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.


  1. This quote caught my eye:

    “in this century about half the life forms on Earth are under the hatchet.”

    I wonder what their definition of “life form” is – does it include microbial, which is the largest group of life forms?

    But lets say this stat is correct – that 1/2 of all life forms are really under the hatchet today.

    In order to make sense of this stat, I need to know how this stat has changed over time.

    For example, what percent of life forms are under the hatchet over time.

    I do not know this – nor do I know how good our data is on this question.

    Since the climate is always changing – it seems to me that a certain percentage of life forms is always under the hatchet.

    There have been many times in the past when the rate of change of the climate is at least as great if not greater than at present (going into and out of ice ages, Dalton Minimum solar variability conditions, astroid impacts, etc.) – so what percent of life forms was under the hatchet during these periods?

    Personally, I am a bit skeptical that the number of life forms under the hatchet today is really any different than the number of life forms under the hatchet at any given time before humans were on the scene.

    Perhaps 1/2 of all life forms are under the hatchet at all times during the history of life on Earth?

    I don’t know.

    If I was a dinosaur – I might feel that my group of life forms was under the hatchet 63 million years ago. I might try to freeze climate as it was 63 million years ago.

    If I was a wooly mammoth – I might feel that my group of life forms was under the hatchet 10,000 years ago. I might try to freeze climate as it was 10,000 years ago.

    And so on.

    I guess virtue is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Actually, Rick, “under the hatchet” refers to species which are likely to be lost due to an extinction rate which is far above the normal, or background extinction rate. Despite your skepticism, these phenomena are well-understood and it is also well-understood, not just by those who spend their professional lives studying these things but by anyone who bothers to pay a blind bit of notice, that extinction rates today are well in excess of what they normally are, and that this increase has taken place over the relatively recent past, i.e. within the past two thousand years or so. Most global environmental excursions are not of the drastic and sudden sorts that you list, and when we do have these occurring in the geological record, they are accompanied by minor or major mass extinctions.

  3. Here’s a comment/question from an outsider (and Sox fan). I recall someone saying to me maybe ten or fifteen years ago that we need to find out how an ethic of energy conservation had come to pass. And I said I thought it had a lot to do with the dramatic increase in the price of gasoline. No, he said, that wasn’t it. Is this whole environmental virtue thing the same as that? Because as a public policy guy, I think that virtue is good for the last ten percent after you’ve gone ninety percent of the way by changing incentives. I do think that virtue (or do I just mean ethics in general?) is an important reason why people don’t kill or steal, but I think that might decay pretty fast if you got rid of cops. And people will vote more if we make it easier rather than lecturing them, etc. Call me a materialist, but…

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