Book review: Edited by Ronald Sandler and Philip Cafaro. Environmental virtue ethics. New York and oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005 [Book Review]

Ethics and the Environment 11 (1):133-138 (2006)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Environmental Virtue EthicsChristopher Freiman (bio)Environmental Virtue Ethics, edited by Ronald Sandler and Philip Cafaro. New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, pp. 240. ISBN 0-7425-3389-1 (hardback), $75.00; ISBN 0-7425-3390-5 (paperback) $28.95.For most of its life, environmental ethics has been the province of consequentialism and deontology. But a growing number of environmental ethicists have found these act-centered theories too thin and limited to attend to the complexity of ecological problems. Some see virtue ethics as promising a richer and more muscular approach to environmental ethics. The new anthology Environmental Virtue Ethics delivers on this promise.The book, edited by Ronald Sandler and Philip Cafaro, features fourteen selections—ten original contributions and four reprints of classic papers. The basic theme of environmental virtue ethics as a theory and Environmental Virtue Ethics as a volume is not that the environment is a bearer of rights or source of intrinsic value, but that an appreciation of nature is an ingredient in a happy and flourishing life. Virtue ethics considers character to be a central ethical concern and a critical part of living well. Rather than ask, as deontologists and utilitarians might, "What should I do?," virtue ethicists ask, "What should I be?"According to the first section of the book, environmental ethicists have implicitly been asking themselves this question for years. The first [End Page 133] two articles form a virtual genealogy of environmental virtue ethics, as Louke van Wensveen and Philip Cafaro examine virtue ethics' hidden role in the development of modern environmental ethics. Cafaro presents an account of historical exemplars of environmental virtue. Wensveen argues that the seeming poverty of "ecological virtue language" is partly due to environmental ethics' evolution within a specific cultural niche. Environmental ethics traditionally grappled with questions of practical political and legal import. As a result, the discipline adapted to the problems of rights and costs and benefits rather than character and human flourishing. Wensveen quips, "I imagine that appealing to a chemical company's love of nature in a court of law would be as effective as appealing to an ex-spouse's love of his or her children in a child custody case" (17). Nonetheless, Wensveen chronicles how virtue language has crept, largely unnoticed, into the environmental ethical dialogue.The second part focuses on the theoretical dimensions of environmental virtue ethics. The authors explore the ways in which virtue ethics can offer a fresh perspective on perennial environmental ethical questions. Thomas Hill's seminal "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments" is a welcome inclusion. Hill inspires the movement to environmental virtue theorizing when he advises us to ask not simply, "What interests or rights are at stake when one destroys the natural environment?" but also, "What sort of person would do such a thing?" Indeed, we might view this entire volume as an extended attempt to answer to Hill's question.The next part of the book investigates the problems of defining environmental virtue and distinguishing it from anthropocentric virtue. The fourth and final section applies environmental virtue theory to specific ecological problems. The two articles, written by Peter Wenz and Ronald Sandler, use the virtue ethical framework to interrogate the morality of consumerism and genetically modified crops, respectively. This final section helps to allay an enduring criticism of virtue ethics as a whole: that it cannot be applied to real world problems. Sandler's piece in particular profitably uses the tools of virtue ethics to critically reflect upon both the moral problems raised by genetically modified crops and their proposed resolutions.The role of enlightened self-interest in environmental ethics is a recurrent theme. Against a public dialogue that pits human interests and [End Page 134] ecological interests in conflict, this book is refreshing reminder that human flourishing and ecological flourishing are not enemies. Human interests, properly understood, are in harmony with the interests of the environment. We ought to view our relationship with nature as positive-sum.This positive-sum outlook permeates Philip Cafaro's piece, "Gluttony, Arrogance, Greed, and Apathy: An Exploration of Environmental Vice." Cafaro forcefully argues that the vices that hinder human flourishing also hinder...

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Christopher Freiman
College of William and Mary

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