Routley 1973

Routley, R. 1973. Is there a need for a new, an environmental, ethic? Proceedings of the XVth World Congress of Philosophy; 17th to 22nd September, Varna, Bulgaria 1: 205 -210.

[Note: Routley later changed his last name to “Sylvan” and authorship of this piece is sometimes attributed to Richard Sylvan.]

In the early 1970s a wide spectrum of philosophers argued that we need a new environmental ethics, whether it be to ensure the future well-being of humanity, or that of the biosphere or, perhaps, even more broadly, every aspect of the physical environment around us. A new ethics was supposed to be necessary because traditional ethics was anthropocentric, based on human interests, and, as a result, incapable of fully embracing environmental values.

This paper by Routley makes (in my view) the strongest case for why a new environmental ethics. Two features make give it its value. Unlike Deep Ecologists and others of their ilk, it does not take recourse to philosophically dubious ascription of intrinsic value to non-human entities, particularly collectives such as other species. Moreover, Routley is scrupulous about the difficulty of the task he faces: to show that a new ethics is necessary, he has to show that all ethical theories available are deficient (in the face of the perceived environmental crisis). He does not quite mean all: he restricts his remit to Western philosophy. That hardly makes the problem much easier: he is still left with the consequentialist/ utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics traditions (to name just the most prominent alternatives).

The problem with these existing traditions is their anthropocentrism: at the end of the day the ethical status of any choice is to be decided on the grounds of how it affects human beings. (True, the deontological tradition may theoretically prefer rational agents as the loci of interest rather than humans but humans so far remain the only rational agents we know.) How, then, do we establish that all anthropocentric theories of ethics are insufficient?

Routley offerst four hypothetical cases that are supposed to embody ethical choices we would intuitively make but do not satisfy the anthropocentrism criterion:

  1. The “last man” [sic] example, better called the last person example: As human civilization collapses, the last human being left sets about destroying all other forms of life for no particular reason. Anthropocentric ethics is supposed to allow this action (even if it does not promote it). We are supposed to intuit that it is morally impermissible. If we are bothered about pain to other sentient beings we could resolve that issue by requiring that the deaths are painless. (More importantly, from the perspective of an environmental [or, at least, conservationist] ethics, we could even go beyond Routley and argue that it would be ethically wrong for the last person even to drive even a single species extinct if it serves no other purpose at all.)
  2. The “last people” example: The last example is generalized to involve choices made by the last community alive as it is faced with human extinction. Here, Routley seems to go even further and argues that extermination is problematic even if it is done to satisfy apparently reasonable needs.
  3. The “great entrepreneur” example: The last person does not destroy all other species willfully but allows it to happen in the pursuit of what we would call sustainable development.
  4. The “vanishing species” example: Economic activity based on capitalist development and the free market leads to the destruction of species. If this is found morally impermissible, Routley notes that free market economics, as traditionally envisioned, is in conflict with an adequately environmental economics.

Almost half a century has passed since Routley wrote this piece. To a large extent the new environmental ethics that he was demanding has made itself part of the culture of norms accepted globally. (After all the term “biodiversity” was only introduced over a decade later and the idea that all of it should be conserved if possible became part of the global agenda some twenty years after Routley’s paper [with the Rio Summit of 1992].)

Let us conclude with two final observations about Routley’s paper. First, his examples reamain troubling even today because, though we may all agree about the ethical imperative to conserve biodiversity, we are not all agreed on why we should do so. In fact, what should we make of the last person example? Second, though Routley very clearly lays out a problem for us, he does not offer a solution. There is work left to do.


23 September 2019

%d bloggers like this: