Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Reflections on Sylvan's Last Man Argument

I would now like to offer my reflections on a classic essay, namely, "Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?" by Richard Sylvan. This essay is very short, but it deals with a very deep issue in a profound way. Sylvan begins the essay by pointing out that an increasing number of philosophers have expressed the need for an evaluation of the ethical status of the environment, and particular of humanity's relation to it. This is where the title of the essay comes in, for it is only natural to ask ourselves the following question: Does this new evaluation require merely an extension of existing ethical systems, or does it require a new ethic altogether?

This question actually has a simple enough answer, for if we examine the dominant Western ethical systems, they all place humanity as a despot or tyrant over the rest of the natural world. Thus, if humanity is a despot over the rest of nature, then, a fortiori, humanity does not have any ethical obligations towards the rest of nature. If humanity does not have any obligations toward the rest of nature, the question of an environmental ethic is null and void right from the start. Therefore, it would seem that a true environmental ethic must of necessity be a radically new ethic.

Now that we have that out of the way, what we must consider next is the foundation of the dominant ethic. Sylvan points out that the dominant Western ethical systems have a number of guiding principles (he mentions the Golden Rule as one such example), but one plausible candidate for a 'core' principle of the Western ethic is the Liberal principal that one is free to act as one pleases, so long as one does not harm other human beings and that one is not likely to irreparably harm themselves. Of course, this principle is not as explicitly formulated as we might like, but it gives us a good place to begin our investigation. Sylvan refers to this principle as 'basic (human) chauvinism.' It is easy enough to see why this name fits, since the principle as such includes only human beings within its reach.

After having established basic (human) chauvinism as a plausible ground for the Western ethic, Sylvan continues by bringing forth some counterexamples against the Western ethic, and this is the most interesting part of the essay. He discusses four different counterexamples, but we will focus on the first one; the so-called 'last man' argument. The argument is very simple; we are tasked with imagining that there is only one human left on the planet. The human decides to kill every living plant and animal before he expires. The argument formally laid it is as follows:



PREMISE 1: If basic (human) chauvinism is correct, then what this man does is morally permissible.

PREMISE 2: But what he does is in fact morally impermissible.

CONCLUSION 1: Thus, basic (human) chauvinism is incorrect.



This is a quite simple argument. Indeed, it is just an instance of Modus Tollens and is thus valid Relevantly, Classically, and in many other systems of Logic. In addition, the argument does not crucially depend on the Reference Theory. So we need to see whether it is sound.

The first premise is quite clearly true, since it follows from the guiding principle of basic (human) chauvinism. I believe that it is the second premise that is the crux of the argument. Is it in fact not morally permitted for someone to act in the way the man has in our scenario?

Now, since I am a Vegan, I obviously think it would be impermissible for the man to kill all of the various animals on the Earth. But I believe that the most pressing question concerns whether it is impermissible for the man to kill all of the various plants on the Earth.

If you will recall my post on the variation of the Argument from Marginal Cases, my intuitive sense leads me to think that it would be impermissible for the man to do this. Indeed, the plants in the last man scenario function almost identically to the irreversibly comatose person I mentioned in my post.

Indeed, imagine that we simply changed the scenario to where there is only one last sentient man and a billion irreversibly comatose people on an automated 10 year supply of life support. Now if the 'last man' in this scenario decides to spend the rest of his life killing off all of these comatose humans would he then be acting impermissibly? I still think that he would.

But why is it impermissible, on my view? As I see it, these acts are impermissible precisely both because life has some sort of value on its own, and because the last man lacks a good reason for committing these acts.


Now, it would be unbecoming on me not to discuss the paragraph in which Sylvan suggests that the new environmental ethic can be consistent with mainstream views that couple having rights with having responsibilities. Of course, as Sylvan points out, this would imply that most sentient items would not possess rights, even if right-holding items do have responsibilities towards them. Now I reject wholeheartedly the notion that having rights entails having responsibilities; for some humans are not equipped to have responsibilities (certain mentally challenged humans, or infants, or children). Thus on this view, all of these humans would not be rights-holders. But as I see things, they are rights-holders, so the view that having rights entails having responsibilities must be false.

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