Ecological virtue

Ecological virtue

Pope Francis discusses ecological virtue in Laudato si and provides illustrations of what it might be, in many cases very beautifully; however, he does not provide a systematic account of ecological virtue. That is the aim of this article based on the virtue scheme of Saint Thomas Aquinas. As a prelude to that, it should be noted that all the world religions and many environmental organisations speak in similar terms.

Ecological virtue

How might the classic cardinal human virtues apply to ecological questions?

  • Prudence – that is wisdom to understand creation and to recognise the importance of the limitations of human understanding. The articulation of something like the precautionary principle being key ‘Thus if a running horse be blind, the faster it runs the more heavily will it fall, and the more grievously will it be hurt’ (the last reply to in II:II 49 is also highly relevant). Nonetheless, prudence should not be seen as ‘timidity or fear’ and we should take risks for justice and the common good but not for greed. Aquinas articulates a simple version of modern experimental science but also provides a nuanced account that might help distinguish the correct weight to be given to science that is less straightforwardly empirical.
  • Justice – ‘The just man gives to another what is his, through consideration of the common good…justice is observed towards all.’ Climate change is already affecting many of those who have the least responsibility for it and it tends to be people who are marginalised who live in polluted locations with poor access to resources. Justice is the virtue which keeps greed in check. For Aquinas, the details of justice are left to something akin to the idea of subsidiarity to determine.
  • Courage has already been needed to stand up to ecological injustices, vested interests and to wilful ignorance: this courage will continue to be needed.
  • Courage – includes (1) magnificence – accomplishment “of great and lofty undertakings, with a certain broad and noble purpose of mind,” (2) confidence that “with this the mind is much assured and firmly hopeful in great and honourable undertakings”, (3) patience – “the voluntary and prolonged endurance of arduous and difficult things for the sake of virtue”, and (4) perseverance – “the fixed and continued persistence in a well-considered purpose” which will all be vital to address the global ecological crisis. You will note that there is no discussion of aggression here, where Aquinas discusses aggression it is defensive rather than offensive. Courage has already been needed to stand up to ecological injustices, vested interests and to wilful ignorance: this courage will continue to be needed.
  • Moderation – Aristotle illustrates moderation by noting that, for health, an athlete would eat more than someone less active. Aquinas extends the Aristotelian subjects of moderation of food, drink and sexual activity by suggesting that a virtuous person would not ‘desire too many’ things and that the things desired would be simple. Given the connection between consumption, economic growth and stress to the Earth System, this is perhaps the most important ecological virtue. For Aquinas moderation or temperance is also the virtue which opposes pride which was original sin, where Adam wanted to be more than he could be and has parallels with those in humanity who want to control creation (for material gain) rather than cooperating with the creator.

The human virtues have resonance outside religious thought with Aristotle being a key thinker here. Virtues that are more specifically inspired by Christianity (1 Corinthians 13:13) are the cardinal ‘theological’ virtues, though these also have had a connection to ancient Greek thought and certainly have resonance beyond Christianity

  • Faith – ‘assent of the intellect to’ something unseen, which is necessary for all worldviews and science beyond basic experiments. In a broader Thomist context, this does not justify a leap of faith that humans cannot cause our own extinction – that would be the vice of presumption.
  • Hope – ‘the object of hope is a future good, difficult but possible to obtain’. Greta Thunberg repeatedly uses this idea of hope when talking about environmental issues such as climate change. Aquinas discusses relevant vices opposed by hope which are presumption and despair. With presumption being humans relying on what is unreasonable in relation to their own power or God’s power. This would include humans assuming they can control the Earth or that God would suspend free will to prevent humans causing their own extinction. For Aquinas despair is caused by sloth and may explain current and potential reactions to climate change and other environmental issues. This suggests hope should help those affected by climate despair.
  • Love – For Aquinas, the focus of love is God and neighbour; however, he does argue that humans can love other creatures ‘to God’s honour and man’s use; thus too does God love them out of charity’. Aquinas goes beyond stewardship of creation to something more mutual – i.e. because creation is from God, ‘every creature participates in the Divine goodness, so as to diffuse the good it possesses to others’ which has parallels to Laudato Si and makes clear that creation does not just have value in the services that it provides to humans. As illustrated by the crucifixion love often demands sacrifice.

Hopefully, this will prompt thoughts about what ecological virtue might look like and, by cultivating and applying these virtues, to environmental challenges we can come closer to a right relationship with God, fellow humans and the rest of God’s creation.


Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

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Author: Mark Charlesworth

Published: 14th September 2020

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020