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When is intensification ethically good? A virtue-based model

The utilitarian/consequentialist and rights-based approaches are both theoretically well-developed articulations of ideas used every day by people who are attempting to determine the correct or proper course of action. However, it may be more typical for people to associate ethics with less systematic ways of thinking. For example, many people may address ethical questions by asking themselves how some exemplary person would act in a given situation. This exemplary person might be a family member, a revered and respected member of the community, a religious leader or perhaps even a person from legend or history who is not even known as a real flesh-and-blood individual. In any case, one draws upon a mental image of how a good person would act in the situation at hand. By doing this, one understands the ethics of the situation in terms that refer directly to the conduct that is being performed (see Figure 2 on p. 8), rather than either the rights-based constraints or the consequences of the action.

The philosophical possibilities for developing this general approach to ethics are numerous. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) did so by developing a catalogue of both positive and negative exemplary types of conduct, or virtues and vices, respectively. He theorized that all human tendencies had appropriate forms of expression in moderation but could become vicious if not held in check. A good person is one who strikes the mean position among these tendencies. Moderation (or temperance) itself thus became the sovereign virtue for Aristotle and many of his followers. Today, many types of ethical theory that emphasize conduct, rather than rights and duties, on the one hand, or consequences, on the other, are referred to as Aristotelean or, more accurately, virtue theories. Although some philosophers have believed that virtues and community traditions are relatively undeveloped sources of ethical insight, better articulated by emphasizing rights and duties on the one hand, or consequences on the other, others have argued that this domain of ethical ideas or source of ethical insight cannot be eliminated.

Aristotle also believed that one’s tendencies (as well as one’s abilities to regulate them) are a reflection of the sociocultural environment in which one lives and is raised. Thus an exemplary Greek might have a moral character quite different from that of someone who had not lived in what was, in Aristotle’s day, a culture almost unique in its egalitarianism, its emphasis on education and its ideals of citizenship. One contemporary school of ethics that stresses the social roots of exemplary conduct is called communitarianism. Here, the articulation of ethical norms and standards is likely to call attention to the norms, practices, traditions and institutions that are particularly characteristic of and valued by a particular community, rather than particular virtues and vices. Like Aristotle, contemporary communitarians emphasize the need to have a social environment, a form of community life, that will give rise to exemplary conduct and that will allow people to appreciate the ways of life that such forms exemplify.

Agricultural ways of life have figured prominently in some of the most influential articulations of virtue and vice. The ancient Greeks themselves developed a form of agriculture based upon rough terrain, varying soil types and a Mediterranean climate. Their farms were a diverse mixture of grain production and pastoral livestock, but with heavy reliance on tree and vine crops. The mix of crops and long growing season provided steady work for fairly small households all year round, while the trees and vines involved lifetime investments for smallholders. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that this pattern of agriculture gave rise to unique forms of military organization and tactics as well as the political culture of the city-state. The relatively large proportion of the population controlling property and the nature of their stake in the land made them both fierce defenders of egalitarian political forms and equally fierce warriors who could be relied upon for phalanx manoeuvres requiring discipline and loyalty. These character traits, so critical to the success of Greek city-states as political and military entities, were thought to emerge naturally in a farming population of smallholders. In contrast, the large-scale plantation-style irrigated agriculture common among the Greeks’ military rivals relied on stratified societies of slaves and masters who did not develop the requisite virtues.

The idea that forms of agriculture were seminal sources for community practice and national culture reached its culmination in the intellectual cultures of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. These ideas were especially influential for those who framed the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–84), Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States famously wrote:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. ... The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.

Jefferson’s key idea was that smallholding farmers would have a greater stake in the stability and success of the new nation than either manufacturers or their labourers, since both of the latter could pull up stakes and leave when difficulties arose. As President, Jefferson went on to set a course for the development of the United States as an agrarian nation, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase to ensure ample lands for future generations of American farmers and authorizing the (Meriwether) Lewis and (William) Clark expedition to determine the suitability of these lands for cultivation and transport.

Jefferson’s plan was not, of course, an episode of intensification, as his strategy called for extensive expansion of American farming rather than a transformation designed to increase yields or use resource inputs more efficiently. Nevertheless, his view is important because it shows that ideas about how farming systems and methods produce virtues such as citizenship and community solidarity have had a profound influence on political developments in the past. Plans for intensification that substantially alter the pattern of land tenure, or that change the basic practices of farming thought to be critical to the formation of exemplary patterns of conduct or community identity are almost certain to provoke moral protest. Indeed, the most memorable protests against British attempts at enclosure are not tracts arguing that rights have been violated, but literary efforts such as Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The deserted village, lamenting the loss of small village cultures thought to be particularly characteristic of the British national character:

Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.[4]

The Old Order Amish communities established throughout Europe and now dispersed around the globe provide another example of a philosophy of agriculture that relies heavily on virtue ethics. The Amish emphasize a very high degree of family and community integration together with independence from the outside world. They derive meaning from their ability to live together at a particular place with a great stability of practice over generations. Agriculture is important because Amish communities see dependence on outsiders as a potential threat to their ties to one another. The Amish are notoriously suspicious of modern technologies, largely because they see their effects as weakening social relations among members of the local community. Nevertheless, Amish farmers are known for both high yields and ecologically sustainable farming methods. From an Amish perspective, intensification would not emerge as an ethically important goal, and intensifying practices that weakened community bonds – either by tempting members away from the household or by increasing dependence on the outside world – would be resisted. However, intensification would not be seen as an evil in itself, and increases in yields that could be attained by more effective use of household labour might be deemed entirely acceptable.

Intensification: implications for reservoirs and fisheries

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an unprecedented increase in the creation of reservoirs throughout the world. The two major purposes of dams have been the production of hydroelectric power and storage of water for irrigation. Nevertheless, damming a river to create a reservoir has a major impact on water flow, the aquatic environment and life. From a utilitarian perspective, the costs associated with these impacts (as well as the actual direct costs of building a dam) are justified where the benefits from hydroelectric power and irrigation are greater. Arriving at the optimal relationship between costs and benefits generally involves compensatory measures that mitigate the costs associated with the impact on fisheries.

To the extent that hydroelectric power and irrigation water address problems of poverty and need, there can be a strong rights-based argument for building dams. Yet reservoirs often involve the most dramatic and irreversible transformations imaginable. From a rights perspective, the key issue is that an effort to address human rights to basic energy and food needs may come into conflict with existing land use and riparian rights. Rights arguments might be raised against dam construction when it seems that affected parties either have not or cannot be feasibly brought into decision-making. Others might argue that important traditions, communities and ways of life are lost both when dams involve the flooding of native homelands for large communities, and when traditional fishing methods can no longer be practised. These latter concerns appeal more to the ethics of virtue and vice; they suggest that what is important is being able to live in a traditional way and to engage in traditional practices. But dangers to fish stocks can come from water pollution and from overexploitation by fishing communities themselves. Here, an existing or traditional pattern of rights may be permitting conduct that has significant adverse consequences.

An additional problem is that the distribution of benefits from intensification, hydroelectric generation or irrigation may not reach those rural communities most affected by the increased development. Fishers are usually from a poor sector of society and are often ignored in decision-making.

These few examples illustrate how thinking in terms of virtues provides an entirely different point of view from which to evaluate intensification. From the perspective of a virtue theorist, agriculture’s role in forming both personal and national character provides the basis for evaluating policies and technologies that transform the food system. Periods of intensification would be justified only if they reinforce this role and would be opposed if they tended to weaken it. The actual forms that a virtue perspective might take will be highly variable and will depend upon cultural traditions and history. Thus, while utilitarian/consequentialist and rights-based approaches in ethics point towards ethical standards that might be applied to virtually any agricultural system, the specific content of a virtue approach is likely to be highly dependent on local culture and may vary from one cultural setting to another. ·

[4] Oliver Goldsmith. 1770. The deserted village. Accessed online at:

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