Environmental Virtue Ethics: Hursthouse & Sandler

Instructor: Emily Cummins
Philosophers have long been concerned with ethics and what it means to do the right thing. In this lesson, we'll talk about virtue ethics, which is all about how people make virtuous choices, especially regarding humans' relationship to the environment.

Ethics in Philosophy

When we think of ethics, we probably think of things like whether what we're doing is right or wrong. How do we know if a decision is good or bad? How do we defend our actions?

Entire branches of the academic discipline of philosophy have been dedicated to the study of ethics. Also called moral philosophy, it's all about how we decide if our actions are morally correct.

There are a few different branches to the study of ethics. In this lesson, we'll talk about virtue ethics, but specifically about how it relates to the preservation or destruction of our environment. First, a little background.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is an old idea in philosophy and one of the main branches of ethics in Western philosophy. It is often traced back to thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. It is concerned with things like moral character, wisdom, happiness, and family, things that other schools of thought tended to ignore.

Virtue ethics was interested in things like how we should choose to live our life, what kind of person we should be, and how humans might flourish. Virtue is key here. Virtue is a particular character trait and having virtue makes us a good person.

But being a genuinely virtuous person is often difficult, as it requires us to constantly make the most honest choice all of the time. To be truly virtuous means we do not have inner conflict around always making the decision that we should.

Environmental Virtue Ethics

Okay, but what do we owe the environment or other non-human things? How do we act virtuously toward the environment? We can make decisions that seek to reduce the harm we do to our environment.

Environmental virtue ethics is concerned with how we relate to the environment

The philosophers Ronald Sandler and Rosalind Hursthouse are interested in this very thing. In a perspective known as environmental virtue ethics, Sandler and Hursthouse expanded the idea of virtue ethics to think about how humans can act virtuously toward the environment, reflecting a deep respect for it.

Environmental virtue ethics focuses on deeper or broader kinds of ideas like justice and how this might relate to environmental issues. How we can live our best life as it relates to our natural world?

From this perspective, we need to move beyond things like, ''I should recycle my soda can instead of throwing it away because that's bad.'' We need to develop a deep understanding of why recycling matters for the survival of earth.

Environmental virtue ethics tries to figure what someone with a very virtuous character would do in relation to the earth, characteristically. This can give us a clue as to how we should act to better preserve our earth.


Let's take an example. Let's say that a city official makes the call to cut down a group of trees in order to pave over that part of the earth and install parking spaces and parking meters. A virtue ethics perspective suggests that the problem here is that this city official does not have a virtuous relationship to the environment.

So, it's less that the trees had rights that were violated, but that this individual was acting in a way that was not compassionate toward the earth.


Rosalind Hursthouse notes that there are some complications with this. Environmental virtual ethics is not always an entirely realizable goal. For example, you can have every intention to live virtuously, but the society you live in can make it difficult.

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