Species Extinction and the Vice of Thoughtlessness: The Importance of Spiritual Exercises for Learning Virtue

  • Jeremy Bendik-Keymer


In this paper, I present a sample spiritual exercise—a contemporary form of the written practice that ancient philosophers used to shape their characters. The exercise, which develops the ancient practice of the examination of conscience, is on the sixth mass extinction and seeks to understand why the extinction appears as a moral wrong. It concludes by finding a vice in the moral character of the author and the author’s society. From a methodological standpoint, the purpose of spiritual exercises is to create a habit of thoughtfulness in the writer, and by way of teaching, to suggest one to the reader. Such a habit is important, at least, because virtue is a habit. In other words, there can be no learning of virtue itself without habituation into it. Accordingly, I frame the sample spiritual exercise with a deliberately controversial objection to contemporary academic virtue ethics and with a justification for why the spiritual exercise is important for taking virtue ethically. And I end the paper with some further remarks explaining the form of the exercise and its relevance to doing philosophy. In this way, the paper makes and illustrates a methodological point about virtue ethics based on a meta-ethical assumption about virtue as a habit, and it does this by focusing on a pressing environmental problem in the twenty-first century.


Species extinction Sixth mass extinction Virtue theory Spiritual exercises Meta-ethics Meta-philosophy 



Thanks to many people who helped with this paper, but in particular, to Ken Baynes, Ben Bradley, Tom Brockelman, Phil Cafaro, Amber Carpenter, Aaron Conte, Eva Fernandes, Tabor Fisher, Joshua Graae, Kevin Hayes, David Keymer, Mari-Ann Kucharek, Irene Liu, Dan Meior, Sherine M. Najjar, Ron Sandler, Lauren Tillinghast; participants at the conference Human Flourishing & Restoration in the Age of Global Warming, Clemson University, September 5th, 2008; colleagues at the Le Moyne faculty symposium; three anonymous reviewers for this journal who did their job well; the Department of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University; Irad Kimhi; and Elaine Wolf Steinberg, who surprised me at the end of the writing process. The long example of a spiritual exercise in this essay is the first of approximately six spiritual exercises comprising a short book-in-progress, The Sixth Mass Extinction: Spiritual Exercises for the Sake of Life. Each exercise takes the reader through a different dimension of the ethical, political, and economic problems involved in the sixth mass extinction. The link between each is an aporia ending a particular exercise and leading one to take up the next.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Le Moyne CollegeSyracuseUSA

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