Green Aristotle: Virtue, Contemplation and the Ethics of Sustainability

by Liam Heneghan


Theories of war provoke snarling debate because we are never at peace. Similarly, calls for sustainability nettle us when accompanied by declarations of civilization’s imminent collapse. Certainly there are several lines of investigation indicating that the collective needs of humanity cannot be met in perpetuity and that current demands are already imposing an undue burden on systems that support human life on Earth (my 3quarksdaily colleague, Kevin S Baldwin, writes about it here). Sustainability initiatives, therefore, require us to consider a range of corrective actions. Consistent with what sustainability advocates call the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit, changes are needed in the economic, social and ecological realm. Beyond these immediately pragmatic considerations, calls for environmental sustainability also amount to calls for ethical change. The 1987 Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The definition suggests an ethical dimension to sustainability. That is, sustainability requires a reflection on balancing the obligations of the moment against our obligations to humans both unknown and unborn. But why should we be concerned about these humans of the future, anymore than we are about those who went before us? Certainly they are of curiosity value, but are they ethically of concern to us? Sustainability may necessitate a vigorous upheaval in values.

Sustainability ethics, a subspecies of environmental ethics, refers to a set of positions that emerge when the environmental state of things is not simply regarded as irritating, but as immoral, bad, wrong or evil.[1] Environmental ethics in general and sustainability ethics in particular shares a framework in common with the rest of contemporary ethical philosophy, though it also has a suite of unique problems. Although most environmental ethics is human-centered in which environmental damage is largely considered reprobatory because of the consequences for human welfare, there are, more controversially, a set of ethical positions that center on concerns beyond those of our own species. In common though with other normative ethical frameworks, environmental ethics can be approached from a so-called consequentialist, deontological, or virtue ethical perspective.

Briefly, consequentialism, as the name implies, determines the rightness of actions based upon the consequences of actions. Typically the consequentialist strives to maximize the greatest good among a range of outcomes. One can determine the greatest good solely in relation to the agent making the decision – me, for instance, though this egotistical consequentialism can produce unpalatable results from the perspective of others (the non-mes!). Agent-neutral versions are more typical. I might, for example, make ethical decisions that produce the greatest good for all sentient beings, and in this way we can environmentalize consequentialist ethics. Deontological ethics are those that emerge from an examination of principles or rules rather than the value of those things that are affected by actions. Finally, virtue based ethics, deriving from Aristotle (though really they predate him), argues that there are certain human virtues that should be cultivated in order for people to live good lives. One would preserve aspects of the environment, or concern ourselves with the needs of others, in this view of things because to do so corresponds with the exercise of a particular virtue, the practice of which simultaneously brings us pleasure.

From here on I am concerned only with Aristotle’s ethics. Not because other approaches are irrelevant but because Aristotle’s ethical approaches seem to accord with the needs of sustainability in ways that, I think at least, has not been adequately explored.


Just as tree rings can be used to age a tree, the accumulation of translations of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics dates the bookish man. I, for example, have accumulated one translation for each of my five decades. As we move along perhaps you will notice that I am not a seasoned Aristotle scholar, merely an interested student of the Ethics (my model is Joyce not Nussbaum). When I informed my friend and DePaul University colleague Professor Will McNeill who has written extensively on Aristotle (especially in relation to Martin Heidegger’s work) that I was ruminating on a sustainability ethic based upon the Nicomachean Ethics he peered at me above his bifocals and thundered “Aristotle never used the term ‘sustainability’.” McNeill is persnickety on such matters. However, I am interested in this project for a few reasons, not least of which is to put my several translations to good use. Sustainability is a newer term, but it is one that gathers up several perennial questions: how to endure in a recognizably inconstant world; how to sensibly discharge commitments to oneself and to others; how to be good. There has been a tendency in recent presentations of sustainability solutions to resort heavily to innovations in the technical aspects of both the natural and social sciences rather than to examine how sustainability’s perennial themes have been taken up in disciplines that have examined them the longest. We may have explored the conditions of the sustainable life for a quarter century, but philosophy has examined the good life for a couple of millennia. Undoubtedly the humanities have secured a place in discussion of sustainability, and undoubtedly these disciplines and practices are influential, nevertheless humanists are a rarity in governmental sustainability committees, and this absence may be consequential. Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps you’ll correct me.

Let me mention also that I am working with a group assembled in a research collaborative network through Arizona State University whose goal it is to examine sustainability questions relevant to cities across the globe. Although my suggestions here do not reflect the work of the group, nonetheless we have collectively agreed that questions of interdisciplinarity across the sciences and humanities are relevant and worth close inspection. My definition of interdisciplinarity is that it is what emerges when scholars know their limits in at least two disciplines – here I explore the bounds to my knowledge of Greek Ethics. I’ll write more on the specifics of the ASU collaboration at a future point. Now let us Aristotle along…


[Spoiler alert: below I give away the plot of Nicomachean Ethics, summarizing it briefly if not well!] A distinctive aspect of Aristotle’s ethical thinking is that it is political. It concerns not only what is good for an individual but also for a community. A signature enquiry in the Nicomachean Ethics, one of Aristotle’s three principle works on ethics, concerns how life should be conducted in a way that leads to happiness or human flourishing (eudaimonia). Happiness is the end we desire for its own sake, and is not an increment towards another goal. Though we may quibble about what makes us happy, many of the presumed constituents of happiness are, however, merely subordinate means to the ultimate ends of happiness in Aristotle’s sense. That is, happiness as Aristotle defines it is not instrumental and is an end sufficient in itself. So receiving three wishes, for instance, might make a person happy but they do so primarily because their fulfillment leads to the felicitous completion of their life goals. Since humans are distinctively rational animals, human life is most appropriately guided by the exercise of reason. The judicious exercise of this reason, which disposes a person to live in accordance with certain virtues, is required to achieve the good life. That being said, humans have irrational desires, and for a person to be virtuous the rational and irrational must cooperate. That part of our mind devoted to discharging our fleshly needs must be yoked to higher reason.

The virtues that Aristotle esteems include those related to thinking and those that relate to character, the moral virtues. In each case the virtue is exercised as a mean between a deficiency and excess of a particular trait. This “golden mean” reflects the fact that virtue emerges as a compromise between the rational and irrational elements of the soul. The virtues listed by Aristotle include uncontentious, indeed classical, ones, courage, temperance, generosity, and so on. Courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. In addition to the classical virtues, Aristotle also discusses virtues that seem idiosyncratic to the contemporary reader. Liberality, our disposition in relation to spending money, magnanimity (greatness of soul in Joe Sachs translation) as a mean between vanity and smallness of soul, appropriate ambition, friendliness, wittiness and so on.

For those of us of a practical persuasion so far so good! A person cultivates their happiness by the rational exercise of those virtues, the exercise of which would have positive implications for the life of one’s fellow citizens. Indeed the exercise of the virtues where they curb squandering of resources, as they must if one is temperate, is precisely what is called for by sustainability advocates. Courageous, temperate, friendly, and witty people, to restrict our list, are, besides, a joy to all. The fate of their happiness is linked to the civic welfare. Apart from the salutary implications that flow from the exercise of virtues for the individual, her community, and the environment, Aristotle makes several very general remarks about the moral virtues that highlight for us the usefulness of his ethics for sustainability thinking. For instance, there can be no rule book for ethical behavior, it is an imprecise science. Furthermore, although the virtues represent a mean condition this does not refer to a simple arithmetic mean; anger is justified sometimes as long as it does not overwhelm reason. Sustainability like the exercise of the virtues is guided by a practical rationality, and cannot be thought of in terms of simple prescriptions. Sustainability is a process not a particular end.

Aristotle assumes that his readers are somewhat ethical to begin with. One is already in the ethical circle and the instructions of the Nicomachean Ethics can both justify and explain the ethical life. Likewise one should perhaps already have some cordial feelings toward nature before one advances in sustainability practice. This is perhaps why parents with younger children oftentimes can revive their environmental attitudes. I recently saw a young boy on an Evanston sidewalk halt like a cherubic English pointer to observe a bird. His father more hushed and earnest than David Attenborough whispered, “I think it’s a sparrow!” Parent and child, mutually instructing.

The ethical life takes practice besides. Like one does with a craft, one practices ones virtues; the pleasure one gets in doing the right thing shows that one is progressing. One is not simple educated about sustainability; one has to dive right in. First one recycles and gets a little shiver of satisfaction, after this one lowers the thermostat at night. Before you know it you are defecating in a composting toilet!

A corollary here is that those who have no environmental solicitude to begin with may not get it at all. No amount of fine talk about matters environmental will convince those who are not disposed in the first place. For instance, when Mitt Romney says “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family”, it may indicate that sustainability initiatives, environmental ones at least, would not fare well in a Romney administration.

There is a certain pleasing resonance with Darwinian thinking in Aristotle’s account of ethics. The end is happiness, in Aristotle’s rarified sense, for an individual, but that end can and should be satisfied in our social relations. This is why, one supposes, that Aristotle devotes two full chapters to friendship. One does not become virtuous locked away alone in the boudoir. The best type of friendships for Aristotle are those infrequent ones where one cares for another, not for the sake of mere utility or pleasure, but because “they wish for good things for one another in the same way insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves.” (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII 3).

There are two components to sustainability in the Brundtland Commission view of it: living within limits and commitment to the needs of others, both the poor in the present world and its future denizens. Aristotle’s ethics seems to perform well in thinking ethically about both aspects of sustainability. Professor John O’Neill from the University of Manchester makes this point extremely well in a paper entitled “Citizenship, Well-Being and Sustainability: Epicurus or Aristotle?[2] I encourage you to read it – you’ll see there that Aristotle scholarship is emphatically not all fun and games.


In addition to pragmatic Aristotle, the one that seems friendly to sustainability thinking, and the one I have been extolling here, there is however another component to Aristotle’s discussion that has caused faint consternation among commentators over the years. This is Aristotle’s claim that cultivating the contemplative life is ultimately the best one for people.

Arguments in favor of contemplation as the peak of the good life for humans are developed in tandem with Aristotle’s discussion of determining human ergon, or function. The ergon of an axe is achieved in chopping wood, a spoon’s ergon is found in the serving of food. Each type of thing will have an ergon specifically suited to its own kind. In searching for the ergon of a given thing one can ask what it does that makes it uniquely what it is – what specifically is it designed to do. The ergon of the human, according to Aristotle is “activity of the psuche [very loosely, soul] in accordance with a rational principle.” The soul, as conceived here, has both lower capacities concerned with nutrition and locomotion, but uniquely we guide ourselves by the exercise of rationality in accordance with the virtues. That part of our rationality given to contemplation is the only activity loved for its own sake and therefore contemplation surpasses all other things.

Summarizing this conclusion philosopher Thomas Nagel, quipped: “Aristotle believes, in short, that human life is not important enough for humans to spend their lives on.” Others have argued, however, that Aristotle provided an overly simplified view of unique aspects of human nature in the ethics at least. Aristotle distinguished between practical wisdom and philosophical wisdom as representing different forms of rationality, the former being the active condition by which right action are chosen in a given situation, the latter concerns itself with the eternal metaphysical truths. Though the exercise of theoretical wisdom is regarded by Aristotle as more important to achieving the overall goal of happiness, his is not an unproblematic position to take. Not least among the problems is that the sort of abstract contemplation that Aristotle envisions is not one, in fact, that reliably produces conspicuous happiness (however we define it) for humans. Besides, philosophical contemplation is precisely the sort of activity that resulted in the Greek philosopher Thales falling down a well, much to the entertainment of a (more practical) serving-girl.

In discriminating among the three candidate “good lives” that Aristotle provides us with – the political, the philosophic and the voluptuary – the late Oxford philosopher Kathleen Wilkes suggested that we dispute the arguments Aristotle presented in favor of the philosophic life, and instead she reduces the hard-and-fast distinction between the two forms of reasoning. Wilkes concludes that “the life governed by practical reasoning should be preferred if we regard the ergon of man straightforwardly as that activity the performance of which distinguishes man from all else.”[3] Not coincidentally, I suppose, Wilkes played a role in restructuring the educational systems in former Communist countries. In her obituary her collaborator Bill Newton-Smith wrote: “she was the first of that university's philosophers to respond to the invitation of the dissident philosophical community in Prague to conduct clandestine seminars there. She taught in crowded flats with the same liveliness, imagination, clarity and determination to uncover the truth that she practised in Oxford.”[4]

Although we may just have to accept the evaluation of Aristotle scholars that Aristotle’s advocacy of the contemplative life, though undeniably, from his perspective, the most important practice for us mortals, is nonetheless not fully consistent with themes developed elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics. We may simply have to disagree with him on the question of priorities. That being said in extolling contemplation over practice Aristotle’s ambivalence accords with a major fault line in environmentalism: between a slightly misanthropic nature solitary on one side, and the politically engaged activist on the other. We have Thoreau ambulating around Walden Pond or John Muir swaying in a juicy Douglas Fir pitted against David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club, or Rachel Carson warning us about synthetic pesticides. The line is not quite so bright between the individuals it’s true; but the line is bright enough between the moods. It may be that environmentalism will always need its prophets, its wilderness inclined ascetics, in the way philosophy will always need it contemplatives. But this surely is not the life for most of us.


Those who in their disdain for the term “sustainability” complain that no one would settle for a sustainable marriage, have, perhaps, not experienced the rigors of that particular institution. Marriage, like friendship and other civic engagements is the battlefield in which one learns to exercise the virtues. One cannot do so alone. If we want the good life, the very best life, we will concern ourselves not only with the fleeting pleasures, but will concern ourselves with the fate of others, the presently living and the eventually living.

The Nicomachean Ethics can be read as the prolog for Aristotle’s Politics. In fact, the ethics ends on a cliff hanger, the last sentence reading: “If anything partial has been well said by our predecessors”, Aristotle wrote, “let us try to go through it, and then, on the basis of the collection of constitutions, to look at what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities… So having made a beginning, let us discuss it.” Let us indeed discuss, at this seemingly important moment, more than two millennia later, what political structures and what ethical dispositions are important to preserving our cities, and our human and planetary future.

[1] Adapted from Elliot, R. (2007) Normative Ethics, in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (ed D. Jamieson), Blackwell Publishers

[2] John O’Neill (2006) Citizenship, Well-Being and Sustainability: Epicurus or Aristotle? Analyse & Kritik 28 p. 158–172.

[3] Kathleen V. Wilkes (1978) The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle's Ethics. Mind New Series, Vol. 87, No. 348, pp. 553-571


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