make for effective environmental stewards and advocates (such as trustworthiness, loyalty, and perseverance), as well as traits operative in our daily lives that are conducive to promoting ecological sustainability (such as temperance, humility, and far-sightedness) (Welchman 1999; Cafaro 2001a; Sandler 2007; Treanor 2010).

The particular character traits that an environmental ethic endorses or emphasizes as environmental virtues and vices depends upon the environmental values that it prioritizes, as well as upon the theoretical framework that it employs. For a utilitarian (see Utilitarianism) environmental ethic such as Peter Singer's, on which the criterion for moral standing is the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, the virtue of compassion and the vice of cruelty are central, and a character trait is a virtue to the extent that it is conducive to promoting pleasure and the absence of pain (e.g., considerateness and benevolence) (Singer 1975). For a Kantian biocentric ethic (see Kantian Practical Ethics; Biocentrism) such as Paul Taylor's, on which all living things are regarded as having inherent worth, the virtue of respect for nature and the vice of nonmaleficence toward living things are central, and a character trait is a virtue to the extent that it is conducive to allowing living things to pursue their own goods unconstrained by human activity (e.g., restraint and wonder) (Taylor 1986). On a communitarian (see Communitarianism) environmental ethic such as Aldo Leopold's, on which the biological community is of primary importance, the virtue of ecological sensitivity and the vice of hubris will be central, and character traits will be virtues to the extent that they promote the health, integrity, or flourishing of the biotic community (e.g., love and gratitude) (Leopold 1968; Shaw 1997).

Again, what each of the above examples demonstrates is that the virtues that an environmental ethic advocates are the product of both the environmental values that it endorses (including their comparative significance) and the broader normative or theoretical framework in which they are situated. The former (the values) describes what sorts of things matter, the latter (the normative framework) describes how they matter, and the virtues describe (based on the values and framework) how we ought to respond to those entities that possess value. The same is true of the corresponding vices.

Nevertheless, there are some norms of character on which theories of environmental ethics tend to converge. For example, most theories recognize hubris, indifference, apathy, greed, wastefulness, and laziness as environmental vices, and most theories recognize humility, courage, benevolence, temperance, perseverance, integrity, and wonder as virtues. The reason for this convergence is that ecological degradation – e.g., unsustainable use of natural resources, habitat loss, and pollution – tends to compromise a wide range of environmental goods and values: human health, nonhuman flourishing, ecosystem services, natural resources, recreational and scientific opportunities, and natural beauty, for example. Therefore, character traits that promote ecological degradation tend to be detrimental to recognizing, protecting, promoting, or acknowledging the environmental goods and values emphasized by just about any environmental ethic. As a result, there tends to be convergence among different types of environmental ethics – e.g., anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric, individualistic and communitarian, and consequentialist (see Consequentialism), deontological, and virtue ethical – in support of character traits that promote ecological sustainability and against traits that promote ecological degradation (Wenz 2005).

Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics

  1. Top of page
  2. History of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  3. Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice
  4. Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics
  5. Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  6. References
  7. Further Readings

Environmental virtue ethics is a crucial component of environmental ethics in several respects: virtue and vice language helps to characterize the human relationship with nature and our environmental challenges; environmental virtue theory elucidates the ways in which environmentally considerate behavior is conducive to agent flourishing; environmental virtue disposes an agent to act according to environmental ethics rules and principles of action; and environmental virtue helps to identify or determine correct environmental actions and policies. In this section, these roles are discussed in turn.

As discussed earlier, environmental virtue language is pervasive and integral to environmental ethics. The reason for this is that the language of virtue and vice is far more diverse and nuanced than the languages of duty and consequences. There are hundreds of virtue and vice terms – honest/dishonest, compassion/cruelty, generosity/miserliness, optimism/pessimism, courage/cowardice, temperance/intemperance, respect/disregard, gratitude/ingratitude, and so on. This allows for more subtle and rich evaluations of both character and conduct than the standard deontological and consequentialist categories – i.e., wrong, permissible, obligatory, and supererogatory. This diversity and richness is crucial for environmental ethics because of the complexity of the human relationship with the natural environment. Nature is a source of basic resources, knowledge, recreation, renewal, and, for some, spiritual experience. It is also a threat, indifferent to us, and a locus of human-independent values. Environmental ethics needs the resources to accommodate this complexity, without homogenization or misrepresentation, and the language of virtue and vice provides them.

Moreover, our environmental challenges are diverse and complex. The wilderness and land-use issues that dominated early environmentalism are still prominent (e.g., off-road vehicle use and road building in national forests, fire suppression policy, wolf “management” programs, and species preservation), as are the pollution issues that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., industrial zoning and permit issuance, manufacturing and consumer waste disposal, water privatization, and environmental justice). To these have been added global issues, such as climate change, ozone depletion, and population growth, which are impersonal, distant (both spatially and temporally), collective action problems that involve the cumulative unintended effects of an enormous number of seemingly inconsequential decisions, as well as issues associated with advanced technologies such as genetic modification and nanobiotechnology. Given the wide array of environmental issues, environmental ethics requires a dynamic and diverse set of evaluative concepts, which again environmental virtue ethics provides.

As Thoreau and Carson emphasize, environmental virtue is beneficial to its possessor. On Carson's view, this is because it opens a person to beneficial experiences and relationships in nature. The natural environment provides aesthetic and recreational goods, as well as opportunities to develop physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. However, these goods are more available to some people than to others. Those who possess traits like wonder, humility, and love experience nature and relate to it differently than those who are arrogant, lazy, and indifferent to the natural world. For the former, nature often is a source of nurturing, renewal, knowledge, and joy; for the latter it is less likely to be so, since they are less likely to go into nature and explore, study, reflect, and appreciate it.

Environmental virtue is also thought to benefit its possessor by focusing her on what is truly valuable in life. This is largely the basis of Thoreau's advocacy for simplicity and temperance. Moreover, for a person who embraces temperance, foregoing unnecessary material things is not likely to be regarded as a sacrifice. From the perspective of a temperate person, such things are a distraction that do not add to the quality of one's life. She will be pleased to be without the burden of them. This is an instance of what might be called the “integrating effect of virtue.” Environmental virtues (and virtues more generally) often appear to involve sacrifice from the perspective of a person who does not possess the relevant virtues, but from the perspective of the virtuous person they are not sacrifices at all. For example, many people who are environmentally committed take pleasure in the activities that this requires – e.g., composting, cleaning green spaces, reducing energy use, or biking to work – even as those who do not share their values or commitments (i.e., their virtues) would consider these activities to be burdensome or sacrifices.

The role that environmental virtue plays in enriching a person's life and integrating environmentally considerate behavior with individual flourishing complements and, in some respects, counterbalances other aspects of environmental ethics. One prominent area of environmental ethics concerns the value of (nonhuman) environmental entities, such as species or animals. This aspect of environmental ethics standardly emphasizes duty and restraint – i.e., the values ground obligations regarding what we cannot or must do to nature. Another prominent area of environmental ethics concerns our dependencies upon and vulnerabilities to the natural environment. This aspect of environmental ethics standardly emphasizes the harms or losses to us that will occur if we do not change our behaviors regarding the environment. By emphasizing how ecological sensitivity, care, and concern (and other environmental virtues) can benefit their possessor – even when she is doing her duty or acting prudentially – environmental virtue ethics provides a positive vision for the human–nature relationship, one in which human flourishing and environmental flourishing not only coincide but also are intertwined with each other (Cafaro 2001b).

Another role of environmental virtue ethics within environmental ethics arises from the fact that character is relevant to how one behaves. As Leopold 1968 emphasizes, how people act depends upon what of the world they perceive and how they perceive it. A person who loves and respects nature does not see a particular landscape or run of river as merely a resource for satisfying human wants and needs. She sees it as well as a place of beauty, where nonhuman organisms strive to flourish, and as the product of complex ecological processes. This perspective informs how she interacts with it. To paraphrase Carson, a person who has wonder regarding the natural world is opposed to destruction of it. More generally, an environmentally virtuous person – precisely because of her virtue – is disposed both to recognize environmental values and respond to them appropriately. As a result, environmental virtue disposes its possessor to act according to the rules, principles, or norms of action of the correct environmental ethic. Virtue, including environmental virtue, is conducive to right action.

In addition to disposing a person to perform right actions, environmental virtue ethics can help to identify which actions are right. As discussed above, many of our environmental challenges are longitudinal collective action problems. When faced with such challenges, an ethic is needed that emphasizes sustained commitment, the development of communities of agents, and the importance of doing one's part even when others fail to do theirs. The constancy and centrality of a person's character in orienting her life, in addition to her episodic actions, is thus conducive to an effective environmental ethic (Jamieson 2007; Sandler 2010).

Moreover, the sensitivity to values and context (i.e., wisdom) that is part of virtue is often instrumental in the application of action-guiding rules and principles to concrete situations. At a minimum, sensitivity and attending to the relevant contextual details are required to determine which rules or principles are applicable to which situations, as well as for determining what course of action they recommend in those situations where they are operative. But these may also be indispensable in adjudicating between conflicting demands of ethics or resolving ethical dilemmas that arise from a plurality of sources of value and justification. Many moral philosophers have argued that it is implausible and unreasonable to expect that there is some finite set of rules or principles that can be applied by any moral agent in any situation to determine what the proper course of action is in that situation (Hursthouse 1999). If they are correct – if action guidance cannot always be accomplished by rules and principles alone – then the wisdom and sensitivity that are part of virtue (including environmental virtue) are in some situations indispensable for identifying right action, including environmentally right action.

The roles of environmental virtue within environmental ethics discussed so far cast environmental virtue ethics as a crucial component of any environmental ethic, regardless of its theoretical or normative framework (e.g., consequentialist, communitarian, or deontological). However, some have suggested that virtue ethics or virtue-oriented ethics may also provide an alternative theoretical framework to other approaches to environmental ethics. On this view, the virtues would be the primary evaluative concepts of the environmental ethic, and right action would be explicated through them (Sandler 2007). On such an ethic, when determining what action or policy to pursue, one would first identify which virtues are operative and then determine what they would call for individually and overall. Because on this view right action is explicated through the virtues, providing substantive accounts of environmental virtues and vices is crucial to generating the normative resources of the ethic.

Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics

  1. Top of page
  2. History of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  3. Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice
  4. Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics
  5. Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  6. References
  7. Further Readings

Environmental virtue ethics is a vibrant area of environmental ethics. Many environmental philosophers are doing work on characterizing the substantive dispositions that constitute particular environmental virtues and vices (e.g., forgiveness, tolerance, patience, anger, greed, and apathy). Work is also being done on the roles of virtue in responding to particular environmental problems (e.g., global warming and environmental injustice) and to environmental challenges more generally. In addition, there is continued interest in whether virtue ethics provides a viable and preferable alternative environmental ethic to those supported by other normative theories. What appears to be settled, however, is that environmental virtue ethics is an indispensable component of environmental ethics.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. History of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  3. Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice
  4. Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics
  5. Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  6. References
  7. Further Readings
  • Aristotle 1985. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Cafaro, Philip 2001a. “The Naturalist's Virtues,” Philosophy in the Contemporary World, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 8599.
  • Cafaro, Philip 2001b. “Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson: Toward an Environmental Virtue Ethic,” Environmental Ethics, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 317.
  • Carson, Rachel 1956. The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Carson, Rachel 1999. Design for Nature Writing, in L. Lear (ed.), Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon, pp. 937.
  • Hill, Thomas 1983. “Ideals of Human Excellences and Preserving Natural Environments,” Environmental Ethics, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 21124.
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind 1999. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Jamieson, Dale 2007. “When Utilitarians Should Be Virtue Theorists,” Utilitas, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 16083.
  • Leopold, Aldo 1968. A Sand Country Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sandler, Ronald 2007. Character and Environment. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Sandler, Ronald 2010. “Ethical Theory and the Problem of Inconsequentialism: Why Environmental Ethicists Should be Virtue Oriented Ethicists,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 23, nos. 1–2, pp. 16783.
  • Shaw, Bill 1997. “A Virtue Ethics Approach to Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic,” Environmental Ethics, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 5367.
  • Singer, Peter 1975. Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review Books.
  • Taylor, Paul 1986. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Thoreau, Henry David 1951. Walden. New York: Bramhall House.
  • Treanor, Brian 2010. “Environmentalism and Public Virtue,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 23, nos. 1–2, pp. 928.
  • Welchman, Jennifer 1999. “The Virtues of Stewardship,” Environmental Ethics, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 41123.
  • Wensveen, Louke van 2000. Dirty Virtues: The Emergence of Ecological Virtue Ethics. Amherst, NY: Humanity.
  • Wenz, Peter 2005. Synergistic Environmental Virtues, in R. Sandler and P. Cafaro (eds.), Environmental Virtue Ethics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 197213.

Further Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. History of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  3. Characterizing Environmental Virtue and Environmental Vice
  4. Virtue and Vice in Environmental Ethics
  5. Conclusion: The State of Environmental Virtue Ethics
  6. References
  7. Further Readings
  • Cafaro, Philip 2001. “Environmental Virtue Ethics,” special issue of Philosophy in the Contemporary World, vol. 8, no. 2.
  • Frasz, Geoffrey 1993. “Environmental Virtue Ethics: A New Direction for Environmental Ethics,” Environmental Ethics, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 25974.
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind 2006. Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals, in J. Welchman (ed.), The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Virtue Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett, pp. 13654.
  • Macintyre, Alasdair 1999. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago: Open Court.
  • Newton, Lisa 2003. Ethics and Sustainability: Sustainable Development and the Moral Life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • O'Neill, John 1993. Ecology, Policy, and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World. London: Routledge.
  • Sandler, Ronald, and Philip Cafaro 2005. Environmental Virtue Ethics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Sandler, Ronald, and Philip Cafaro 2010. “Environmental Virtue Ethics,” special issue of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 23, nos. 1–2.
  • Swanton, Christine 2003. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press.