Archive for May 18th, 2010


Thompson and Bendik-Keymer on Virtue

May 18, 2010

Two of my friends and colleagues, Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, answer questions on environmental virtue ethics. This is a fun interview and well worth your time. Both Allen and Jeremy are leading lights in the burgeoning movement in environmental philosophy called “environmental virtue ethics.” Frankly, I think virtue is mostly hogwash, but it’s my job to think it’s hogwash. You can make your own determination by reading what they have to say.

Allen: Exactly. Talk of “virtue” in the academy as well as in national political discourse is usually just about traits of an individual’s character. But when Aristotle thought about virtue -which was simply another word for human excellence – he folded his discussion of personal character into a systematic examination of politics.

Jeremy: Allen and I want to be true to this insight. For example, part of climate change is that it’s one of the main drivers of “the sixth mass extinction” currently underway. I don’t know if most people are aware of this, but in this century about half the life forms on Earth are under the hatchet. There are many reasons for this -overpopulation, climate change, poor resource use, and so on. Now, the problem is that most people have enough respect for life to not want this to happen. Respect for life is part of every major world religion, and most nonreligious ethical people embrace it. We all want to bring our kids up in a world that is full of life. Maybe not with lots of mosquitoes, but they seem to be doing fine. Yet even with this attitude, most of us unknowingly contribute to mass extinction every single day.

Allen: What Jeremy’s saying is that our individual characters are not the only problem. Even reasonably good people – people whose environmental sensibility may seem all right – are still contributing to something that they recognize, on reflection, is really bad -killing off half the species on the planet. So what’s the disconnect?

One problem is that adapting individual character alone won’t cut it. We need institutions that positively shape our collective effect on other forms of life. Good environmental character won’t snap into place effectively until our collective presence, via political and economic approaches, does as well. In some cases, that even means key elements of our organizational systems -such as our institutional approach to the global commons or the valuation of non-human beings, must alter. Like we said, we have to change who we are – both individually and collectively – to deal with the problems of climate change.

IMHO, Allen and Jeremy are right to expand the virtue discussion well beyond traits of character. I completely agree that we need to develop institutions that address our environmental issues. I just can’t past the action guiding problem.

In the end, this is more-or-less an inside-baseball discussion. (Go Yanks! Sorry Sox.) I agree, for the most part, on their conclusions.

Sorry, btw, for the dearth of posts. I am totally, totally on vacation this week.