Last week I was reading The Earth will teach you by Kevin Durrant, a little book on ecology and theology. One little section that I found useful was a discussion of ‘consequentialist’ and ‘virtue’ ethics.
A consequentialist approach to ethical living “involves performing good actions because we can see or imagine the beneficial consequences those actions will have.” Most of our ethical decisions are made this way. Sometimes we might see the benefits directly. At other times, such as buying Fairtrade products, we have to imagine the difference we’re making. And of course there are usually benefits for ourselves, in terms of reputation, or just a case of the warm fuzzies.
When it comes to the environment, the consequentialist approach is a poor motivator. We don’t see the benefit of reducing our carbon footprint. When we read about coal power stations or look at the neighbour’s SUV, we might not imagine we’re making any difference at all, and our enthusiasm for green living may evaporate entirely. If we’re relying on the hope of making a difference to motivate us, our aspirations to sustainable living may, ironically, be psychologically unsustainable.
That’s where we need the virtue approach to ethics to motivate us too. Rather than weighing up the costs and benefits, virtue ethics encourages us to live out our identities, our good character. “It’s not that we shouldn’t be spurred on by the hope of making a difference,” says Durrant, “it’s just that our prime motivation needs to be to live out who we are.”
George Marshall says something similar in his book Carbon Detox:
“Stop thinking that you, little you, are going to ‘save the planet’. The real reason you should reduce your own emissions is because you want to live differently. When you detox you will do it as a statement of who you are – a smart and aware person living in the 21st century.”
Durrant draws a parallel with voting.
“Of course we vote because we want to see a preferred candidate elected. But we also vote because of who we are – people who believe in democracy, who treasure and uphold freedom and justice; and to honour the sacrifices of those who made it possible for us to be citizens rather than subjects. Voting is an expression of our values and principles, not just a mechanism of gaining certain results. It’s still a good thing to do even if our preferred candidate has no hope of getting in. The same is true of our environmentally friendly actions; they are an expression of our values and principles. We do them to remain true to ourselves; we do them to be consistent, to be whole. We are glad when they do achieve the results we hope for, but we still do them even when they don’t or when it’s impossible to tell.”
Virtue is a word we don’t use much today, but it’s a useful notion. We don’t live ethically just because we want to make a difference. We do it because we’re people who believe in justice, who value the beauty and integrity of nature, and who want to see people and nature thrive.