On green living as a virtue

Last week I was reading The Earth will teach you by Kevin Durrant, a little book on ecology and theology. One little section that I found useful was a discussion of ‘consequentialist’ and ‘virtue’ ethics.

A consequentialist approach to ethical living “involves performing good actions because we can see or imagine the beneficial consequences those actions will have.” Most of our ethical decisions are made this way. Sometimes we might see the benefits directly. At other times, such as buying Fairtrade products, we have to imagine the difference we’re making. And of course there are usually benefits for ourselves, in terms of reputation, or just a case of the warm fuzzies.

When it comes to the environment, the consequentialist approach is a poor motivator. We don’t see the benefit of reducing our carbon footprint. When we read about coal power stations or look at the neighbour’s SUV, we might not imagine we’re making any difference at all, and our enthusiasm for green living may evaporate entirely. If we’re relying on the hope of making a difference to motivate us, our aspirations to sustainable living may, ironically, be psychologically unsustainable.

That’s where we need the virtue approach to ethics to motivate us too. Rather than weighing up the costs and benefits, virtue ethics encourages us to live out our identities, our good character. “It’s not that we shouldn’t be spurred on by the hope of making a difference,” says Durrant, “it’s just that our prime motivation needs to be to live out who we are.”

George Marshall says something similar in his book Carbon Detox:

“Stop thinking that you, little you, are going to ‘save the planet’. The real reason you should reduce your own emissions is because you want to live differently. When you detox you will do it as a statement of who you are – a smart and aware person living in the 21st century.”

Durrant draws a parallel with voting.

“Of course we vote because we want to see a preferred candidate elected. But we also vote because of who we are – people who believe in democracy, who treasure and uphold freedom and justice; and to honour the sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to be citizens rather than subjects. Voting is an expression of our values and principles, not just a mechanism of gaining certain results. It’s still a good thing to do even if our preferred candidate has no hope of getting in. The same is true of our environmentally friendly actions; they are an expression of our values and principles. We do them to remain true to ourselves; we do them to be consistent, to be whole. We are glad when they do achieve the results we hope for, but we still do them even when they don’t or when it’s impossible to tell.”

Virtue is a word we don’t use much today, but it’s a useful notion. We don’t live ethically just because we want to make a difference. We do it because we’re people who believe in justice, who value the beauty and integrity of nature, and who want to see people and nature thrive.

9 Comments on “On green living as a virtue”

  1. Martin Bartlett February 24, 2015 at 9:50 pm #

    G’day Jeremy,

    Thank you for your posts, whilst I have recently unsubscribed from dozens of other sites and commentators I have collected along the way, however I still look forward to yours.

    I thought you might be interested in some books I am reading at the moment.

    I think you have already mentioned Stuffication so I’ll skip that. I just started Terra Nova – The World After Oil, Cars and Suburbs by Eric W. Sanderson. Whilst it is US centric it is well produced with lots of great illustrations.

    As a parent of a 9yr old son I highly recommend Raising Generation Tech by Jim Taylor. Whilst it is aimed at parents I think it is also a good insight into the changes the internet has brought to us all –I was surprised when reminded has only been around for about 15 yrs. Reading it I continually made links with other issues related to consumerism and the current political environment here in Australia as well as the UK (from where I originate) and the US.

    I would be surprised if you haven’t come across Treading Softly – Paths to Ecological Order by Thomas Princen. It has been a couple of years since I read it but it just made so much sense.

    If you are ever in Australia and need some pointers – happy to assist.

    Good luck & best wishes

    Martin Bartlett

    • Jeremy Williams February 25, 2015 at 10:04 am #

      Thanks Martin. Stuffocation is the only one I’ve come across out of those, but will bookmark them for later. I’m quite interested in the effects of the internet on our personal psychology and our culture. It still feels like an immature technology to me, like we’re only just beginning to use it well, in a way that serves us.

      I’m often struck by how different life is for my children, growing up with the internet from day one. All your curiosities so easily statisfied, for example – does that make you more or less curious over time? Does it devalue knowledge?

      I may turn up in Australia one day. I am actually an Australian citizen, through my mum, though I’ve never visited.

      • Martin February 25, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

        I don’t think very many people are using the internet and technology in a way that is in our long term best interests. It is useful in situations like this and helping some community organisations and mobilising some people to action but on the whole it seems that many people are more connected to a virtual and unrealistic and most unhealthy world than they are to what is happening with their friends, family and the world around them. The book is a helpful check on the relationship we and our children have with technology and pop culture. Treading Softly is well worth a visit.

  2. DevonChap February 24, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    One of the many problems problem with a virtue based approach is that it is easy to be concerned about the form of things. “I buy organic goods because that is what virtuous people do and I want to be one of them” rather than looking at the outcomes.

    The world being a complex place where often what appears moral has immoral results and vice versa it isn’t enough to say I meant well. Many terrible crimes have been committed by people of great moral character, sometimes because their moral virtues differed from others, sometimes because they took that virtue to a logical conclusion.

    The final point is of course who’s ethics, who’s virtues?

    • Jeremy Williams February 25, 2015 at 10:09 am #

      That’s true, and why I see virtue ethics as a useful motivation, rather than a decision making mechanism in its own right. It’s something that keeps us going, that we depend on for living out our values and principles.

      Choosing which values and principles we wish to live by requires a whole variety of approaches, for sure.

  3. sprokkelen February 27, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Reblogged this on sprokkelen and commented:
    Dit is echt een goed blog en een hele goede post. Ja t is in het Engels. Het gaat over je motivatie om groen en duurzaam te leven, met een kleine ecologische voetafdruk.

    Schrijver onderscheidt twee gronden van motivatie: vanuit de gevolgen en vanuit je deugd (virtue).

    Veel goed gedrag doe je vanwege de vervelende gevolgen van slecht gedrag: je rookt niet omdat het zo ongezond is en je wilt geen longkanker. Mocht je niet zoveel deugd in jezelf hebben, dan moord je niet vanwege de zekerheid dat je de rest van je leven vastzit.

    Maar hoe zit dat met je ecologische voetafdruk? Ik kan dan wel trouw mijn ledlampjes uitdoen en mijn verwarming laag zetten, op wereldschaal heeft dit geen effect. Als we het allemaal doen, is het effect ook klein, want bijzonder veel milieuschade wordt door grote bedrijven veroorzaakt. Dus vanuit gevolgen kan je jezelf niet motiveren om groen te leven.

    Mijn motivatie om te leven met een kleine voetafdruk is dat ik wil leven volgens mijn eigen principes. Ik wil uitstralen wie ik ben, mezelf goed voelen in wat ik doe en laat, en achter de keuzes staan die ik maak. Ik ben overtuigd dat we met zijn allen hier in het westen een gigastap terug moeten doen in voetafdruk.

    Dat is volgens deze engelstalige blogger de motivatie vanuit deugd.
    Je innerlijke motivatie om goed te doen, ook al weet je dat de gevolgen minimaal zijn.

    Lezen dat blog!

  4. lunny06 February 28, 2015 at 7:33 am #

    Love this post Jeremy. This is a big part of one of the ideas I put out in the world through Teaspoons of Change (personal choices, decisions and actions that have a positive impact on people and the planet creating teaspoons of change) with the key message being celebrate the things you can do and move yourself along the spectrum of things you might like to do for more positive impacts.

    The big hurdle I find in the social justice / aid and development world is that people are so busy ‘saving the world’ they are oblivious to their own personal choices and actions. Having been angry, opinionated, judgemental and kind of an a-hole in my early 20’s telling people what to do I much prefer the positive flattering approach as I feel it at least gives people an opportunity to get on the spectrum and do some self discovering.

    Great post – thank you!

    • Jeremy Williams March 2, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

      Yes, and I like your mention of moving yourself along the spectrum. That’s something I’m challenged about from time to time, not settling for what we’ve achieved so far, but staying motivated to go further.

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