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Thoreau's Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue

Virtue ethics is commonly taken to be one of the central approaches to ethical theory. Although virtue ethics can take many forms, in broadest terms its focus is on qualities of human character and how these contribute to—and even constitute—living a flourishing human life. Virtue ethics contrasts with ethical approaches that focus on good or bad consequences such as utilitarianism or on adherence to principles or duties an approach usually associated with Kant.

Before the middle of the twentieth century, virtue ethics had been somewhat moribund, but in the last few decades it has undergone something of a revival.

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Ethicists have returned to examine the virtue ethics developed by Aristotle and have endeavored to create their own, modern forms of virtue ethics, influenced by Aristotle's work. A further aspect of the revival of interest in virtue ethics has been the excavation of the work of other past thinkers to consider whether they in fact advocated some form of virtue ethics. Thoreau's Living Ethics falls into this last category. Cafaro's book is an examination of Henry Thoreau's ethics.

Philip Cafaro

It explores both the way in which Thoreau's work reveals him to have adopted a kind of virtue ethic and the content of this ethic. In undertaking this task, Cafaro draws primarily on Thoreau's most famous book, Walden , but also discusses Thoreau's journal writings and other texts such as The Maine Woods and his influential essay Resistance to Civil Government.

Cafaro's book thus provides something of an overview of Thoreau's work in general and a more specific account of Thoreau's ethics. Across all these areas of human life, according to Cafaro, Thoreau sees the flourishing life for humans in terms of the virtues. Cafaro lists more than virtues advocated by Thoreau in the pages of Walden alone pp. Although Thoreau's work is known widely for a number of reasons not least because of his opposition to slavery and his influential writing on civil disobedience , he is probably best known as a nature writer.

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It is here that Cafaro's analysis he is an environmental philosopher is particularly interesting. Recognition of this intrinsic value in nature, Cafaro argues, was for Thoreau part of what it is to flourish and to live a virtuous life. Those who recognize environmental values will adopt particular virtues. Worries about the appropriation of wild places by human development are particularly prominent in Thoreau's work, as Cafaro points out. Thoreau's environmental ethic, however, was not wholly centered on wild places.

Thoreau's Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue by Philip Cafaro

His understanding of human virtue and flourishing, according to Cafaro, also led him toward vegetarianism. Although Thoreau considered sympathy for the suffering of animals important, he also suggested that eating meat offends the virtues of purity and of limitation of appetite. Cafaro's account of Thoreau's virtue ethics, then, draws out clearly, and in detail, how human flourishing might relate to thinking about, and acting in, the natural world. This is clearly a worthwhile task. Given that Cafaro readily considers how Thoreau's ideas might be applicable in the modern world, however, I could not help wishing that, in this chapter, he had engaged more closely with both work in current environmental ethics on environmental pluralism and pragmatism, for instance and even more with work in current virtue ethics.

Why Every Student in America Should Read Henry David Thoreau's "Walden"

Such a wish may be churlish, however, given the interesting nature of the chapter in its present form. Thoreau's approach to ethics is not presented as being entirely unproblematic; Cafaro considers a number of objections. For instance, some might consider that the emphasis on the virtues of for instance heroism and intellectual cultivation in Thoreau's account makes his ethics elitist in a potentially troubling way—he seems to maintain that some people are better than others. Cafaro, in response, bites the bullet on this though not finding the account especially troubling.

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This defense of Thoreau's account of the virtues is one of many such defenses found throughout the book. Indeed, some readers might find that Cafaro's exposition of Thoreau's work, while clear and thoughtful, tends to lack a critical edge. But again, this may be unfair. Certainly, there are, especially later in the book, moments of disagreement albeit sympathetic agreement. But these criticisms of Thoreau's work are unusual. More frequently Cafaro uses Thoreau's texts as the basis for a hortatory message to his readers, suggesting ways in which the current world is grappling with the same concerns as those Thoreau was addressing.

In response to these hard-hitting truths, Cafaro lays out a comprehensive plan for immigration reform that is squarely in line with progressive political goals.

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He suggests that we shift enforcement efforts away from border control and toward the employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. He proposes aid and foreign policies that will help people create better lives where they are. And indeed he supports amnesty for those who have, at tremendous risk, already built their lives here.

Above all, Cafaro attacks our obsession with endless material growth, offering in its place a mature vision of America, not brimming but balanced, where all the different people who constitute this great nation of immigrants can live sustainably and well, sheltered by a prudence currently in short supply in American politics. Thoreau's Living Ethics is the first full, rigorous account of Henry Thoreau's ethical philosophy.

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Focused on Walden but ranging widely across his writings, the study situates Thoreau within a long tradition of ethical thinking in the West, from the ancients to the Romantics and on to the present day. Philip Cafaro shows Thoreau grappling with important ethical questions that agitated his own society and discusses his value for those seeking to understand contemporary ethical issues.

Environmental Virtue Ethics. There is one certainty regarding the human relationship with nature-there is no getting away from it. But while a relationship with nature is a given, the nature of that relationship is not. Environmental ethics is the attempt to determine how we ought and ought not relate to the natural environment.

A complete environmental ethic requires both an ethic of action and an ethic of character. Environmental virtue ethics is the area of environmental ethics concerned with character. It has been an underappreciated and underdeveloped aspect of environmental ethics-until now. The selections in this collection, consisting of ten original and four reprinted essays by leading scholars in the field, discuss the role that virtue and character have traditional played in environmental discourse, and reflect upon the role that it should play in the future.