Chapter 11: Case Study: Environmental Virtue Ethics

11.1 Joseph Kupfer: Virtue and Happiness in Groundhog Day

The movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, might not strike you as a deep source of ethical instruction, but Joseph Kupfer[1]plumbs its storyline to reveal some delightful ethical insights. He notes that the movie starts with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return [2] as a prompt about reflecting on our life and whether it is good – are we living the “good life”? What is the “good life”? The ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle said that living virtuously is the good life. And while the meaning and purpose of life may be debated – is it peace? Love? Happiness? Nothing? – the philosophers identified the good life and happiness as eudaimonia, [3] human flourishing. They said virtuous action can’t guarantee eudaimonia, but acting virtuously is central to happiness and is the only thing within our power to secure our happiness.

In contrast to eudaimonia, the beginning of the movie Groundhog Day follows the life of Phil Connors (played by Murray), whose path is egoistic hedonism – the life of self-centered pleasure seeking – which is the perennial rival to virtue and happiness. Such a life illustrates that goodness is distinct from pleasure. In the movie, due to some karmic twist of fate, Phil Connors, a self-centered weatherman from Pittsburg, finds himself stuck in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeating the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over. Stuck as he is in a repeated series of daily events, he soon realizes (to his delight) that there are no consequences to his actions – if he breaks the law and ends up in jail on one day, he’ll still wake up the next morning and start the same day over again in Punxsutawney. His first impulse, as an egoistic hedonist, is to use this karmic quirk to his advantage in seeking as much pleasure as possible. Drinking, stealing, breaking the law, seducing women – Phil maxxes out on these pursuits, perfecting his skills of manipulation as he gains an advantage over the law, women, and mortality. But he soon realizes that these pursuits do not bring lasting happiness. He begins to despair, becomes suicidal, and then is even more depressed to find that he is helpless to even kill himself – after multiple attempts to take his own life, he always wakes up the next day to live it all over again. So this becomes one of the first key lessons in the movie about the path to a good life – a self-centered life of pleasure seeking ironically frustrates its own goals. Eventually Phil develops excellence of character, and becomes an exemplary person through virtuous pursuits, but not before learning the hard way that his selfish impulses toward immediate gratification undermine his ultimate happiness.

Thinking back to the discussion of spiritual anthropologies in chapter five, Niebuhr and Loy would likely agree that self-centered pleasure seeking would only mire us deeper in our delusion of self-importance, and indeed, deluged as Americans are by modern marketing messages, the delusion of self-importance carries a sort of empirical inertia that is hard to shake or un-do. So being forced to live a day over and over is indeed a rare way to gain some perspective on our daily lives, [4] and Groundhog Day’s suggestion, together with Aristotle, is that exercising the virtues leads to happiness because it develops our best potential, our true nature, our path to flourishing and to achieving, realizing, perfecting, and enjoying our natural potential.


While the movie Groundhog Day does not develop any overt environmental themes, a potential link here to environmental flourishing is that such a virtuous way of living might have the side-effect of being environmentally virtuous. By living a human flourishing that needn’t exploit others and the Earth and that finds contentment in excellence of character and the development of an enriching and intrinsically satisfying way of being, Americans might build into their lives a greater capacity to resist culturally and economically reinforced impulses to buy, consume, and waste. And because the virtues train us away from egocentrism, by inculcating a way of life that is not self-centered and does not reinforce the delusion of the self, they help us overcome the “human problems” that perennially keep us from individual and collective happiness. [5]

Kufper has more to say on happy living. He suggests that the good life consists in:

  • doing things that develop our distinctively human abilities,
  • engaging in activities that bring our natural endowments to fruition, such that we choose them for their own sake,
  • cultivating intellectual pursuits (such as in abstract reasoning with math proofs, scientific theories, or philosophical reflections), and
  • exercising phronesis – practical wisdom – the intellectual virtue concerned with moral action, so that we can live out the good life and appropriate responses to the knowledge we possess about “what’s going on.”

The good life also involves realizing that our aesthetic potential further contributes to our happiness, such as deepening our capacity for artistic appreciation, or developing talents for creating art (through music, poetry, painting, and the like). Kupfer also notes that the intellectual and aesthetic are non-moral dimensions of human nature, but the moral virtues of discipline, resourcefulness, and tenacity are needed for their cultivation.[6] Kupfer says developing our distinctly human abilities is valuable, for these abilities are our natural potential, which virtuous activities enable us to realize or perfect. The virtues correspond to the essential features of human nature and well-being.[7] Exercised and developed in these activities, the virtues are themselves human excellences and also make possible the perfecting of our natural gifts. For example, Plato says the virtue of justice is psychic order – reason, emotion, and appetite working in harmony. Such an ordered soul is the realization of our potential, and facilitates the overall flourishing of the individual.

Kupfer says that the natural results of the various intrinsically enjoyable activities are also good, such as health, knowledge, artistic beauty, and justice. We find these diverse activities worthwhile in themselves because they all develop our inherent abilities, and the beneficial results of the activities reinforce this development. As such, the goodness of life is found in activity: in the moral doing, the artistic making, the rational thinking. Pleasure is not the reason for engaging in the activities, but we naturally take pleasure in them. Because these activities are intrinsically worthwhile, they are self-sustaining. We do not have to look beyond them for pleasure. We don’t need further pleasure as an added attraction. Kupfer adds that we achieve happiness only by trying to do good for others. In pursuing moral ends we do virtuous things; becoming more virtuous, we forget ourselves and enjoy life. [8]


A community of Christians enjoy the “good life” as they, for a full week, discontinue the use of electricity, natural gas, and running water and use only renewable resources.  Photo credit: Wilhelmina Witt

  1. Kupfer's chapter on happiness and virtue in the movie Groundhog Day forms the basis for much of the discussion in this chapter: Kupfer, Joseph H. “Virtue and Happiness in Groundhog Day.” In Visions of Virtue in Popular Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999, 35-60.
  3. Eudaimonia comes from the roots eu (good) and daimon (spirit) – having a good indwelling spirit, which leads to happiness and human flourishing. This is the highest human good, so ethics and political philosophy aim to achieve it.
  4. The daily repeat helps because it reveals what daily life conceals about pursuing pleasure.
  5. One iteration of the “human problem” is that despite generally having a sense of how we should best live, we tend to fail to do so; another is the tragic tendency to defeat our own best potential due to fear or by failure to trust one another; another is the question “why can’t we just get along?”
  6. This point might need further elaboration. Why, after all, are the intellectual and aesthetic seen as non-moral? Here the sense is likely that in pure form, aesthetic appreciation has an objective dimension to it, as do intellectual pursuits. Learning something that is a simple matter of fact (as in science, for instance, or in learning that some music (like that by Bach) is better than other music (like that by Hitzhusen)) is not a claim about what is right or wrong morally, it simply acknowledges what is. However, undoubtedly there are intellectual and aesthetic claims that can be made with moral intent, or that have moral implications.
  7. See Kupfer, p. 40.
  8. Karl Johnson’s article about how fishing cultivates virtues is also instructive (Johnson, K. (1998). The Virtues of Fishing. In Genova, P., First Cast: Teaching Kids to Fly-Fish, pp. 6-8, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. Reprinted 2002, Texas Fish & Game, 17(12). Reprinted as “Time Well Wasted” in 2004, New York State Conservationist, 58(5)). We might also question the earlier lines about goodness being found in activity – in doing, making, and rational thinking. This seems to be the “western” ideal, which is often contrasted with an “eastern” ideal more tuned to contemplation, of being rather than doing. Typically, we criticize a “western” approach as lacking balance – of favoring doing/making/rationality – ratio – over being/receiving/intuition – intellectus -- instead of balancing the two. But note here that Kupfer is highlighting the “unselfing” that results from virtuous pursuits. Perhaps it is the fact that we understand that these pursuits shape us, and form us into something better, rather than assuming that we are already the measure of goodness and excellence, that allows such doing to have an unselfing capacity? Note that Kupfer here is also highlighting altruism - doing good for others - which has a self-liberating effect.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.