An interview with Ronald Sandler

Character and Environment is the first book-length defense of a virtue-oriented approach to environmental ethics. Ronald Sandler brings together contemporary work on virtue ethics with contemporary work on environmental ethics.

Question: What does it mean for an environmental ethic to be virtue-oriented?

Ronald Sandler: Virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism are widely recognized as the three primary forms of ethical theory. They are distinguished by their central evaluative categories, as well as by what they consider the point of ethics to be. In virtue ethics, the central evaluative concepts are the virtues, rather than consequences or duty/obligation, and ethics is foremost about living well and flourishing, rather than promoting certain outcomes or fulfilling one’s duty. What makes an environmental ethic virtue-oriented, then, is that it evaluates our relationships, actions, practices, and policies regarding the environment in terms of virtues and vices, and that it emphasizes cultivating environmental virtue—i.e., those character traits that are conducive to promoting human and nonhuman flourishing—in addition to performing particular actions.

Q: What are some of the advantages of a virtue-oriented environmental ethic over other approaches to environmental ethics?

RS: One of the primary advantages is that the language of virtue and vice is far more diverse, rich, and nuanced than the languages of duty and consequences. There are hundreds of virtue and vice terms—”honesty,” “compassion,” “generosity,” “optimism,” “courage,” “temperance,” “respect,” “gratitude,” “appreciation” (and their corresponding vices). This allows for more informative and subtle evaluations of both character and conduct than do 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, which is, for example, a source of basic resources, knowledge, recreation, renewal and, for some, spiritual experience, but at the same time 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 neither simple nor static. The wilderness and land use issues that dominated early environmentalism are still with us (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 nanotechnology. Given the wide array of environmental issues, environmental ethics requires a dynamic and diverse set of evaluative concepts, which, again, virtue-oriented ethics provides.

A further advantage of virtue-oriented ethics lies in its focus on character. As I just mentioned, 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 crucial to an effective environmental ethic.

Q: Is a focus on character new to environmental ethics?

RS: Environmental philosophers have often emphasized the nonanthropocentric value of environmental entities (nonhuman animals and ecosystems) and the importance of ecological context, in addition to social context, to human flourishing. This is a significant departure from the dominant frames of philosophical ethics, according to which the primary ethical domains are the personal and interpersonal. Moreover, although environmental ethicists often employ virtue-oriented evaluation (e.g., respect and love for nature), discuss the role of ecological context and experience in human flourishing, and appeal to role models (e.g., Henry Thoreau and Rachel Carson) for guidance, environmental ethics has been poorly informed by contemporary work on virtue ethics. What I have done is bring together contemporary work on virtue ethics with contemporary work on environmental ethics, updating and improving each in light of the other. This is thus the first book-length defense of a virtue-oriented approach to environmental ethics.


Q: What are some of the more important environmental virtues?

RS: Different environmental virtues are important in different contexts. For example, among the virtues of sustainability—character traits that are conducive to promoting environmental sustainability—temperance, simplicity, farsightedness, attunement, and humility are crucial character traits. Among the virtues of respect for nature—character traits that involve appropriate responsiveness to the value that the environment and nonhuman living things have in and of themselves—care, compassion, nonmaleficience, restitutive justice, and ecological sensitivity are crucial. And when it comes to communion with nature, character traits such as wonder, openness, attentiveness, aesthetic sensibility, and love are crucial. As I mentioned earlier, the environmental virtues are legion, and different environmental virtues are operative in different contexts. The character traits most conducive to being a successful environmental activist are not always the same as those that make for a good environmental scientist, for example. There is, therefore, no one way to be environmentally virtuous.

Q: In what ways is the virtue-oriented approach significant for moral philosophy?

RS: As I say in the preface, although this is a book on environmental ethics, it is also a book on virtue ethics. I defend a particular theory of virtue, virtue-oriented principle of right action, and virtue-oriented method of decision making. Moreover, the primary project has implications that extend beyond environmental ethics to moral philosophy more generally. It demonstrates the ways that an ethic of character can and should be informed by environmental considerations. It also helps to justify virtue-oriented ethical theory. Ethical theories must be assessed on their theoretical and practical adequacy with respect to all aspects of the human ethical situation: personal, interpersonal, and environmental. To the extent that virtue-oriented ethical theory provides a superior environmental ethic to other ethical theories, it is to be preferred over them not just as an environmental ethic but also as an ethical theory.