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date: 01 April 2020

Environmental Virtue Ethics

Abstract and Keywords

Environmental virtue ethics is among the most fruitful and influential applications of virtue ethics. This chapter considers the attractions of a virtue-based approach to environmental ethics in particular, before examining how we come to identify environmental virtues and vices. Following consideration of representative environmental virtues (humility and courage), and vices (arrogance and inattention), the chapter turns to a consideration of objections to environmental virtue ethics. While many of these objections are readily answerable, they suggest that greater attention must be paid to political virtues, and to the role of institutions and social structures in shaping possibilities for acquiring and acting upon environmental virtues. There are also significant epistemic worries concerning the ability to identify environmental virtues and exemplars. The chapter closes with a consideration of ways in which appeals to psychology and the social sciences might enrich and enhance environmental virtue ethics, and help to overcome its remaining epistemic problems.

Keywords: environment, courage, virtue ethics, environmental virtue, humility, psychology

In an influential paper, Thomas Hill has us consider a new neighbor who moves into a home, cuts down a beautiful avocado tree, and covers the rest of a stunning garden with asphalt.1 Even if no sentient animals are harmed, and the owner is pleased with the change, many of us will find these actions deeply problematic. But why? According to Hill, regardless of any possible rights of trees, or other (supposed) intrinsic values in nature, such a person demonstrates an arrogance and lack of proper humility. This arrogance might be grounded in an ignorance of the nature of the entities he destroys or an excessive self-importance that renders him unable to see the non-human world as worthwhile. Hill suggests that we need to consider the character of the neighbor: What kind of person would do such a thing?

Hill’s paper is rightly regarded as playing an important role in the development of contemporary environmental virtue ethics. He presents a compelling case that many questions and issues within environmental ethics are best approached in terms of character traits, rather than rights, utility, or other familiar moral notions. And even when these latter notions are of primary importance, considerations of virtue and vice seem relevant as we determine how best to negotiate these norms and values. Still, why else might environmental virtue ethics (EVE) be particularly attractive to those working in environmental philosophy?

I. Why Environmental Virtue Ethics

First, most environmental ethicists would hold that current lifestyles of the globally wealthy are—with few exceptions—unsustainable in the face of mounting environmental problems. While consideration of institutions and social structures will obviously (p. 660) be of tremendous importance, effectively addressing these issues will also require careful consideration of human character traits, habits, and ways of life.2 We will need to develop different attitudes and habits—paying attention to environmental issues that we now ignore, becoming politically active, consuming less, and so on. The exploration of such issues of virtue, attitude, habit, and human flourishing—and understanding the institutions and social structures that can support them—finds a natural home in a virtue-oriented ethics.

Second, as Louke van Wensveen (2000) and others have noted, much environmental writing invokes a rich vocabulary of virtue and vice. Van Wensveen provides a list of 189 virtue and 174 vice terms that have been used in published works in environmental ethics since 1970. Such an extensive list suggests that environmental concerns lend themselves particularly well to exploration in terms of virtues and vices; it further suggests a depth and nuance to our vocabulary of virtues and vices. Relatedly, we find extensive use of virtue and vice terminology in earlier environmental writings, including the works of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Henry David Thoreau, among others.

Third, many environmental ethicists are attracted to the naturalism of recent neo-Aristotelian approaches to virtue ethics. Here the virtues are treated as traits that both foster and (partially) constitute human flourishing. Rosalind Hursthouse explains that

‘ethical naturalism’ is usually thought of as not only basing ethics in some ways on considerations of human nature, but also as taking human beings to be part of the natural, biological order of living things. [ … ] our ethical evaluations of ourselves ought to exhibit at least a recognizably similar structure to what we find in the botanists’ and ethologists’ evaluations of other living things.3

Such an approach, with an emphasis on humans as evolved, embodied beings, and understanding ethical evaluations as continuous with ethological evaluations, nicely captures a much-needed sense that humans are a part of nature. We can expect such an approach to encourage humility and a recognition of our place in wider communities of life.

Finally, environmentalists often stress that an engagement with the world around us can enrich our lives profoundly. Rachel Carson writes that “[t]he lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of the earth, sea, sky and their amazing life.”4 Virtues of wonder, open-mindedness, and curiosity enable us to appreciate and take delight in the natural world. Similarly, Ronald Sandler argues that the environment provides

aesthetic goods, recreational goods, and a location to exercise and develop physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually [ … ]. The natural environment provides the opportunity for intellectual challenge and reward, but those benefits come only to those who are disposed first to wonder and then to try to understand.5

(p. 661) EVE is well positioned to capture the insight that a good environmental life is not simply a matter of denial and burdens, but instead an active life where moral, epistemic, and aesthetic virtues enable our appreciation of and engagement with nature, contributing to our flourishing as individuals.

II. Identifying Environmental Virtues and Vices

How are we to identify environmental virtues and vices? Sandler distinguishes three main approaches.6 First, we can identify environmental virtues through the actions, attitudes, and ways of life of individuals we have identified as environmental exemplars. Thus we might look to the traits and lives of Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, or Aldo Leopold.7

A second approach is to examine traits traditionally recognized as virtues (or vices) and to consider whether and how they might be appropriately extended to environmental entities or contexts. Thus we have discussions of benevolence and forgiveness as environmental virtues.8 Departing from Sandler, we can also include here efforts to work back from various environmental goods to identify novel or overlooked virtues that consist (at least in part) in the appropriate attitudes, actions, and responses toward these goods. Here we might include virtues of respect for nature, or reverence for life.9

Third, rather than resting with intuitive judgments about particular exemplars or character traits, many environmental virtue ethicists embrace versions of the neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism discussed earlier. Here the virtues are identified with those traits required for an individual to lead a flourishing life for members of its species; this provides a guide and standard for assessing whether or not a given trait is a virtue (or person an exemplar). Thus, on Hursthouse’s (1999) influential account, humans are virtuous to the extent that they possess dispositions (of emotion, desire, and action) that allow them to effectively and rationally pursue their own survival, the good functioning and continuance of their communities/species, and a characteristically pleasant life without undue suffering.

Sandler argues that a key omission here is that there may be non-eudaimonistic goods (i.e., ones that do not directly contribute to the flourishing of humans) that are still worthy of human attention and concern; these may include such things as the well-being of non-human animals. Sandler also introduces three further components of a flourishing human life that arise through our rationality beyond those suggested by Hursthouse—autonomy, the accumulation of knowledge, and meaningfulness. He thus modifies Hursthouse’s account to the following:

A human being is ethically good (i.e., virtuous) insofar as she is well fitted with respect to her (i) emotions, (ii) desires), and (iii) actions (from reason and (p. 662) inclination); whether she is thus well fitted is determined by whether these aspects well serve (1) her survival, (2) the continuance of the species, (3) her characteristic freedom from pain and characteristic enjoyment, (4) the good functioning of her social group, (5) her autonomy, (6) the accumulation of knowledge, (7) a meaningful life, and (8) the realization of any noneudaimonistic ends (grounded in noneudaimonistic goods or values)—in the way characteristic of human beings (i.e., in a way that can rightly be seen as good).10

Sandler argues that we can use his account to help to refine and test our intuitive judgments about putative exemplars or virtues.

More generally, all three approaches to identifying environmental virtues can be applied together, allowing us to engage in a form of reflective equilibrium. If we see a particular individual as an environmental exemplar, we might in turn refine our account of human flourishing to ensure that it captures the attractive features of the individual. By identifying particular virtues, we may come to recognize certain individuals who possess these traits as environmental exemplars, and again may refine our account of human flourishing, and so on.

III. Environmental Virtues

Much work in EVE has focused on analyzing environmental virtues and their applications. Following Sandler again, we can distinguish three varieties of environmental virtue. (1) Environmentally responsive virtues are virtues that involve responsiveness to various environmental entities, including such virtues as respect for nature, benevolence, wonder, and reverence for life. (2) Environmentally justified virtues are any that are justified (as virtues) at least in part by environmental considerations. For example, temperance and simplicity are environmentally justified virtues insofar as they help to reduce our need for resources and reduce our impacts on the natural world. (3) Environmentally productive virtues are virtues that promote or maintain environmental goods or values. Courage, perseverance, and cooperativeness could all be environmentally productive virtues—consider a committed, effective environmental activist.11 We can consider two representative environmental virtues: humility and courage.

i. Humility

Humility is an environmentally justified virtue—it encourages beneficial relationships with environmental entities, unthwarted by arrogance or egoism. It may also be an environmentally responsive virtue, with a recognition of the value and power of the non-human world. Hursthouse writes that

(p. 663)

[p]roper humility is the virtue traditionally opposed to the vice of arrogance, the undue assumption of dignity, authority, power, or knowledge, and a constantly recurring theme in environmental ethics [ … ] has been that we should, indeed, must, recognize, and in recognizing, perforce, abandon our undue assumption of dignity, authority, power, and knowledge—our arrogance in short—in relation to nature.12

More generally, a proper humility is often seen as fundamental to environmental virtue, in encouraging us to be open to the worth and value of the non-human world, from individual living beings, to entire bioregions.13 Humility also leads to an appropriate caution in our interventions in the natural world: “Our power over nature, we have discovered, is much more limited than we supposed when we first got modern science going, mostly because, as we discovered rather recently, our knowledge and understanding of the biosphere is in its infancy.”14

Matthew Pianalto characterizes ecological humility in terms of a set of dispositions:

  1. 1. acknowledgment and acceptance that one is part of nature and essentially dependent upon it;

  2. 2. openness to learning from nature, and to an appreciation of intrinsic values in nature (viz., to seeing entities in nature as having features worthy of attitudes of awe, reverence, love, respect, aesthetic appreciation, etc.);

  3. 3. motivation to adopt ways of living that are not merely sustainable (from the perspective of human interests), but which minimize the impact on the natural world in order to preserve natural intrinsic value; thus, willingness to change and adapt, and to allow entities in nature freedom from unnecessary interference.15

While Pianalto explicitly attributes intrinsic value to various entities in nature, Hursthouse hesitates to do so. She worries that doing so raises epistemic questions (how do we become aware of such value?) and ultimately requires a theory of intrinsic value, its bases, and so forth. Furthermore, she notes that environmentally sensitive individuals care for both animate and inanimate natural entities, while many environmental ethicists attribute intrinsic value only to living things. Instead, Hursthouse believes it is sufficient and simpler to note that our lives are richer and more flourishing when we value and concern ourselves with natural entities; we have good reasons to respond in these ways, regardless of any prior intrinsic value.16

ii. Courage

Courage, qua environmental virtue, is best understood as an environmentally productive virtue, one that promotes or maintains environmental goods or values. Rachel Fredericks (2014) distinguishes between physical courage—which involves overcoming (p. 664) physical dangers (whether for moral reasons or not)—and moral courage, which involves being morally motivated, standing up to others as persons or agents, and risking interpersonal punishments. These punishments could range from imprisonment, to a loss of friendship, or humiliation, or other social costs. Fredericks characterizes environmentally morally courageous individuals as standing up to the risk of interpersonal punishment for the sake of promoting environmental goods or rights, or standing against environmental harms or wrongs. Furthermore, the individual’s stand must be grounded in a recognition of these environmental goods or harms; the connection cannot be merely accidental.17

Fredericks argues that such courage can help us to act even when we worry that our actions will fail or be ineffectual; we need courage to carry on despite long odds—a common problem in facing environmental issues. Second, many of the virtues commonly discussed in environmental virtue ethics are somewhat passive—such traits as humility, wonder, or reverence. Fredericks believes we must also recognize and strive to develop active environmental virtues, ones that guide effective actions to defend and promote environmental goods (rather than merely having an appropriate appreciation of such goods). Finally, individuals who change their lifestyles, participate in political activities, and so on, will need courage in facing peer pressure from friends and neighbors who do not yet understand or approve, in staying committed to long-term campaigns, in standing up to intimidation at protests, and so on.

Fredericks further argues that it is important to publicly recognize environmental courage. Such recognition will help us to understand that involvement in an environmental movement will often be challenging and will require strength; this awareness can reassure those who are struggling, and prepare those who are just starting. Furthermore, recognizing environmental courage allows us to address stereotypes according to which environmentalists are seen as feminine and weak, while courage is coded as strong, male, and heterosexual.18 Recognizing the courage of those involved in environmentalism can help to undermine problematic stereotypes; it can also help to encourage individuals who might otherwise reject environmental concerns due to such stereotypes.

IV. Environmental Vices

As with virtue ethics in general, not as much has been written about environmental vices as about virtues. Still, there is a significant and growing literature, discussing such environmental vices as apathy and resignation, greed, and complacency.19 Van Wensveen and Wenz provide initial discussions of the seven deadly sins of traditional Christian theology, understood as environmental vices.20 Here we can focus on the vices of arrogance and inattention.

(p. 665) i. Arrogance

Arrogance is often considered a common and pernicious environmental vice, one that prevents us from fully and genuinely appreciating the non-human world, or even those humans outside of the communities with which we identify. This in turn leads to exploitation and domination. Tiberius and Walker characterize an arrogant person as one who believes himself to be

a better person according to the general standards governing what counts as a successful human specimen.

His perceived status as a more excellent human being shapes his relations with others. Since he is superior to others, he does not regard others as having anything to offer him, nor does he believe they have the ability to enrich his life. [ … ] He therefore establishes hierarchical and nonreciprocal relationships with his fellow human beings.21

This is a plausible account of ordinary arrogance, but in discussions of environmental ethics, the arrogance at stake seems rather different. It is not that an individual believes himself to be better than other humans and non-humans. It is rather (in many instances) an arrogance grounded in the individual’s belief that humans are superior to other living things, which leads him to regard the rest of the natural world as having little to offer. For example, Cafaro draws attention to “the arrogance of ‘anthropocentrism,’ the vain and selfish view that human beings alone are worthy of respect, whereas everything else in the world, including several million other species of life, only has value if it is useful to humans.”22 This human superiority is then taken to justify the exploitation and domination of the non-human world.23

Rather than seeing oneself as superior, one sees a particular group to which one belongs as superior, and this belief shapes one’s attitudes and behaviors toward those outside of the preferred group. We might understand many, perhaps most, instances of racism or sexism as being grounded not in a belief in the individual’s own particular superiority, but rather his belief that he is a member of a superior group. We can thus modify Tiberius and Walker’s account to capture this “group arrogance”:

Group arrogance occurs when an individual believes his group (race, species, gender, etc.) to be superior to others, and this (supposed) superiority shapes his relations with others. Since his group is superior to others, he regards them as having little or nothing to offer him or his group. He therefore establishes hierarchical and nonreciprocal relationships, potentially ones of domination or exploitation, with those outside of his group.

Human arrogance is a form of group arrogance of particular importance to environmental ethics, but other forms are also relevant. For example, Cafaro describes an American oil contractor working in Nigeria who accepts and endorses extraordinary (p. 666) injustices against local environmental protestors, and whose attitudes clearly reflect a racist arrogance.24

ii. Inattention

Kathie Jenni (2006) explores what she refers to as “vices of inattention,” focusing on the case of animal suffering on factory farms. She notes that many people genuinely care about animal welfare, yet they take no stand against factory farms—they do not lobby for improved legislation, they do not change their eating patterns, and so on. While in some cases this will be due to hypocrisy, weakness of will, or other factors, Jenni argues that we should also recognize the role played by vices of inattention. These involve

[a] failure to attend to morally important aspects of our lives. I refer here to a range of moral failings, from simply not noticing the circumstances of our actions to more active and systematic strategies of self-deception; from an unmotivated lack of focus, which I call “simple” inattention, to purposeful and self-manipulative uses of selective attention and wilful ignorance.25

She suggests that cruel practices on factory farms continue largely “because of obliviousness and inattention on the part of the general public—ordinary citizens who support the practices by purchasing their products and who could effect change through consumer pressure.”26

Jenni notes that even among those who do become aware of a moral issue in which they are complicit, it is all too common for them to drift back into inattention, to a lack of concern. Why does this happen?

Most people’s lives are full of hassles and distractions; of worries about family and finances. We live fragmented and harried lives, so that it is hard to retain our moral focus even when we don’t have self-interested motives for losing it. And of course we often have self-interested motives: it’s hard to change our habits. It is hard to acknowledge that one is surrounded by and complicit in brutality.27

As a result of our inattention, we remain complicit in ongoing harms to those whom we might have tried to help, and our autonomy and integrity are undermined as we act out of ignorance and in conflict with authentically held moral commitments.

Jenni suggests that we need to develop an ongoing attention to morally significant matters. This cannot be an overwhelming, constant attention to all possible morally significant matters—this is clearly beyond our mental capacities, and even if possible could leave us depressed and overwhelmed. Instead, “we need to attend (at least) to seeming violations of our moral values in which we are personally implicated, which we have some power to affect, and to which we may have been directed by indications that something is amiss.”28

Still, even this seems far too demanding in a world of human trafficking, ongoing violence, mass extinction, environmental injustices against (typically) minority (p. 667) communities, and many other violations of our moral values. We are often capable of acting at least as effectively as we can in Jenni’s focal case of factory farms, and thus need to further consider how to prioritize our investigations and actions. For example, the scope of a violation, our ability to affect a situation, the amount of attention an issue is already receiving, and other such factors might be taken into consideration, allowing us to focus our efforts more effectively.29

V. Critiques of Environmental Virtue Ethics

i. Situationism

EVE of course faces a number of objections; these are often particular instances of more general worries concerning virtue ethics. For example, Kasperbauer (2014) revisits familiar situationist worries and applies them to EVE by drawing upon studies that focus on “green” behaviors. Broadly, he argues that work in social psychology has shown that our environmental behaviors are often highly influenced by seemingly minor situational features, and are not primarily the result of underlying, stable character traits. EVE proponents must either show that virtues do in fact reliably lead to good environmental behaviors (explaining away the apparently conflicting empirical evidence), or grant that virtues—such as they are—do not reliably lead to good behavior, and that we must turn to other moral norms or institutions in order to effectively address environmental issues.

Kasperbauer discusses and rejects Robert Adams’s (2006) response to situationist worries, but does not engage with most of the wide range of responses that such worries have evoked (beyond a passing footnote). Here we can focus on one particular point. We should question whether the individuals whose environmental behaviors are so easily swayed by trivial circumstantial factors are in fact environmentally virtuous. Certainly most of us have received far less training in environmental virtue as children than we have in “ordinary” interpersonal virtues. We may also wonder about the depth of any environmental commitments of the individuals involved (environmental concerns are often treated as secondary, peripheral interests) and their levels of relevant environmental knowledge. We have good reason to expect environmental virtue to be particularly rare, and thus to question whether the studies cited by Kasperbauer in fact tell us anything about environmental virtues or virtuous agents.

ii. Social Structures and Institutions

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (2012) raises an important challenge to the adequacy of EVE as a complete environmental ethic. He argues that with respect to such environmental (p. 668) problems as the current sixth mass extinction event or climate change, a focus on individual character and virtue is insufficient. Instead we need to look at broad social, institutional, and other factors that shape and constrain the possibilities for individuals and their expression of virtue.

Bendik-Keymer has us imagine a single parent who works, volunteers for local organizations, gives to various charities, and so on, but who pays little or no attention to the sixth mass extinction (though she cares about other species and living things). Bendik-Keymer argues that this individual is surely a morally decent person—yet she still acts in ways that will contribute to further extinctions (e.g., by buying products using soya grown on farmland cleared from rainforests). The problem here is not a lack of virtue. Rather, given the institutions and circumstances in which she finds herself (along with limited human cognitive and emotional capacities), she cannot reasonably be expected to be sensitive to all major environmental issues:

Perhaps, then, we should look at the difficulty of living in a bureaucratically organized world whose economic and political systems are highly ill-adapted to the sorts of challenges posed by the sixth mass extinction, and climate change [ … ]. And perhaps we should look at the shortcomings of our nature under our second nature.30

To claim that such a person is not decent, or is blameworthy for her way of life, is to be far too demanding and moralistic; instead, we have a good person who is simply constrained by her circumstances. To effectively and justly address large-scale problems, we need to focus on social, institutional factors while recognizing our cognitive and other limitations.

Many proponents of EVE would grant this point, arguing that EVE is simply one part of a complete environmental ethic—that aspect dealing with matters of character and virtue. They could readily allow that this will need to be supplemented by a moral examination of the institutions and social structures in which we find ourselves. But this is not to dismiss the need for considerations of character. As Cafaro writes,

To some degree our political, economic, and technological systems present us with environmentally unsustainable choices or strongly incline us in those directions [ … ]. Still, as consumers and citizens we usually have real choices, and we often choose the environmentally worse ones. No one forces us to buy big SUVs, build three-car garages, or let our bicycles rust. [ … ] Our poor environmental behavior stems, in part, from particular character defects or vices.31

With respect to Bendik-Keymer’s single parent, we might add the following. We can agree that she is decent—likely better than most of us—but even so, there may be room for her to improve. Perhaps she could volunteer a little less at the local theater, but become more involved in action to address climate change, as the latter is of such great global importance. Of course, many factors might need to be balanced in deciding (p. 669) where to devote one’s attention and efforts—the scale of an issue, one’s ability to help address it, one’s own interests, and so on.32 But even decent people will have realistic room for improvement, and given the gravity of the environmental problems we face, it seems likely that most decent, globally wealthy people ought to be doing more to address such issues.

More fundamentally, Bendik-Keymer is correct that we need to address social, political, and economic circumstances, and recognize human limitations. But as we do so, questions of character and virtue re-emerge. Political change and legislative action will not simply arise out of nowhere; individuals ultimately drive change in institutions. As Brian Treanor explains, “addressing environmental crises will require people with public virtues, especially political virtues, and the mettle to act on these virtues.”33 We need to consider the traits that enable people to be effective activists in advocating for social change.

In exploring the virtues of activists, EVE proponents would do well to engage with such works as Lisa Tessman’s (2005). Tessman examines how living in oppressive conditions can restrict the flourishing of individuals and limit their possibilities for virtue, necessitating ‘burdened virtues’ that allow for survival or resisting oppression, but which do not contribute to the well-being of their possessors. In the face of environmental injustices, often deeply problematic institutions and social structures, and potentially devastating climate change in decades to come, there may be much that can be learned from cases of oppression—and activism in the face of oppression—for those facing difficult circumstances more generally.34

We should also consider the virtues that allow us to be good citizens, beyond being good activists—those that enable us to produce and sustain good policy and institutions. Here we might look to participatory virtues, “those important to a person’s readiness to participate well in collective decision making,”35 or political virtues, characterized by Treanor as involving intellectual engagement with the issues facing one’s community, and actively seeking the flourishing of this community.36

Similarly, institutional decision-makers (both private and public) require virtues. Presidents, mayors, board members, and others need to make wise judgments. Simply having the results of studies, or pools of information, does not yet lead to good policy. Decision-makers need wisdom, patience, and intellectual virtues to determine what ought to be done in circumstances of limited knowledge and resources; they need courage to follow through on difficult decisions, and so on.

Finally, we can evaluate institutions themselves in terms of how well they enable us to act virtuously—can they facilitate easier access to reliable mass transportation, renewable energy, and so on? More fundamentally, how might various institutions encourage education and values that support our flourishing both as individuals, and as a community? Thus, even if Bendik-Keymer is correct to focus on social, economic, and other structures, the virtues—and environmental virtues in particular—will play a key role in understanding and addressing large-scale environmental issues.

(p. 670) iii. Identifying the Virtuous

How do we determine who qualifies as an environmentally virtuous person or what counts as an environmental virtue? For example, on what basis should we hold that Rachel Carson is a genuine environmental exemplar, rather than the climate change–denying American senator James Inhofe? After all, the latter is regarded by many as a virtuous leader who embraces a wise balance between the needs of nature and those of industry. Such epistemic worries in identifying the virtues and the virtuous are familiar, but take on a particular force when applied to EVE.

As noted earlier, most people around the world are not raised to be especially environmentally virtuous, and this likely has an adverse effect on our ability to identify environmental virtues and exemplars. Of course many individuals receive some encouragement toward respecting nature, avoiding cruelty to animals, and so on. And some will be raised with lessons in activism, simplicity, and so on. But overall, our attempts to raise environmentally virtuous children pale in comparison with our efforts to inculcate familiar forms of honesty, justice, perseverance, and so forth. As such, while most of us have some training in honesty that can help us to identify honest people and actions, we are far less likely to have extensive grounding in benevolence as extended to non-humans (for example), and so will be less reliable in identifying right actions and virtuous individuals in such ‘environmental’ contexts.

Relatedly, parents and teachers, given their own lack of training in environmental virtue (and environmental knowledge, more generally) may be less effective in their efforts to inculcate such virtues in children. As a result, we should expect environmentally virtuous agents to be rarer than “traditionally” virtuous agents. As Hursthouse notes, this lack of environmental exemplars makes determining how we ought to act or lead our lives more difficult:

Virtue ethicists seek answers to questions about what we should do and how we should live by considering what someone else who really possessed virtue to a high degree would characteristically do, and how they would live. And we have little idea of the answers to such questions in the context of environmental ethics because we have so few exemplars of the relevant virtues, real or fictional, if any.37

Our comparative lack of environmental virtue (and exemplars) compounds our epistemic problems in identifying and inculcating these same virtues.

Furthermore, environmental exemplars might manifest traditional virtues in unusual ways, may possess unfamiliar environmental virtues, and may question and undermine the status quo, such that there is greater disagreement over who counts as an environmental exemplar. Are activists who protest animal testing (even in medical research) exhibiting courage and benevolence, or sentimental vices that thwart the advance of medicine? Would environmentally virtuous agents endorse greater use of nuclear power as a low-emissions, efficient energy source? Disagreement seems likely in such cases, given the unfamiliar and often challenging actions of (possible) environmental exemplars. Indeed, given that environmental exemplars might challenge our ways of life and familiar values in radical ways, we may be prone to various forms of bias in assessing (p. 671) them—unjustifiedly reassuring ourselves that we are decent people, and that these individuals are instead extremists or fools.38

Sandler argues that having a theory of what makes traits virtues can help to address many of these worries.39 For example, Sandler can appeal to his own theory (discussed earlier) to argue that Rachel Carson is virtuous and James Inhofe is not, because the latter ignores the knowledge of climate scientists, undermines the future functioning of his communities, and fails to realize various non-eudaimonistic ends.

Similarly, Brian Treanor argues that narratives can help us to overcome extreme normative ethical relativism or nihilism.40 We find certain narratives have broad cross-cultural appeal, suggesting at least some universality to human needs and values. Furthermore, narratives can make abstract questions and values concrete, and help us to understand virtues as embodied in characters, fictional or not. They also allow us to take on a wider range of experiences—we get to see the world through the eyes of others, to experience situations and possibilities that we would never encounter in our own lives. “To understand simplicity, we tell the story of Henry David Thoreau; to understand attention and observation, we tell the story of Aldo Leopold.”41 Such narratives can contribute to our moral understanding and powers of discernment, thereby improving our ability to identify the environmental virtues and the virtuous.

But it is not clear that responses like those of Sandler and Treanor can adequately address our epistemic worries. Even if we embrace Sandler’s account of an ethically good human, we could well remain biased as we evaluate various lives—particularly ones that throw into doubt our own current ways of life. We may also lack adequate empirical knowledge to adjudicate between various proposed environmental exemplars. There are many details at stake in such cases, and we may well have difficulties in determining who is in fact environmentally virtuous, in part due to our difficulties in even recognizing what actions such virtues should encourage.

With respect to Treanor’s appeal to narratives as epistemic aids, note that we can be similarly biased or ignorant as we evaluate various narratives. Given a lack of adequate environmental virtue and knowledge, we may be too quick to embrace narratives that conform to our own misguided values. We might endorse narratives of a wide-scale return to a pristine nature that may, in fact, be neither realistic nor desirable, or embrace stories of miraculous technological solutions that reassure us in our faith that human ingenuity and growth will always prevail. There is also some risk that we will confuse aesthetically pleasing narratives with what is morally appropriate.42 Given our comparative lack of environmental virtue and knowledge, and biases of various kinds, we have good reason to fear that we will be poor readers of environmental narratives.

iv. Deepening Epistemic Worries

As EVE develops, there is a need to further engage with non-Western traditions of environmental virtue43—and this cannot be a shallow cherry-picking of ideas. We should aim at genuine discussions across cultures, with individuals from a variety of traditions exchanging ideas. Yet at the same time we need to allow for genuine questioning of (p. 672) moral traditions. Perhaps traits considered to be virtues (and in particular, thick expressions of these virtues) that were viable and appropriate under quite different circumstances are no longer environmentally virtuous, given a population of over seven billion humans, species loss, and climate change. There is a delicate balance required between being open-minded and maintaining a rigorous, critical eye when examining ways of life and traditions of virtue, including one’s own.44 Biases and a lack of environmental virtue and knowledge may hinder our efforts.

Allen Thompson suggests that we may need to find new thick expressions of current environmental virtues, or even recognize entirely new virtues as we face radical environmental changes that render current ways of life untenable:

novel forms of human goodness may emerge, or existing forms may undergo a radical transformation, as we adapt to life in a world where “natural” environments have been significantly transformed by human activities. [ … ] at least some environmental virtues of the future—the virtues of those living an ecologically sustainable form of life—may be quite different from the environmental virtues of today.45

Epistemic worries again arise. As Thompson notes, we may not now be in a position to properly imagine what new virtues or expressions of virtue might emerge in the future. But how will even future humans know whether they have discovered appropriate new expressions of virtues (or new virtues), or are instead veering into vice as they attempt to adapt to an unfamiliar, radically changing world?

Finally, consider again van Wensveen’s (2000) lists of 189 virtue and 174 vice terms. While we initially might take these extensive lists as demonstrating depth and nuance in our vocabulary of virtues and vices, difficult questions also arise. For example, do we in fact have 189 distinct environmental virtues? And if not, how many are there, and on what basis do we distinguish them? If we further engage in cross-cultural discussions of virtue, these lists may well expand significantly, further compounding the problem.46 How are we to identify and inculcate environmental virtues if we do not know what they are, how many there are, if they are compatible, and so on? Once again, given our limited environmental knowledge, generally low levels of environmental virtue, and our tendencies to bias and flawed reasoning, it seems there is much scope for error.

VI. Looking Ahead: Environmental Virtue Ethics and Psychology

EVE has much to gain from an ongoing, deep engagement with social psychology, environmental psychology, and related fields. Of course, work in ecology, biology, climatology, and related disciplines will remain highly relevant to those working in EVE; it is an environmental discipline. But psychology may offer particularly valuable insights for EVE as a virtue ethics. Beyond attention to ecosystem services and similar contributions to human well-being, we would do well to consider how engagement with the natural (p. 673) world contributes to our psychological flourishing. For example, there are many studies suggesting cognitive and emotional benefits to such things as walking in (or otherwise experiencing) nature.47 Relatedly, further consideration of the relationship between materialistic values, wealth, consumption, and well-being will be important as virtue ethicists strive to arrive at plausible, attractive models for flourishing, virtuous lives in sustainable societies.48 Appeals to such research may play a key role in convincing globally wealthy people that environmentally sustainable lives need not be ones of thwarted desires and self-denial.

Psychology and other social sciences will help us in finding ways for institutions to support individuals in developing and manifesting environmental virtues. While a virtuous person might make the right choices given her circumstances, institutions play a key role in improving these circumstances, in ensuring that better options are available. We might explore the potential of institutional “nudges” to encourage better, greener behavior and attitudes, though it could be that deeper institutional and societal changes will ultimately be needed.49 We might also consider ways in which social structures of various kinds (from networks of friends to more formal institutions) can help to provide circumstances that reinforce virtuous behavior, in addition to providing better options.50

Finally, lessons from psychology can play an important role in helping to overcome, at least to some extent, the epistemic worries facing EVE. Learning more about common biases in acquiring and assessing evidence, including confirmation bias and backfire effects, may lead to improved strategies for overcoming such biases.51 Similarly, exercises and studies in mindfulness and attention might help us to overcome the vices of inattention discussed by Jenni (2003). Such work seems promising in finding methods for improving our intellectual habits and character—which, in turn, can improve our moral discernment and understanding.52

The epistemic problems faced by EVE are not entirely unique. We face multiple wicked environmental problems across a range of scales (from local to global); any plausible moral theory will encounter significant difficulties in arriving at prescriptions that are epistemically well-founded. But EVE, given its emphasis on virtues and vices, may face certain distinct epistemic problems. In drawing upon relevant empirical work, we may have our best opportunity for overcoming intellectual biases and vices, identifying and inculcating environmental virtues, and setting in motion the social and institutional changes that will be needed if we are to navigate the myriad environmental problems ahead.53


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(1.) T. E. Hill, “Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments,” Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 211–224.

(2.) G. B. Frasz, “Environmental Virtue Ethics: A New Direction for Environmental Ethics,” Environmental Ethics 15 (1993): 259–274; D. Jamieson, “When Utilitarians Should Be Virtue Theorists,” Utilitas 19 (2007): 160–183.

(3.) R. Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 206; see also P. Foot, Natural Goodness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(4.) R. Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 93; cited in R. Sandler, Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 152.

(7.) P. Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004); P. Cafaro, “Thoreau, Leopold, and Carson: Toward an Environmental Virtue Ethics,” Environmental Ethics 23 (2001): 3–17; B. Shaw, “A Virtue Ethics Approach to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic,” Environmental Ethics 19 (1997): 53–67.

(8.) G. B. Frasz, “Benevolence as an Environmental Virtue,” in Environmental Virtue Ethics, edited by R. Sandler and P. Cafaro (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 121–134; K. J. Norlock, “Forgivingness, Pessimism, and Environmental Citizenship,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (2010): 29–42.

(9.) R. Hursthouse, “Environmental Virtue Ethics,” in Working Virtue: Virtue Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems, edited by R. L. Walker and P. J. Ivanhoe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 155–172; J. Kawall, “Reverence for Life as a Viable Environmental Virtue,” Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 339–358.

(11.) Note that a given virtue could be both environmentally responsive and productive, or justified, and so on. See Sandler, Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics, 42–43; R. Sandler, “A Theory of Environmental Virtue,” Environmental Ethics 28 (2006): 247–264.

(13.) See, for example, Hill, “Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments”; Frasz, “Environmental Virtue Ethics: A New Direction for Environmental Ethics,” Environmental Ethics 15 (1993): 259–274; L. Gerber, “Standing Humbly Before Nature,” Ethics and the Environment 7 (2002): 39–53; I. A. Smith, “The Role of Humility and Intrinsic Goods in Preserving Endangered Species,” Environmental Ethics 32 (2010): 165–182.

(15.) M. Pianalto, “Humility and Environmental Virtue Ethics,” In Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, edited by Austin, M., 132–149 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 143.

(17.) R. Fredericks, “Courage as an Environmental Virtue,” Environmental Ethics 36 (2014): 347.

(18.) Fredericks, “Courage as an Environmental Virtue,” 352–353; L. V. Wensveen, Dirty Virtues: The Emergence of Ecological Virtue Ethics (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books (Prometheus Press) 2000), chap. 8.

(19.) P. Cafaro, “Gluttony, Arrogance, Greed, and Apathy: An Exploration of Environmental Vice,” in Environmental Virtue Ethics, edited by R. Sandler and P. Cafaro (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 135–158; P. Wenz, “Synergistic Environmental Virtues: Consumerism and Human Flourishing,” in Environmental Virtue Ethics, edited by R. Sandler and P. Cafaro (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 197–213; J. Kawall, “Rethinking Greed,” in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, edited by J. Bendik-Keymer and A. Thompson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 223–239; J. Kawall, “On Complacency,” American Philosophical Quarterly 43 (2006): 343–355; M. D. Doan, “Climate Change and Complacency,” Hypatia 29 (2014): 634–650.

(21.) V. Tiberius and J. D. Walker, “Arrogance,” American Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1998): 382.

(23.) For more on this, see the ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren’s (2000) discussion of the logic of domination; K. J. Warren, Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

(25.) K. Jenni, “Vices of Inattention,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 20 (2003): 279.

(29.) See also J. Kawall, “The Epistemic Demands of Environmental Virtue,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (2010): 109–128.

(30.) J. Bendik-Keymer, “The Sixth Mass Extinction Is Caused by Us,” in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, edited by J. Bendik-Keymer and A. Thompson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 273.

(33.) B. Treanor, “Environmentalism and Public Virtue,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (2010): 21.

(34.) See also, for example, N. Snow, “Virtue and the Oppression of African Americans,” Public Affairs Quarterly 18 (2004): 57–74; N. Snow, “Virtue and the Oppression of Women,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2002): 33–61; Thompson 2012’s discussion of radical hope, A. Thompson, “The Virtue of Responsibility for the Global Climate,” in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, edited by J. Bendik-Keymer and A. Thompson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 203–222; and Norlock 2014 on forgiveness as an environmental virtue, K. J. Norlock, “Forgivingness, Pessimism, and Environmental Citizenship,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (2010): 29–42.

(35.) M. Ferkany and K. P. Whyte, “The Importance of Participatory Virtues in the Future of Environmental Education,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 25 (2012): 426.

(40.) B. Treanor, “Phronesis Without a Phronimos: Narrative Environmental Virtue Ethics,” Environmental Ethics 30 (2008): 361–379; B. Treanor, Emplotting Virtue: A Narrative Approach to Environmental Virtue Ethics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014).

(42.) See K. McShane, “Some Challenges for Narrative Accounts of Value,” Ethics & the Environment 17 (2012): 45–69.

(43.) Some such work is already being done—see, for example, John Patterson’s (1994) paper on Maori environmental virtues or the extensive literature on Buddhism and the environment. J. Patterson, “Maori Environmental Virtues,” Environmental Ethics 16 (1994): 397–409.

(44.) See Jesse Prinz, “The Normativity Challenge: Cultural Psychology Provides the Real Threat to Virtue Ethics,” Journal of Ethics 13 (2009): 117–144.

(46.) Daniel Russell refers to this general problem—of identifying and distinguishing particular, distinct virtues—as the “Enumeration Problem.” D. Russell, Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), chap. 5.

(47.) E.g., M. G. Berman, J. Jonides, and S. Kaplan, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” Psychological Science 19 (2008): 1207–1212; G. N. Bratman, G. C. Daily, B. J. Levy, and J. J. Gross, “The Benefits of Nature Experience: Improved Affect and Cognition,” Landscape and Urban Planning 138 (2015): 41–50.

(48.) E.g., K. W. Brown and T. Kasser, “Are Psychological and Ecological Well-Being Compatible? The Role of Values, Mindfulness, and Lifestyle,” Social Indicators Research 74 (2005): 349–368; A. K. Dutt, “The Dependence Effect, Consumption and Happiness: Galbraith Revisited,” Review of Political Economy 20 (2008): 527–550; S. M. Koger, and D. D. Winter, The Psychology of Environmental Problems: Psychology for Sustainability (New York: Psychology Press, 2011).

(49.) See C. R. Sunstein, and L.A. Reisch, “Green by Default,” Kyklos 66 (2013): 398–402.

(50.) See M. Merritt, “Virtue Ethics and Situationist Personality Psychology,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 3 (2000): 365–383; M. Nye and T. Hargreaves, “Exploring the Social Dynamics of Proenvironmental Behavior Change,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 14 (2010): 137–149.

(51.) M. Lodge and C. S. Taber, The Rationalizing Voter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); S. Lewandowsky, K. Oberauer, and G. E. Gignac, “NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science,” Psychological Science 24 (2013): 622–633; B. Nyhan and J. Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior 32 (2010): 303–330; J. Cook and S. Lewandowsky, The Debunking Handbook (2011), accessed July 24, 2015,

(52.) See also M. Ferkany and K. P. Whyte, “Environmental Education, Wicked Problems and Virtue,” Philosophy of Education (2011): 331–339.

(53.) I would like to thank Monica Kawall, Claire Sigsworth, and Vlad Vladikoff for helpful comments and suggestions.