Relativism, Ambiguity and the Environmental Virtues

Environmental Values 26 (1):91-109 (2017)


In response to the looming environmental crisis, many have recommended lists of environmental virtues. As a result, environmental ethics has been enriched by new virtue terms, such as ecological sensitivity or kinship with nature, and with new applications of older terms, such as benevolence or care. But how do we know which of these are genuine virtues? Although this question is important, it is difficult to answer for two reasons. First, we might think of 'nature' in a variety of ways, each of which presupposes ethical beliefs about the relationship between humans and the nonhuman world. Second, environmental virtue terms seem far less clear than our more familiar virtues, which calls into question both their intelligibility and usefulness as normative concepts. I respond to both problems by considering the environmental virtue of care for nature, and one plausible examplar of this quality, US nature writer and conservationist Rachel Carson. I claim that Carson's example illuminates this virtue, and that care for nature is one environmental virtue we have reason to recognise. While this account might seem vulnerable to a kind of relativism stemming from particular conceptions of nature, I claim that the threat of cultural variation need not shake our reflective confidence in recognising some ways of thinking about nature as excellent.

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