Chapter 11: Case Study: Environmental Virtue Ethics

11.3 Religion and Phil

A related point can be emphasized here in how we think about religion and spirituality in relation to the environment. If we only see spirituality and religion as emotional boosters to get environmental policy passed, then that might be a helpful social force, but it seems to miss the religious and spiritual point. One way of being interested in religious influence is to see it as a complementary advocacy force to environmental or other movements. Another way of seeing religious practice is as a transforming force for individual and collective good living – reducing control issues, exploitative urges, and the like. Religions can serve as a source of the cultural and spiritual transformation that Gus Speth says is needed to address environmental issues. [1] As elsewhere in this book, this is not to say that religion should be promoted as the answer, but our science and policy approaches by themselves have not and will not be adequate to the task of solving our environmental problems, so it behooves us to seriously consider the complementary means of spiritual and cultural transformation that religions offer towards environmental citizenship and sustainability.

Recall, however, that when we say “religion” here, we intend the functional definition alluded to in chapter three, which goes beyond those organized groups typically labeled as “religions.” Rather, we think of religion as whatever system of thought provides the answers to life’s big questions of meaning, purpose, and the nature of reality. So systems of philosophy and other “not-typically-deemed-religious” worldviews can also be highlighted in this dialogue. Certainly the perspectives of philosophers themselves, like Aristotle, deserve equal consideration as well. One helpful introduction to classical philosophical ideas about the good life (among scores now available on the internet) is the Aristotle and Virtue Ethics Crash Course video, which describes Aristotle’s virtue ethics ( Phil Connors in Groundhog Day seems to be just the sort of person, by movie’s end, who strikes a balance between extremes as a living example of Aristotle’s golden mean. Phil’s character learns to be gracious and helpful, knowing just what to say every time – he is self-deprecating when others praise him for helping them; he puts others at ease while being helpful; he helps others perform at their best by providing support like a true friend. Phil has gained practical wisdom, phronesis, through habituation, and becomes an exemplar for others.

Phil’s character resonates with the lessons taught in many religions – indeed, the directors of the film have been delighted to receive many letters from religious adherent around the world, thanking them for capturing the essence of their religious perspectives on living a good life. Yogi’s, fundamentalists, Buddhists, Catholics, and others have all found points of resonance. Phil has seen reality for what it is – unselfed by his experiences, he no longer pursues the vain impulses of the self, but rather strikes a middle path between extremes, finding balance and happiness along the way.

The example Phil provides in the movie gives us much food for thought. Viewers themselves may be drawn to the idea of using their (endless?) days to pursue virtue and perhaps find lasting happiness. Salvation, enlightenment, unselfing, peace – humans tend to only dimly see the secrets to happiness, often mistaking treasures for inconveniences when mired in self-preoccupation. The self-forgetful fruits of pursuing virtue, as Phil discovers, lead to excellence and contentment, to a good life of eudaimonia.

  1. As referenced in chapter 2.5, Speth stated that "The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation." If we all lived our values, would we need any environmental policies?


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