HomeProject Aims and Scope

Project Aims and Scope

As is common for a Western philosopher, Sylvan demands that ethical principles be universal and therefore applicable not just to select situations but to all possible situations. Philosophers often therefore devise thought experiments to test ethical principles either put forward by themselves, or by others. Among the most famous examples is the “trolley problem”, which is designed to appeal to our intuitions that there is a distinction to be made between harms that are strictly intended and harms that are merely foreseen (see Sharp 1906; Foot 1967; Thomson 1976). Sylvan’s Last Man Example, which helped inaugurate the subfield of Environmental Philosophy in 1973, is no different.[2] Sylvan designed his limiting case paradigm to appeal to his readers’ basic intuitions that the wonton harm and destruction to non-human beings and things is morally wrong on environmental grounds, despite Western ethical frameworks affording no moral status to non-humans beyond cases where there is some instrumental value to humans. Thus, it is often said that the non-human world is a means to human ends, or in Sylvan’s (1973, 207) terms, Western morality operates such that ‘humans, or people, come first and everything else a bad last’.

Throughout Sylvan's career he engaged in the highly-unorthodox academic publishing practice of self-publishing a vast amount of his work as well as circulating greatly expanded versions of papers. This was driven by a disdain for the corporatisation of academic publishing in general, and the desire to publish and distribute material at lower cost in particular. More specifically, the turning point that prompted Sylvan to adopt this practice is unquestionably his own perceived need to subvert academic suppression related to the Sylvan’s inquiry into the proposed clear-felling of Australia’s hardwood forests in the early 1970s (see Richard Routley and Plumwood 1986; Hyde 2001, 19192, 2009, 6770).

Co-authorship and a communal practice of circulating papers meant that some works exist in multiple iterations. For instance, although the original manuscript of Sylvan’s classic conference paper, ‘Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?’ (Routley 1973) runs to 6 pages, the companion paper he co-authored with his then partner Val Routley/Plumwood was published at around triple that length, and circulated before and after publication at nearly ten times the length (see Routley and Routley 1979; 1980, respectively). Thus, the task of compiling and cross-referencing the many version of each paper remains, and I know that two honorary fellows at the University of Queensland, Dominic Hyde and Roger Lamb, have already spent several years on such a project.

Among Sylvan’s vast output is included a handful of articles and book-length monographs that dealt directly and explicitly with the nuclear energy option and the universal problem of nuclear waste with his then-wife, Val (see Routley and Routley 1978; 1979a, 1982, 1984b), and a number of sole-authored works on the question of nuclear weapons and war (see Routley 1984b, 1984a, 1990) that—I will show—remain prescient today. Of that material, a number of papers remain unpublished (see Routley n.d.; Routley and Routley 1979a, 1984b), at least in some form. For instance, the published paper ‘Nuclear Power—Some Ethical and Social Dimensions’ (Routley and Routley 1982) ran to 23 pages, but is found in the archive in various forms at around double and triple that length (see Routley and Routley 1984a, 1984b). The same could be said of the numerous drafts and versions of ‘On the ethics of large-scale nuclear war and nuclear deterrence and the political fall-out’ that were circulated before and after publication (Routley 1984b).


[1]      Reputations in Environmental Philosophy have been forged on far less. For instance, Roderick Nash (1987, 74–75) points out that Aldo Leopold’s (1966) pioneering status among American environmental philosophers derives almost entirely from a posthumously published 25-page discursive essay on ‘the land ethic’.

[2]      A number of scholars have speculated as to the possibility of G.E. Moore’s (1903) Beautiful Example serving as an antecedent for the Last Man Example, which was published seventy years previously (see Grey 2009, 41; Peterson and Sandin 2013, 121; Lamb 2015, 5). David Keller (2010, 8) ventures further that Sylvan was in fact evoking Mary Shelley’s (1833) classic science fiction novel of the same name. Nevertheless, the more plausible antecedent to the Last Man Example derives from Chapter VI of Moore’s Principia Ethica where he writes: ‘We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined; while yet the whole of the objects of his cognition are absolutely unreal. I think we should definitely pronounce the existence of a universe, which consisted solely of such a person, to be greatly inferior in value to one in which the objects, in the existence of which he believes, did really exist just as he believes them to do; and that it would be thus inferior not only because it would lack the goods which consist in the existence of the objects in question, but also merely because his belief would be false.’