Louke van Wensveen (2000)

“The Emergence of Ecological Virtue Language”


1.       Virtue/vice language sounds old-fashioned

          a.       Represent tradition

          b.       Inspire mixture of awe and resentment


2.       Examples of ecological language involving appeal to virtues/vices

          a.       Care for our bioregions

          b.       Respect trees

          c.       Show compassion for animal suffering

          d.       Be humble and wise in use of technology

          e.       Be frugal and creative in use of limited resources

          f.       Have hope in face of impending global disaster


          g.       Avoid arrogance of anthropocentrism

          h.       Stop being cruel in our treatment of animals

          i.        Admit we habitually project our fears onto nature

          j.        Halt our greed and manipulative exploitation of natural resources


3.       See van Wensveen’s list of ecological virtues/vices

          a.       Typical virtues/vices appealed to by environmentalism (list p. 11, top)


4.       All ecologically sensitive philosophy, theory, ethics uses such virtue language

          a.       Mainly when adopt “hortatory, personal and reflection filled modes of writing”


5.       If eco virtue language so pervasive in env literature, why low profile in environmental philosophy?

          a.       What accounts for the “methodological virtue blindness” of env. ethics?

6.       Because

          a.       Most in env. philosophers not virtue ethicists and focus instead on rights, values, duties, principles and consequences

          b.       Virtue language--talk of respect, sympathy, care, concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship and responsibility–is seen as subjective, emotional, feminine, belonging to private and not public sphere of debate

          c.       Litigation is important for environmentalism and virtue language works less well there than talk of rights and obligations and consequences

7.       Mainly because: virtue/vice carry stigma of sounding old-fashioned, preachy and self-righteous and this leads to resentment

8.       So theorists appeal to “attitudes” or habits rather than “virtues/vices”

          a.       Attitude of humility, new attitude of caring for creation, reject aggressive attitude towards nature and anthropocentric and greedy attitudes, habits of suppression and failing to be honest with our feelings and hence experiencing compassion

          b.       But these are clearly virtue sentiments and encourage us to grow from vice into virtue


9.       Why did this language emerge in such great proliferation despite fact it has stigma of preachiness?

          a.       Virtue language is appealing when we think problems serious and need change

                    i.        Virtue language involves both intention and action and seriousness about thorough and lasting change

                    ii.       We use virtue language when willing to make commitments and express these publicly

                              (1)     E.g., use of “courage” and “loyalty” during war

          b.       Lynn White’s influential “Historical roots of our ecological crisis” claims what is needed is a change in attitude

                    i.        Critics and supporters of White’s thesis focused on attitudes

          c.       Virtue language fits well with ecological world view

                    i.        Virtues encourage integration emotions, thoughts and action and this fits with ideal of personal wholeness may ecologically minded people spouse

                    ii.       Cultivation of virtue depends on narratives, vision and power of examples and does not require external commands or force

                              (1)     This fits with preference of ecologically minded people for change through conviction rather than coercion


10.     One: An “integral discourse”            

          a.       A distinct moral discourse with internal unity/logic rooted in a distinct practice

          b.       Integral not because it represents single underlying world view

                    i.        For there are many and different ecological worldviews

          c.       But because it arises out of (practical base in) the env. movement

          d.       Just as underlying practice of business generates a unique set of virtues: being tough, efficient, shrewd

          e.       So underling practice of environmentalism engenders not toughness, but humility and sensitivity; not efficiency, but sustainability; not shrewdness, but wisdom

          f.       In response to worry that environmentalism is too diverse cites Bryan Norton’s claim for convergence at practical level of anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric perspectives

          g.       Typical virtues/vices appealed to by environmentalism (list p. 11, top)


11.     Two: Diverse discourse

          a.       Internal diversity of EVE language (EVE=environmental virtue ethics)

          b.       Different environmentalists focus on different constellations of virtue/vice and have different cardinal virtues and vices and sometimes even reject a virtue that others highlight

          c.       What is cardinal to one eco minded person may be minor (or objectionable) to another

                    i.        “Care taking utmost responsibility of our time, stewardship is our place in the web”

                    ii.       “Stewardly care is presumptions” as “still feel in our gut we’re above and do not have to fit in”

          d.       Cardinal vices also differ

                    i.        Hubris (our attempt to play God) for some

                    ii.       Alienation and domination for others

                    iii.      “Saving and protecting nature” seen by most as essential virtues, but by others as vices (nature does not need us to survive)


12.     Three: A dialectical discourse

          a.       Logical/psychological tensions in EVE language that produce desirable results

          b.       Virtues of earthiness and attunement (key env. Virtues), pull us in different directions (p. 14)

                    i.        Earthiness: practicality, no-nonsense attitude, bluntness needed to offer down to earth solutions to env. problems.

                    ii.       Attunement: opening of all senses to greatest degree of sensibility, gentleness, dwelling on details and personal vulnerability

          c.       These two virtues ask different things from us (hardening or softening of our hearts), but both needed and each balances the other

                    i.        Attunement w/o earthiness, leads to escape of nature-romanticism


13.     Four: Dynamic discourse

          a.       EVE is emerging language and keeps changing

                    i.        This is good

          b.       New scientific and other knowledge requires new virtue language

          c.       When we believed earth could with right technology feed all people, virtues like simplicity and responsibility are important

          d.       But when abandon that belief and start to worry about nonhuman life, humility, vulnerability and kinship become important


14.     Five: Visionary discourse w/o social ethic

          a.       This is a problem

15.     EVE language express interest in cultivating and transforming own and other people’s characters for a social vision

          a.       To change current social systems in light of a vision of eco sustainable societies

16.     But this EVE language is too often not connected to a social ethic, that is, a detailed analysis of how embodying these virtues will bring about desired social change.

          a.       Calls to be frugal, careful, wise are not followed by analysis of how this will bring about desired social change

          b.       Virtues not tied to legal, communal and institutional changes required to build sustainable societies.

17.     A discourse committed to social change w/o a developed theory of social change

18.     EVE needs to connect itself with a detailed social ethic



20.     EVE language deserves more attention

21.     Environmental theory can gain much from focus on virtues

22.     Virtue language is a rich moral discourse rooted in transformative practice

23.     Traditional moral languages (Kantianism/rights, utilitarianism) have difficulties adapting to the needs of ecological crisis

          a.       Rights for trees?

24.     EVE offers chance of achieving moral breakthroughs, fresh ways of looking at environmental problems

25.     It would be irresponsible to not pay attention to virtue language coming out of the env. movement