Exploring the ethical orientations of environmental lifestyle practitioners: a mixed-method study

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University of New Brunswick


This mixed-method research studied environmental lifestyle practitioners to explore the links between ethical orientation, moral attentiveness and self-determination toward environmental choices. Participants (N = 233) were engaged in 2011-2012 through narrative inquiry (59 interviews), and surveys (174). Ethical orientation (utilitarian, deontological, virtue) was assessed through narrative analysis of values, beliefs and norms, through open-ended and closed-ended questions (Likert, categorical and nominal scales) measuring character traits and through measures of moral judgment (moral reasoning vignettes and moral reasons for environmental actions). The relationship between ethical orientation and moral attentiveness (frequency of believing environmental situations were moral and the capacity for reflection) and self-determination (enjoyment-interest scale and narrative indicating extrinsic to intrinsic motivation and self-regulation) was also explored. Environmental lifestyle was defined as any personal, professional and social action(s) taken to improve environmental outcomes. Participants comprised five environmental lifestyle categories: activists, n = 25; professionals, n = 64; producers (organic farmers, voluntary simplicity, permaculture practitioners, intentional community), n = 34; green consumers (individuals moderately motivated by environmental considerations), n = 19; green consumer-poll respondents (not activists or professionals, considered environment when buying, open to doing more), n = 91. Participants were oriented toward conscientiousness (trustworthy, dependable) and virtue-care (respectful, sensitive, caring, humble) traits, varying significantly only in orientation toward law-abiding and loyal traits (green consumer-poll respondents with the highest means; producers lowest), and were generally self-determined. There was significant variation among lifestyle categories in moral attentiveness and moral judgment (producers, activists, and professionals more morally attentive and virtue-oriented in reasoning; green consumers less morally attentive and somewhat more oriented toward utility and obligation-duty (deontological) reasoning. Younger participants were more utilitarian, less intrinsically motivated, and more affected by guilt; older participants were more law-abiding and principled. Higher incomes were associated with utilitarian reasoning. Role models influenced early environmental experiences and development of ecological situation sensitivity. Results suggest ecological virtue (Wensveen, 2005, Sandler, 2005) reflects the ethics associated with Stern’s value-belief-norm model (2000) and self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2002), and that environmental choices are made within a commitment to a life-long environmental practice, rather than to one-off environmental action.