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Richard Sylvan's "Last Man" argument

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Zoot
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Richard Sylvan's "Last Man" argument

Post by Zoot » May 11th, 2013, 11:46 pm

Sylvan was a supporter of a "deep" environmentalism: this being the view that the natural world has value in itself, independently of its usefulness to humans or other sentient animals.

Here's a classic thought experiment from Richard Sylvan's (at the time of writing, Richard Routley's) paper "Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?":

(1) All humans are dead, save one man. This man, the Last Man, decides that if humans are going extinct, they should take everything else with them, so he attempts to destroy every living animal, plant, bacterium, and so on (he has access to very powerful technology, so he just might achieve his aims).

Sylvan says on traditional ethical approaches, in which humans are the only objects of moral concern, and the environment is a moral issue only insofar is it relates to humans, the Last Man has done nothing wrong. But, for many people, this conclusion is counterintuitive. This suggests the need for a new ethic, an ethic on which nature has value independent of our interests.

Of course, it's now become very popular to support extending moral consideration to non-human animals. What's important is not language, rationality, and so on but sentience. From this point of view, we might say that the Last Man's actions are wrong because he kills so many sentient animals. So the experiment can be immediately strengthened by removing the killing of animals. We might suggest that not only have all humans, but all sentient beings, have died save for one man.

Even in this case, I think the anthropocentrist/sentientist still has an easy response. He can say that what makes it wrong to exterminate all life is that this destroys the potential for future intelligent/sentient life. As long as there's some life, and enough time, intelligent/sentient beings may evolve. The Last Man destroys this possibility. So perhaps the thought experiment should be strengthened further:

(2) All sentient beings are dead, save one man. Further, it's known that, in 3 million years, the sun will die, so all life will die, so there's no time for sentient life to evolve. The Last Man decides that if humans are going extinct, they should take everything else with them, so he attempts to destroy every living plant, bacterium, and so on (he has access to very powerful technology, so he just might achieve his aims).

I think that this better captures Sylvan's point. In (2), we really do have only non-sentient life to consider. Of course, so strengthened, perhaps far less people would be prepared to say that the Last Man has done anything wrong.


Anyway, what do you think of this thought experiment? And of "deep" approaches to environmentalism generally?

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Re: Richard Sylvan's "Last Man" argument

Post by Scott » May 12th, 2013, 9:50 am

Very interesting question! Thanks for posting!

What does it mean to say the last man has done something "wrong"?

Many people have desires and values regarding events that will occur after their death, even when it comes to dealings with non-sentient objects. One man might wish his body to be buried after death while someone else might wish that man's body man be cremated (perhaps to save space), but can we say either man is "wrong" in his desires? I don't think so. I think this kind of value is subjective. I might prefer to have the Starry Night on my wall while you might prefer to have the Mona Lisa; does that mean one of us is "wrong" in our preference? I don't think so because value is subjective.

In other words, I think choosing to destroy the world or not is neither morally good nor morally bad nor even morally neutral but is amoral. This is easier to see in the absence of any other sentient life. But so maybe it is also the case in all seeming moral dilemmas.
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Re: Richard Sylvan's "Last Man" argument

Post by Zoot » June 5th, 2013, 7:50 pm

Scott wrote:Many people have desires and values regarding events that will occur after their death, even when it comes to dealings with non-sentient objects. One man might wish his body to be buried after death while someone else might wish that man's body man be cremated (perhaps to save space), but can we say either man is "wrong" in his desires? I don't think so. I think this kind of value is subjective. I might prefer to have the Starry Night on my wall while you might prefer to have the Mona Lisa; does that mean one of us is "wrong" in our preference? I don't think so because value is subjective.
I think this is maybe beside the point. The thought experiment is about how we assign moral values; it's not about what kind of things we take moral values to be.

My own view is that all moral (and aesthetic) judgements are subjective. But I still think that the Last Man's behaviour is morally wrong, because my view is that living beings, species, ecosystems and so on are valuable in themselves, independently of whatever instrumental use they have for humans or other sentient beings. That value is subjective doesn't have any affect on this view. It's a separate question.

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