Chapter 11: Case Study: Environmental Virtue Ethics

The previous chapter on animal and food ethics revealed an important facet of moral reasoning: often those who disagree about “how we should live” are basing their views on quite different beliefs about how ethics should be done. Someone who believes humans have no right to kill animals may believe that using an animal rights framework is the correct ethical approach, while a livestock farmer who treats animals well and butchers them as painlessly as possible may believe that an animal welfare view should be the basis of our judgement. Often, those who argue about sensitive issues like these talk past each other if they don’t acknowledge (or realize) that they are starting from different ways of reasoning. And as we discussed in chapter 4, even if they acknowledge different approaches to ethical reasoning, opponents in an argument can also differ, often without realizing it, in what they believe counts as knowledge, or as reasonable, in the first place. This deeper level of ethical foundations and beliefs can make all the difference in understanding the views of someone who holds “opposing” views on environmental issues.

For instance, regardless of whether one argues from an animal rights or animal welfare view, both systems remain within the scope of modern rational choice systems of ethics, which sometimes simply disregard other systems of reasoning as invalid (for example, Peter Singer’s animal welfare arguments simply disregard religious views based on a belief that such views are not rational and can safely be ignored; meanwhile, most of the world’s people identify themselves as members of some religious tradition, and likely do accept at least some religious beliefs as valid). The belief that secular systems of philosophy and ethics could or should be sufficient, such that religious views can be ignored or disregarded, is itself a belief, however. Much like the verification principle of logical positivism, which posits that only things that can be verified can be known — a principle that fails its own criteria, because it can’t be verified! — these (also ultimately faith-based) views have held an influential place in universities and modern secular states, but they[1]can miss (and might even be disrespectful to) the ethical perspectives that most people hold. Rational choice theories of ethics are not the only basis for moral reasoning and figuring out the right answers to ethical questions, and while such approaches can be helpful in some contexts, or in resolving some ethical disputes (utilitarian reasoning is helpful in many cases, for instance, as is considering rights), they often fail on the whole to provide answers across an entire worldview. [2] To the extent that most people draw on different ways of thinking to live and understand their lives, this isn’t noteworthy, but to the extent that it is implied that these systems should be privileged above other forms of moral reasoning, it may be wise to broaden our thinking.

This chapter aims to explore an alternative approach to ethical reasoning – virtue theory. We will not explore virtue theory, however, just for the sake of adding another theory to the pot. My interest is to give equal consideration to an ethical theory that seems more resonant with the moral/ethical approaches and instincts and traditions of many religious communities. We will do so by way of the movie Groundhog Day (1993) and a book chapter by Joseph Kupfer that renders the movie explicitly in virtue terms.[3]

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Virtue Ethics

  1. This is not to suggest that philsophers typically dismiss other views, or that secular thinkers aren't often inclusive and respectful; rather, it is just to note the privileged view that sometimes is promoted.
  2. The conventional American farmer who finds some agreement with animal welfare views likely finds much more resonance with religious or virtue-based perspectives on ethics. 
  3. With special thanks to Jim Tantillo and Richard Baer for developing many of the insights discussed 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.


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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.