3 April 2023
The question that is receiving some attention among politicians, policy-makers and stakeholders is whether individuals or institutions should bear the greatest responsibility for solving the current climate crisis.
According to an article published by The Guardian, “the responsibility for solving major societal problems is increasingly being shifted to the individual”. This view is being contested by others, who opine that such problems can only be solved by institutions. “Personal sacrifice alone cannot be the solution to tackling the climate crisis… It can be achieved only by real structural change; by a new industrial revolution.”
While it is obviously true that without the concerted efforts of governments and industry players, individuals are unable to solve the ecological problem, the latter can nonetheless play a significant role.
In recent years, theologians such as Jame Schaefer have been reflecting on how the cardinal virtues developed by medieval theologians—especially Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)—can help us to live responsibly amidst the current crisis.
The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The reason why these virtues are described as “cardinal” (Latin cardo, meaning “hinge”) is because all the other virtues are either grouped under them or are hinged (attached) to them.
These four virtues are explicitly listed in chapter 8 of the deuterocanonical book, Wisdom of Solomon: “[Wisdom] teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these (v 7).”
According to Aquinas, “Prudence counsels us well about what pertains to the whole life of a human and to the ultimate end of human life.” This means that a prudent person is never short-sighted, and always orders his actions in accordance with the ultimate purpose or telos of life.
In addition, prudence requires foresight, circumspection and caution. In relation to his responsibilities to the created order of which he is a part, a prudent person will with foresight consider the future consequences of his present habits. Circumspection and caution will guide the choices he makes.
Justice takes into consideration the welfare and common good of the whole human community. However, one cannot speak of the common good of the human race without according significance to its natural habitat, the entire biosphere upon which human life depends.
As Schaefer puts it:
… because the common good of the human community would be jeopardised by the degradation of the air, land, and water, the accelerated rate of species extinction, the destruction of habitats, and damage to the biosphere, the virtue of justice could be construed today as inclining humans individually and collectively to relate to other abiota in ways that do not jeopardise the functioning of natural systems in the interests of human communities near and far, now and in the future.
The third virtue, fortitude, enables a person to stand firm in the face of challenges.
Fortitude also strengthens the individual’s resolve to resist the temptations to yield to certain appetites, and to make sacrifices for that which is good. In this way, fortitude reinforces justice because it inclines individuals as well as communities to seek the common good both now and for the future.
Fortitude also reinforces prudence because it supplies the necessary resolve to the intention of relating responsibly to all living and non-living entities that make up our planet.
“Fortitude,” writes Schaefer, “can be appropriated today as the virtue that will strengthen the faithful to persist in using the goods of Earth minimally with the aim of ensuring the internal stability of the ecosystems and the biosphere.”
This brings us to the fourth and final virtue: temperance. For Aquinas, temperance denotes a restrained desire for physical gratification, a disciplining of our passions. This includes good and necessary physical pleasures such as eating, drinking and sex.
The sub-virtues of temperance—continence and humility—also have much significance to the environmental problems we face today. Continence has to do with moderating our desires, especially our seemingly insatiable need to acquire goods in a consumerist culture.
Humility is related to continence because—as Schaefer explains—“it can restrain the inordinate desire to acquire non-necessities of life and positively condition human attitudes toward other-than-human creatures when informed by scientific findings about their interrelationship and interdependency.”
While the virtues are traditionally associated with the individual in the Christian literature on spirituality, their relevance to societies, industry players and governments must not be missed. For the virtues have to do with the cultivation of certain habits based on proper attitudes towards others, including the created order.
That is why some moral theologians have maintained—correctly—that the doctrine of virtue is in a profound sense the doctrine of obligation. As individuals, communities, societies, corporations, governments and states, we have the obligation to conduct ourselves with prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance—for the common good, and the flourishing of our planet.
 Anders Levermann, ‘Individuals can’t solve the climate crisis. Governments need to step up’, The Guardian 10 July 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/10/individuals-climate-crisis-government-planet-priority.
 Jame Schaefer, Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics. Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009).
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 57.4 ad 3.
 Schaefer, 232.
 Schaefer, 235.
 Summa Theologica, 141.2, 3.
 Summa Theologica, 141.4.