Environmental Ethics and Environmental Law

Makoul, Zoe

This Note poses the question of whether—and how—lawmaking can create a platform for promoting an environmental ethic. There is a body of scholarship about how values or virtue ethics impact lawmaking, but this Note also explores the opposite—how lawmaking impacts the values or virtue ethics of the public. Environmental ethicists disagree about the very origins of environmental ethics. Some thinkers believe that environmental ethics stem from “core values” that are inherent to human nature. Others posit a set of “green virtues” that can be learned. But there is agreement that education through exposure to the natural world is fundamental to ethical development. Ideally, people develop green virtues that guide their everyday actions but, to encourage a true love of the natural world, their core values must be awakened; this is done locally, via connections to wild spaces. Through the creation of national parks and through public land-granting, law creates a platform that can contribute to the formation of environmental consciousness, from materializing the “wilderness” ideal to demonstrating the value of “otherness.” The relationship between environmental law and environmental ethics creates a virtuous circle—in both senses of the word—as virtue drives enriched environmental law as much as environmental law has the capacity to create green virtues. The virtuous circle concept risks the implied instrumentalization of virtues, robbing them of intrinsic realization by using them as policy tools. However, this is a false dichotomy; environmental law is a tool that can be used by a democracy to change itself by creating a different set of experiences to make concrete the values that we hold in abstraction or as aspiration. This Note draws on Aristotle’s virtue ethics to posit that lawmaking can create a holistic platform for people to learn how to practice an environmental ethic, which in turn promotes the passage of new regulatory and protective environmental laws.


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Columbia Journal of Environmental Law

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April 11, 2022


Keywords: Green Virtues, Environmental Ethics, Virtue Ethics, Aristotle, Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, Environmental Virtues, Environmental Ethicists, Lawmaking and Virtues, Lawmaking and Ethics