Thoreau’s Environmental Ethics in Walden

Cafaro, Philip
The Concord Saunterer (Journal of the Thoreau Society) 10 (2002), pages 17-63

In developing a strong environmental ethics, no thinker has more to offer us than Henry Thoreau. Thoreau is a leading critic of anthropocentrism: the view that only human beings have rights or “intrinsic value” and that other creatures are solely valuable as human resources and may be used any way we see fit. Thoreau has much to say about what recognizing nature’s intrinsic value demands from us and provides important practical suggestions for how we can live up to those demands. Perhaps even more important, Thoreau provides an example of how to lead a happy, flourishing life while still respecting nature. I contend that Walden provides a fully developed and inspiring environmental virtue ethics, which links environmental protection to human happiness and flourishing. This ethics demands restraint from us in our dealings with nature, but in return it offers us hope that we ourselves will lead better lives. I thus points the way toward a positive, life-affirming environmental ethics.