Virtues and Climate Change

Stephan Beck, The Evergreen State College


The goal for this section of an Introduction to Ethics curriculum is for students to come to understand the role that virtues play in our perceptions of and our decisions about ethical situations, and to understand how virtue concepts apply to the issue of climate change.

Learning Goals

Introduction to Ethics courses commonly survey a range of ethical frameworks, including virtue ethics. Students can come to a better understanding of both the promise of and the difficulties with virtue ethics by paying attention to the role that virtues can play in responding to climate change.

The goal of this section is an essay of 3-5 pages. The essay is to respond to the question, "What virtues does our society need to foster in people in order for us to be able to respond appropriately to climate change?" The essay is an opportunity for students to display their understanding of virtue concepts in detail as well as what role they play in living an ethical life.

Context for Use

The amount of time that teachers dedicate to this section may vary, but a minimum of two weeks of class time is recommended. This section could profitably be used as a culminating experience for a course, towards the end of the term.

Description and Teaching Materials

This section of the curriculum follows this sequence of activities:
  1. Students do the first conceptual workshop on virtues;
  2. Students read selections from Aristotle on virtue ethics;
  3. Students attend a lecture on virtue ethics;
  4. Students do the second conceptual workshop on virtues;
  5. Students read selections on environmental virtue ethics, and climate change;
  6. Students view the film "An Inconvenient Truth";
  7. Students do a conceptual workshop on the film; and,
  8. Students write an essay following the assignment guidelines.
(1) First Conceptual Workshop on the Virtues

Please see Attachment A. This workshop is designed to bring forward and sharpen students' initial conceptions of virtues, prior to reading Aristotle.

(2) Selected Readings from Aristotle

Students will read Nicomachean Ethics, selections from Books I through V.

(3) Lecture on Aristotle and Virtue

The lecture covers central concepts for Aristotle's ethics, including: telos, eudaimonia, excellence in connection with function, Aristotle's conception of the soul, virtues of character and intellect, and the doctrine of the mean.

(4) Second Conceptual Workshop on the Virtues

Please see Attachment B. This workshop is designed to improve students' understanding of Aristotle's accounts of the virtues, and to contrast his account with their own, as developed in the first workshop.

(5) Readings on Environmental Virtue Ethics and Climate Change

Students read Thomas Hill, "Ideals of Excellence and the Preservation of the Environment" and consult resources from

(6) "An Inconvenient Truth"

The film is chosen so as to focus students' attention on the ethical dimension of climate change, as well as the role of character in responding to it. To be considered is not only the character of Al Gore but also explicit and implicit treatment of character traits generally in the film.

(7) Workshop on "An Inconvenient Truth"

Please see Attachment C. This workshop is designed to draw out concepts of virtues from the film and to draw upon the earlier work done on virtues generally.

(8) Essay Assignment

Students are given the following directions for their essay:
In a 3-5 page essay, take a position on a set of two or three virtues that are especially important for individuals and for society to cultivate, so that we can respond appropriately to climate change. In the course of your essay, you will need to summarize the nature of the threats as well as the individual and social obstacles to responding to the threats. You will also need not only to name but also to describe in detail the virtues that you take to be important. Be sure to give good reasons why these virtues will help us to overcome the obstacles you identify. Draw upon our texts, the film, as well as our workshops in developing your reasons.

First Conceptual Workshop on the Virtues (Microsoft Word 30kB Nov7 11)
Second Conceptual Workshop on the Virtues (Microsoft Word 27kB Nov7 11)
Workshop on "An Inconvenient Truth" (Microsoft Word 32kB Nov7 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The main concern is that some students may respond to "An Inconvenient Truth" negatively due to viewing Gore entirely as a partisan political figure. The important point is to direct such responses into a discussion of the character traits in question. Rather than to allow the focus to be on Gore as a political figure, it is important to direct students to consider what virtues he displays or fails to display, and further, what ideals of character emerge from a discussion of him as an example. If the discussion takes this as a focus, it shouldn't matter whether students admire or don't admire Gore. Instead, they will be led to think about the sorts of virtues that are particularly important in connection with climate change.


This essay will be assessed according to the depth and detail of the discussion of the virtues that the student chooses, as well as the cogency of reasoning in showing why these virtues are especially relevant to overcoming the obstacles described. Strong papers will not just name but describe the virtues in detail, and support these descriptions with relevant material drawn from readings, workshops, and the film.

References and Resources

Evergreen State College