Dirty Virtues in Sustainable Development: An Appeal
by Louke van Wensveen
Since publishing Dirty Virtues, I have exchanged academia for the independent, yet engaged work of being an 'organic intellectual'. I have facilitated sustainable development in settings ranging from the multinational chemical industry, international development cooperation, national and local church programs, and municipal government. In all of these contexts, I have continued to observe and reflect as a virtue ethicist committed to the vision of a flourishing world.
Virtue Cultivation Integrates Hardware and Software
After more than a decade of practical engagement, I find the role of virtue cultivation in building a sustainable global civilization seriously underrated. Much attention goes to 'fair and green' technology, business cultures, policymaking, and consumer decisions. At the same time, character formation continues to take a back seat. Yet everywhere I have looked, those who successfully integrate the available hardware and software of sustainable development, are people who joyfully cultivate the 'dirty virtues' of sustainable living. Virtue puts fire in the formula's.
Virtue Blindness in Theory and Practice
In Dirty Virtues I consider four reasons for the methodological "virtue blindness" of environmental ethics in the twentieth century. Three of these can also help us understand and address the blind spot for virtue cultivation in sustainable development practice.
In Dirty Virtues I propose the following explanations (pp. 5-7):
In my experience, the first, second, and fourth reasons also factor into the virtue blindness of sustainable development practice. Many of the engaged people I have met judge virtues to be too private, too vague, and/or too outdated to be incorporated in policymaking, training programs, and other practical tools. To them, it is simply unimaginable why virtue cultivation would be relevant to sustainable development.
Additional Practical Concerns
Other concerns also add to the reticence to incorporate virtue cultivation in sustainable development programs. I phrase them here as eight common objections:
These are serious objections. Each reflects a concern that is worthy of consideration. Some (or similar objections) have already been addressed in the academic literature of environmental ethics (e.g., Newton, 2003; Hursthouse, 2007; Sandler, 2007). Other objections remain open. In either case, the discussion needs to move into sustainable development circles.
Overcoming Virtue Blindness
Encountering one objection after another over the years, I have surprised myself in not giving up on the view that virtue cultivation is both possible and necessary for sustainable development. In fact, the more doubt I encountered, the clearer I came to see how 'dirty virtues' figure in a flourishing world.
My challenge now is to put this vision into words and images that communicate beyond academia. I hope that others who share the vision will join me in removing the blinders and showing the promise of virtue cultivation in sustainable development.
Brummen, 6 May 2012
Hursthouse, Rosalind. 2007. “Environmental Virtue Ethics.” In Rebecca Walker and Philip Ivanhoe (eds.), Working Virtue: Virtue Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 155-171.
Newton, Lisa. 2003. Ethics and Sustainability: Sustainable Development and the Moral Life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge. Sandler, Ronald. 2007. Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sandler, Ronald. 2007. Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.
The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator…
[R]espect, sympathy, care, concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship and responsibility....These more local moral concepts, because of their dualistic construal as feminine, and their consignment to the private sphere as subjective and emotional, have been treated as peripheral and given far less importance than they deserve.
[M]any of our environmental challenges are longitudinal collective action problems. When faced with such challenges, an ethic is needed that emphasizes sustained commitment, the development of communities of agents, and the importance of doing one's part even when others fail to do theirs. The constancy and centrality of a person's character in orienting her life, in addition to her episodic actions, is thus crucial to an effective environmental ethic.
[O]ur flourishing and nature’s flourishing are necessarily intertwined; it is no accident that the same actions and the same personal characteristics allow us to be good neighbors and citizens, and good environmentalists.