A virtue-oriented approach to environmental ethics

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Climate change and other environmental issues are upsetting traditional scientific and philosophical thought, so much so that we must not only question how we solve problems, but also how we pose them. This is all the more true for environmental ethics. If there is a way beyond ethical orthodoxy, it may very well start with a shift away from theoretical reflection, toward embedded practices based on virtue.  

Text: Mako Takeda


Utilitarianism and deontology have been the mainstream of the Western ethical discourse for the last two hundred years and continue to be dominant in our contemporary ethical discourse, including environmental ethics. For example, Peter Singer argues for animal welfare based on the elaboration of Bentham’s principle of maximizing aggregate happiness. Tom Regan, on the other hand, adapted Kantian deontology into environmental ethics and established a theory of intrinsic value according to which the reach of respect ought to be expanded from human beings to every ‘experiencing subject of a life’. Virtue ethics, on the contrary, has been thrown in the shade and is nowhere to be seen in environmental ethics. But all that is about to change, as philosophers increasingly call upon potential contributions of virtue ethics, Aristotelian virtue ethics to be precise, in environmental ethics.


Four generations  

Why do philosophers return to Aristotelian virtue ethics that was once declined and replaced by the two prominent ethical theories of utilitarianism and deontology? Brian Treanor, one of those philosophers who have integrated virtue ethics into environmental ethics, writes in his book Emplotting Virtue: A narrative approach to environmental virtue ethics that environmental ethics is in- complete without a robust virtue ethics component. He cites Ronald Sandler’s distinction of a first, second and third generation in environmental problems, and holds that environmental issues are not only political problems but also ethical and existential challenges.

A short explanation of Sandler’s distinction might be useful here. In the first generation of Sandler’s distinction, the focus was on problems that existed at a distance, such as preservation of wilderness and deforestation. In the second generation, the focus shifted to problems ‘right here’, inseparable from a social and political context had been narrowed down to interpersonal concerns. We therefore ought to re- store our ideas about ethics and expand the shrunk scope of our morality.

Treanor also writes about his concerns about the separation of morality from social and political contexts. He points out that during the post- Enlightenment and post-existentialist age the self attained primacy at the cost of society, which was increasingly viewed as a secondary phenomenon. Individualization caused by Cartesian solipsism and the traditions that followed from it have detached us from the world.

Treanor, Thompson and Bendik-Keymer suggest that we have to retrieve the lost connection between the individual and the world, and the concept of ‘flourishing’ distinctive of Aristotelian virtue ethics holds the key to the success of this attempt. Eudaimonia, meaning ‘flourishing’ in Greek, can be under- stood as the situation in which all beings thrive in all the ways they should. In such a state, the dichotomy between individuals and the world is replaced by such as pollution and urban sprawl. The third generation pays attention to the global and more distant problems such as climate changes and resource depletion. And now we are at the rise of the fourth generation, wherein the global and remote problems of the third generation ‘take a disturbing turn toward a very personal and intimate form’ as genetic engineering and nano-technology. And, unlike the problems of the proceeding three generations, the fourth generation problems con- front us with existential questions concerning human identity and character. The two pillars of Western ethics – utilitarianism and deontology – come short in giving us guidance in dealing with the upcoming of the third and fourth generation of the environmental problems concerning human identity.  Though capable of supplying answers to questions concerning our moral actions, they do not provide an answer to existential questions such as ‘who are we?’ and ‘how ought we to be?’


Unshrinking ethics by flourishing  

Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer are also advocates of virtue ethics. They also believe that virtue ethics is necessary for environmental ethics but from a different perspective than that of Treanor. In their book Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change, they argue that the shrinking of the scope of morality is a particularly modern phenomenon for which Mill’s Harm Principle is mainly account- able. Mill’s Harm principle confined our concept of morality to issues about harming others, and as a result, ethical thinking that was once embedded in and in-a harmonious relationship. The universe is no longer viewed as a space where different items are randomly jumbled up. We have to understand the universe as one whole organism in which substances and creatures exist in harmony. Treanor writes that people in America, despite the fact that they show interest in environmental issues, do not change their lifestyles because they are unwilling to make ‘sacrifices’. But if we view the universe as a whole and learn to respect its harmony, sacrifices that humans have to make will be an attractive part rather than an onerous duty.


Who ought we to be?  

Virtue ethics is also important in the search for an answer to the earlier mentioned questions of ‘who are we?’ and ‘how ought we to be?’ Virtues are character traits of a human being qua human. Therefore, when we talk about virtues, we do but talk about the qualities that make us fully human. Unlike virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontology emphasize developing general action-guiding rules telling us whether the action ought to be permitted or prohibited. According to these theories, moral judgments are based on duty or obligation that merely uphold the minimum standards of con- duct. Therefore, they are not useful to determine the human identity or character.

Through the above stated arguments, we have come to understand that we are in need of the return of virtue ethics in the environmental ethics of the coming age. The dialogue about virtuous agents and their personal traits – who ought we to be? – is required now more than ever, not merely from the perspective of social and environmental needs, but also because of existential concerns. Virtue ethics will help us find the way ‘how we live humanly’ with the concept of flourishing and human excellence. And this is necessary for environmental ethics, especially for the above mentioned fourth generation problems, because virtue ethics includes understanding our place, possibilities and limitations to live a human life – concerns which are beyond the scope of universal rules provided by utilitarianism and deontology.


Further reading

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer and Allen Thompson(eds.), Ethical adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future. MIT Press, 2012.

Ronald L. Sandler, Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics. Columbia Uni- versity Press, 2007

Brian Treanor, Emplotting Virtue: A Narrative Approach to Environmental Virtue Ethics. SUNY Press, 2014.

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