For those of you who are philosophers this is nothing new. For me this is a totally new field and way of thinking...I started a class today on environmental ethics and sustainability...fun stuff :)
The class discussion began with this question also known as the "Last Man" which was a catalyst to the beginning of the field of environmental ethics. Here is the question (in my own words)
A man is about to die. He is the last human on earth. No humans will come after him to "judge" his decisions after he dies. He decides that he wants to kill a beautiful Redwood tree (also the last of its species). His reason for doing so is "just for fun." This would mean that there would be no more Redwood trees after he dies, and no more humans. So he would be intentionally killing this species of tree for fun. The question is:
Is it morally permissible for him to kill the tree? (Meaning that it's not wrong)
Is it morally impermissible for him to kill the tree? (Meaning that it is wrong)
What do you think?....
For those who would like a more indepth background, here is an 18 min video on the topic: https://youtu.be/TbtNdlCEqHk
Lynch him! Selfish twat. Of course it is wrong.
Should we not have some sense of responsibility, as an individual, to do that which is in the best interests of the mother planet? Many of the preventable wounds inflicted on Earth is by those with no interest in the fact that we live on, essentially, a living organism.
You know that I'm a fan to deontological moral systems. For me...none of the particulars of this case changes anything. If it's wrong for me to wipe out a species for fun now...it's wrong for him to do it for fun at the twilight of the human species.
In general...I'm not a fan of destroying entire organisms just for fun unless it serves some other purpose. Things get murky here when you consider "chopping down a 100 hectares of trees to build a football pitch. It means killing tons of trees and countless animals so that we can ultimately have some fun kicking a ball around. In any case, I still think there is a miniscule difference between doing questionable action A to acheive praiseworthy result B and doing questionable action A because you enjoy doing questionable action A.
But this is wiping out an entire species. I would not be a fan of allowing any exceptions for this (even if he is the last human around). If we permit him to kill out one species then we can permit him to wipe out as many species as he likes. We don't know the consequences of that action. Perhaps that species of tree was the only thing standing in the way of a massive invasive palgue that takes out most greenery...which will destroy Earth's elaborate oxygen producing factory which will take out most land creatures etc. A non-fertile Earth is a loss even if there are no sentient beings (or at least some mammals and sea creatures with some higher emotional sensitivity/inteligence). Perhaps inteligent life may emerge again on Earth but it depends on the survival of certain species of animals which depend on that tree. We just don't know the consequence of questionable events...even if it's just a little itsy bitsy exception. So no. It's pretty douchy to kill the last of a species for fun...even if you are the last man on Earth.
One consideration our hypothetical person would NOT have is "What kind of world are you leaving for your grandchildren?"
1) If I challenge the notion that "intrinsic value" makes any sense, and counter that value presupposes a sentient and intelligent evaluator, how would you reply? I'm essentially proposing that the only kind of value that really exists is the result of evaluation. In other words, what philosophers have called extrinsic value. One can say that some things, such as human life, have an intrinsic value, but that seems to be more of a sentimental opinion than a fact. If it's proposed as a fact, how one might falsify it, since if it can't at least in principle be falsified, many philosophers would say that it's nonsense.
2) "It can be argued that what makes it wrong to destroy all life is that this destroys the potential for future intelligent or sentient life." If there's no potential for intelligent or sentient life how then did life happen in the first place? I ask because it's widely accepted by astrobiologists that life cropped out of innert chemistry in millions if not billions of planetary systems around the universe, including here on earth. You don't need life to make life.
3) The narrator of the video likes thought experiments. Here's a thought experiment: I'm thinking of a bridge I've built in my mind out of matchsticks. Now, I'm thinking of a car driving over it, then a panel truck, then a 10-wheel tractor trailer. My matchstick bridge can support a tractor trailer! Thought experiments are great for brainstorming, but they aren't real experiments and prove nothing.
Depends on what ethical goggles you put on:
Virtue ethics - it seems as if the man gains nothing but personal pleasure from killing the tree and killing is generally not considered a virtuous act. Impermissible.
Deontological/duty ethics - Kant would probably say that cutting that the tree is not an act of pure reason, but giving in to animal urges. The motives thus breach the categorical imperative and is impermissible. Natural right ethicists such as Hobbes would probably say that if the man thinks it's the right thing to do then it's permissible. Rawls would probably note that this isn't an act we could all agree on if we were behind the veil of ignorance, and thus impermissible.
Teleological/Consequentialist ethics - Depends on which part of the outcome one focuses on, but in general if cutting down the tree gives the most pleasure to the most people, then go right ahead.
Feminist ethics - Is it a boy tree? Meh. Is it a girl tree? THAT AWFUL MAN!
Is the tree able to reproduce asexually or at least without cross pollination? If not, then the species, much like our own, is doomed to extinction anyway. The man is just speeding up the timeline.
This is an interesting question though. Part of me thinks that we try to preserve nature so that other people can enjoy it too. Take the other people away and that point becomes irrelevant. I don't think I'd kill the tree anyway though since nature is still there to enjoy nature.
I guess I would like to ask,
Does the tree have the option to fall on the last man as pay back?
Does the man have greater or lessor 'value' than the tree?
How much previous damage has the last man, or his kind, caused?
I guess, I figure that 'value' is not dependent upon 'humans', but something just a little more.