A good ethical theory requires both logical rigor and intuitive appeal to provide an effective tool for understanding what is right and what is wrong. In the field of environmental ethics, there has been significant scholarship in developing a duty ethics based on the inherent value of nature, most notably by Paul Taylor. Taylor indeed provides a logically clear argument for protecting the environment by building on the principles he calls the biocentric outlook (Taylor, 99). While this scholarship has been helpful in offering an explanation for what those who value the environment intuitively recognize, some have noticed that it does not provide positive answers to how we should live (Cafaro, 31). Virtue ethicists, on the other hand, have specifically addressed this question (Sandler, 6), and the result is a very accessible theory that harks back to the classic naturalists like Thoreau (Cafaro). Environmental virtue ethics has its own problems, however; sometimes seems that virtue ethicists are valuing human “flourishing” or “experiences of wonder” before the natural environment they’re claiming to uphold (Rolston, 70). This paper attempts to provide a framework for addressing this critique of environmental virtue ethics by defining the limitations of normative ethical systems and outlining guidelines for environmental virtues as well as some of the advantages a system of virtue ethics has over other ethical approaches.
In order to discuss a system of environmental virtue ethics, it is necessary to determine what we mean when we speak of an ethical system. Ethics is a “branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of ultimate value and the standards by which human actions can be judged right or wrong.” (Britannica, “Ethics”) So, an ethical system is a logical framework for evaluating human behavior according to standards of right and wrong. Additional insight is gained by examining the formal conditions presented by Taylor (Taylor, 27.). A summary of these conditions is that an ethical system must be: general in form, universal in application and, as a standard of right and wrong, it must outweigh any non-moral concerns.
Because of this universal nature, these systems are described as normative ethics (as opposed to meta-ethics, which describes the nature of ethics itself, or applied ethics which applies an ethical standard to a practical situation). Any discussion of norms quickly encounters the problems familiar to the other branches of philosophy: Are universal norms? If there are how can we know what they are? How do I demonstrate that something is a norm? These questions are far beyond the scope of any one system of normative ethics and certainly beyond this paper. Thus, we must leave an elaborate justification for the reason for adopting a specific set of norms to different discussion.
To that end, I propose that the purpose of a system of ethics should be to identify a self-consistent set of normative claims that...