James M Dow

The Last Person Scenario



Imagine that you’re the last person on earth. A pandemic has wiped out all of humanity except you. What are your obligations to the non-human world? What are your duties to animals, planets, and the land? Your first priority would be to survive without other humans of course, so some negative effects on animals and plants will obviously occur. However, would it be wrong to engage in a complete eradication of life on earth? Should you use the world’s remaining weapons to kill the beavers, wolves, and bears? Should you ride on the world’s remaining tractors to mow down all the living plants? Should you burn garbage and release toxins into the air? Should you pour used oil and old chemicals into the lakes and streams?

Most would probably find such behavior to be morally wrong. But why? Can the judgment that destruction of the environment is morally wrong be made through a humanistic ethic? Can our obligations to the natural world (if any) be understood in terms of obligations to other human beings? If the result of the thought experiment is any indication, it seems that a humanistic ethic is not enough. You are the only remaining human being after all. Richard Sylvan’s (1973) classic article “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?” raises this question and uses the last person thought experiment to argue that in order to capture our judgments that we have obligations to the natural world, we need a new, an environmental, ethic which focuses on how our obligations are proprietarily environmental.

Sylvan begins with Aldo Leopold’s (1966) idea that an environmental ethic involves “an ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plans which grow upon it” (1966, 238). (I will return to Leopold’s Land Ethic below.) Sylvan’s starting point is to ask how one could develop a uniquely and distinctively environmental ethic by gesturing at the implicit thought experiment involved in the Robinson Crusoe narrative.

Sylvan suggests correctly that Leopold’s Land Ethic presupposes a different framework for thinking about environmental ethics. We cannot merely extend or modify our humanistic ethics in order to develop a sense of our obligations to nature. But, instead, we must bring about a cultural evolution in our values. As I will discuss below, Leopold’s thinking about environmental ethics requires us to recognize ourselves as embedded socially. Our human nature must be understood through the sciences of human evolution and human ecology and that how we ought to and ought not to relate to land needs to be reconceived in naturalistic terms. Leopold’s moral psychology is deeply naturalistic.

Sylvan suggests that the development of an environmental ethic involves “an extension or modification of the prevailing ethics or that of a development of the principles that are already encompassed or latent within the prevailing ethic” (1973, 17). He considers three prevailing environmental ethical traditions that are extensions or modifications of the human ethic:

1) the despotic position— humans are tyrants that can do what they wish to the non-human world;

2) the stewardship position— humans are custodians or farm managers that make nature productive as resources for human ends;

3) the cooperative position— humans are perfecters of nature that bring out the potentialities of nature not for itself but for human ends.

Each of these are not distinctively environmental since each position is structured by anthropocentric ends.

Sylvan then asks how could we tell the difference between two ethical systems if we wanted to develop a new environmental ethic. If ethical systems S1 and S2 differ in sets of concepts, principles, evaluations, then they are different systems. Sylvan argues that basic human chauvinism— or the anthropocentric attitude that is implicit in the above three positions— is guided by the harm principle: “the liberal philosophy of the Western world holds that one should be able to do what he wishes, providing (1) that he does not harm others and (2) that he is not likely to harm himself irreparably” (1973, 19). Sylvan suggests that we define permissible, obligatory, and wrong in the following ways: “What is permissible holds in some ideal situation, what is obligatory holds in every ideal situation, and what is wrong is excluded in every ideal situation” (1973, 19).

The key question of the article is whether the harm principle can be the basis of an extension or modification which produces a new environmental ethic. I’ve analyzed the argument in the article:


1.)  There is not a need for a new environmental ethic, if basic human chauvinism is sufficient to capture environmental cares and concerns.

2.)  If a human chauvinistic ethic were sufficient, then we could determine which actions towards the environment were permissible, obligatory, and wrong merely by appeal to the harm principle.

3.)  The harm principle is that one should be able to do as one wishes insofar as a.) one does not harm others; and b.) one does not harm oneself irreparably.

4.)  However, the following counterexamples show that we cannot determine which actions towards the environment were permissible, obligatory, and wrong merely by appeal to the harm principle:

—  the last person example: the last person surviving the apocalypse tries to eliminate every living thing on earth. Sylvan argues such actions are prima facie land ethically wrong, but nevertheless cannot be captured by the harm principle.

—  the last people example: the last group of people cannot reproduce and try to eliminate other non-human life on earth. Sylvan argues that such actions of the last people are prima facie land ethically wrong, but that nevertheless cannot be captured by the harm principle. But he considers adding “a further proviso to the basic principle, the effect that (3) that they do not willfully destroy natural resources” (1973, 20). However, the reasons that the last people appeal to are still human reasons.

—  the great entrepreneur example and industrial society examples: a great entrepreneur does not willfully destroy natural resources but instead is an industrialist that uses fossil fuels, engages in monoculture farming, and manufactures for solely human needs, and reuses and recycles as much as the marketing/advertising department requires. The industrial society example is comparable to the extension of the last person to the last people examples, and Sylvan suggests that our society is the great entrepreneur extended to the broader population.

—  vanishing species example: If we consider the blue whale which is on the verge of extinction, then whalers hunting them into extinction is not impermissible based on basic human chauvinism.

Sylvan concludes from each of these examples that “What these people do is to a greater or lesser extent evil, and hence in serious cases morally impermissible” (21), but yet the harm principle does not capture that land ethical wrongness.

Therefore, 5.)  A human chauvinistic ethic is not sufficient (by 2 and 4).

Therefore, 6.)  There is a need for a new environmental ethic (by 1 and 5).

Sylvan concludes that “human interests and preferences are far too parochial to provide a satisfactory basis for deciding on what is environmentally desirable” (23).


Commentary: My focus in my project is to highlight how issues of aesthetics, mind, and action are central to questions about environmental value, especially questions about how the beauty of nature relates to our duties to nature.


First, the argument depends upon a thought experiment in premise 4. The last person thought experiment depends upon intuition and imagination to make sense of the last person’s actions. But, in addition, one central issue about the harm principle is to what extent our ethical obligations are constitutively socially structured. According to Leopold’s account of the land ethic, the question “What should I do?” is structured— because of evolution and development— the question “What should I—an animal structured by sociality through evolution and ecology— do?” The last person has those obligations and duties even if no other humans exist. This will be the focus of research on how the aesthetics of nature needs to be informed by research on human evolution and human ecology. The actual state of human nature should inform how we ought to and ought not to aesthetically appreciate nature.


Second, the argument seems to beg the question in favor of non-anthropocentric values or at least be an argument from definition. The harm principle seems to define anthropocentric values. The intuitions that such actions are land ethically wrong seems to define non-anthropocentric values. However, an anti-environmentalist might simply bite the bullet and disagree with Sylvan’s intuitions that the last person, the last people, the entrepreneur, or the “extinctionists,” are doing something land ethically wrong. In fact, this is usually the default position of instrumentalists about the value of the natural world, namely that the destruction of nature is only wrong insofar as it is misused as a means to the pursuit of human ends.


Third, we might wonder about premise 3 whether or not the harm principle is really too weak to be a viable “super ethic,” (19) as Sylvan suggests. For instance, it might be that further study of Kant, Mill, and Aristotle to name a few, and the resulting ethical systems might generate an environmental ethic which is largely independent or orthogonal to the harm principle.


For instance, Kant’s ethics is focused on the respect for persons as rational beings that exemplify the moral law. It might be that we could extend this respect principle to a respect for nature as exemplifying natural laws of living beings (as Goodpaster and Taylor have done). Mill’s ethics is focused on maximizing happiness for the greatest number. It might be that we could extend this happiness principle to a view about increasing pleasure and reducing pain in sentient organisms (as Singer and Varner have done). Aristotle’s ethics focuses on striving towards excellence relative to our place in nature. It might be that we could extend this eudaimonistic principle to a view about enabling organisms to fulfill natural functions.


Leopold’s Land Ethical principle is “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (1966, 262). Sylvan hardly mentions beauty in the article as a basis for the judgments of environmental value. “On an environmental ethic, the last people have behaved badly; they have simplified and largely destroyed all the natural ecosystems, and with their demise the world will soon be an ugly and largely wrecked place” (1973, 20).


According to Leopold’s account of the land ethic, however, beauty is a central condition for determining how we ought to and ought not to relate to the natural world. On my interpretation of Leopold, the integrity condition has to do with the evolution of the natural world. So, preserving integrity means preserving the tree of nature as such and aiming to increase biodiversity. The resilience condition has to do with the ecology of the natural world. So, preserving resilience means preserving ecosystems that can withstand changes from the outside ensuring that booms and busts of energy within the system do not swing to the extremes. Integrity and resilience are not exclusive of each other of course. More needs to be said about the details of course.


However, the key point that I want to make, however, is that Leopold’s notion of beauty is a central pillar of his view. While a key Leopold interpreter— J. Baird Callicott (1989; 1994; 1999)— especially in the “Land Aesthetic” minimizes the importance of the aesthetics of nature because the aesthetic appreciation of nature is subjective. One question of the project has to do with the structure of environmental value. We can distinguish between ethical judgments, ethical development, and ethical motivation. And, can how can we develop an account of the aesthetic appreciation of nature that is objective. A pivotal question for the intuitions implicit in Sylvan’s argument is whether Sylvan is focusing on judgments, development, or motivation. But, in addition, one question is how Leopold thinks about the aesthetics of nature.


Does Leopold think that we make judgements about the intrinsic, non-anthropocentric, and holistic value of the natural world based on aesthetic judgments? Is that similar or different from the aesthetics of Thoreau, Burroughs, Muir, etc? Does Leopold think that our origins— our evolutionary biology and our developmental psychology— inform what we take to be beautiful? How does the Darwinian background of Leopold’s view inform his view of nature appreciation? Can that provide us with an objective view of nature appreciation? Does Leopold think that the beauty of nature motivates in a way that grasping facts about evolution and ecology do not? What account of motivation is in the background?


Callicott, J. Baird (1989). In Defense of the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press

Callicott, J. Baird (1994). “The Land Aesthetic”

Callicott, J. Baird (1999). Beyond the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press

Leopold, Aldo (1966). “A Taste for Country” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 86–98.

Leopold, Aldo (1666) “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac Ballantine Books.

Sylvan, Richard (1973). “Is there a Need for a New, and Environmental, Ethic?” in Proceedings of the World Congress of Philosophy. No. 1 205–210. In Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 16–24.

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