John Passmore

[T]he title of this book [Man's Responsibility for Nature ] is often misquoted, as man's responsibility to, rather than for, nature. The difference is fundamental. 'Nature' is not a pseudo-person, to whom human beings are responsible .Human beings are responsible [only] for nature.

The Australian philosopher and historian of ideas, John Passmore, published the pioneering book referred to in the above passage in 1974. A decade later it could still be described as 'the one authoritative treatment of environmental ethics so far produced',2 and nearly three decades after its appearance its arguments and conclusions remain ones with which all serious environmental philosophers feel obliged to engage.

Passmore was born in 1914, in Manley, New South Wales. A graduate of Sydney University, he taught philosophy at his alma mater until 1949, when he went to teach in New Zealand. After returning to his own country in 1955, he became Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, where he remained until retirement. He is now Emeritus Professor at the ANU.

Passmore has written widely in most fields of philosophy, but it was with his magisterial history of the subject since the mid-nineteenth century, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1957), that he first attracted a wide readership. (Thirty years later, a supplement appeared, Recent Philosophers, in which Passmore brought the story up to date, and expressed his well-known antipathy to fashionable trends in 'Continental' philosophy, such as deconstruction.) Passmore's skill as a historian was again displayed in The Perfectibility of Man (1970). It was to be Mans Responsibility for Nature (MRN) and some associated papers, however, which made his name known well beyond the confines of philosophy. A second edition of MRN appeared in 1980, now boosted by a useful new Preface and an Appendix based on a lecture entitled 'Attitudes to Nature', the best succinct introduction to Passmore's position. In recent years, his interests have not focused on environmental questions, but he has continued to write the occasional piece in this area, including an incisive article on the political aspects of environmentalism in an edited volume on contemporary political philosophy. His last book, Serious Art (1991), reflects a knowledge of and feeling for a dimension of human life which readers of MRN will already have discerned.

MRN was inspired by two convictions: first, that 'men cannot go on living as they have been living, as predators on the biosphere', but second, that irrationalist tendencies in the burgeoning environmentalist movement are threatening to make matters worse (xiii). The book has three fairly specific aims: to examine historically the religious and other ideas which have shaped current attitudes and behaviour towards the natural world; to argue for a number of solutions to our most pressing environmental problems; and to 'remove the rubbish' of fashionable, obfuscating ecological views which hinder solutions to these problems. These aims are connected by an 'over-arching intention: to consider whether the solution of ecological problems demands a moral or metaphysical revolution' (xiv). Passmore's conclusion is that we require neither. A balanced history of ideas will show that at least the 'seeds' of appropriate environmental action are to be found in the Western tradition. The best way to tackle the pressing problems is to call upon a tradition of scientific reason and upon moral convictions with a long pedigree. Finally, in 'removing the rubbish', one demonstrates the bankruptcy, dangers and sometimes hypocrisy in the calls—by 'deep ecologists', 'nature mystics', 'eco-feminists' and others—for a 'new' morality and metaphysics. What we need, writes Passmore, is 'not so much a "new ethic" as a more general adherence to a perfectly familiar ethic' (187).

A main purpose in the historical chapters is to counter the familiar accusation that the Judaeo-Christian legacy is responsible for our 'predatory' treatment of nature. Passmore concedes that there is 'a strong Western tradition that man is free to deal with nature as he pleases' (27). First, however, the roots of this idea are not Jewish, but Greek, for it was the Stoics who bequeathed to Christianity the teaching that the world was created for the sake of human beings. Second, that teaching cannot, by itself, inspire pernicious treatment of the environment, since it is more likely to encourage the 'quietist' belief that God's world is fine as it is, without our intervention. In order for 'anthropocentrism' to become pernicious, it required the much more recent idea—which emerges in Francis Bacon, and reaches its zenith in Marxist images of nature as wax in man's hands—that the proper life for human beings is one of active transformation of the world about them. Finally, although there indeed exists this 'predatory' tradition, there have also been countervailing ones, emphasizing people's prudent responsibilities towards nature and duties to 'perfect' the world in which they live (39).

It is those 'minority traditions' to which we should turn in addressing the most pressing modern problems—those of pollution, conservation of resources, preservation of relatively untouched areas and overpopulation. In each case, Passmore strives to instil a sense of realism and to strike a balance between extremes. It is a waste of time to propose solutions which for political reasons, say, are totally unworkable. He is especially critical of bland calls to reduce the human population which would require gross violation of the democratic process. In this instance, as in others, environmentalists too readily ignore the question 'How are we to get from here to there?'3 Workable solutions, he argues, must steer between 'primitivism' and 'despotism' (39): between wholesale rejection of a concern for economic progress or material welfare and the unconstrained, short-sighted pursuit of such goals. Such solutions require the application of scientifically and technologically informed cost-benefit analysis of our present practices and the alternatives to them, together with judgement on the political viability and moral acceptability of these alternatives (71). In keeping with his 'overarching intention', Passmore argues that there is no need to introduce 'new' moral considerations, such as the 'absurd' idea that nature has 'rights'. Instead, we may justify conserving resources for future generations as an extension of a natural, 'loving' concern for children and grandchildren, just as we can condemn the destruction of wildernesses as a 'vandalism' of the kind always censured by Western morality (125).

The 'rubbish' which Passmore wants removed from recent environmental debate is a mixed pile. To begin with, there is '"mystical rubbish", the view that mysticism can save us, where technology cannot', and the related view that 'nature is sacred' (173-5). Such views, Passmore argues, not only rest on an implausible metaphysics but, unless supplemented by other considerations, have no 'environmentally friendly' implications. The idea that nature is sacred, for example, can also encourage Emerson's confidence that, as 'part and parcel of God', nature cannot really be harmed whatever we do to it (176). Second, he is critical of any 'primitivist' rejection of modernity in favour of forms of human life which leave nature untouched. Aside from belonging to the realm of fantasy, such proposals often smack of hypocrisy, since the few who might 'return to nature' will be parasitic on the many who do not. 'The Jain priest can walk abroad only because there are other, less spiritual, men.. .to sweep the paths for him' (126). Relatedly, Passmore is dismissive of those who regard man as a 'planetary disease' or 'obscene defiler' of 'flower-sweet Earth', purveyors of 'masochistic nonsense' who are blind both to the achievements of civilization and to the legitimate interests of human beings (181).4

In the Preface to the second edition of MRN, Passmore wryly observes that 'it is more than a little disconcerting to be cited both as one of the more virulent critics of economic growth and as an uncritical defender of the status quo' (vii). Certainly his critics have come from opposite directions. However, although early on he was attacked by economists and planners who resented the intrusion of environmental considerations into the pursuit of economic growth, the bulk of the critics have been fellow environmental thinkers. The most common charge is one of excessive 'conservatism'. At its mildest, the complaint has been that Passmore's cost-benefit approach to the solution of environmental problems, such as pollution, allows for insufficiently radical revaluation of the policies whose costs and benefits are to be assessed.5 Less mildly, it has been argued that Passmore scores a hollow victory in showing that traditional values suffice for moral appraisal of proposed solutions to our problems, since he wrongly refuses to recognize any moral problems except those which concern the interests of human beings.6

Passmore's most hostile critics, unsurprisingly, come from the ranks of those writers whom he has accused of purveying the 'rubbish' discussed above. Deep ecologists, eco-feminists and others convict Passmore of a complacent and speciesist 'human chauvinism'. His way with such critics is, on the one hand, to charge them with misunderstanding or distorting his position. He points out, for example, that in denying that non-human life can enjoy 'rights', he is in no way denying that we can and do act in morally wrong ways towards animals and environments. Moreover, he might add, his hostile critics overlook the genuinely radical shifts in human attitudes for which he is calling. In some of the most interesting passages of MRN, Passmore argues that it is not just economic greed which has been responsible for our ecological problems. So, ironically, have a 'puritanism' and 'asceticism' which make it difficult for people simply to enjoy the world around them 'as itself an object of absorbing interest, not...a resource' (126). A more 'sensuous society' than our own, in which people are 'ready to enjoy the present moment for itself', would never have endured 'the desolate towns.the slag-heaps [and] the filthy rivers' which now surround them (188-9). Passmore's other response to his radical critics is simply and unapologetically to accept their labelling him a 'chauvinist', 'speciesist' and 'shallow'. If the pejorative point of such labels is to condemn anyone who treats human interests as paramount, then Passmore is content to stand condemned (187).

John Passmore's book Man's Responsibility for Nature remains the most authoritative statement of a main tendency in environmental ethics, constantly cited by both adherents and opponents of that tendency. Within philosophical circles, it may be the 'deeper' ecological tendency represented by Arne Naess which has attracted more attention in recent years. But it is surely the 'shallower' approach of Passmore which has done more to inform the environmental policies of governments and other organizations for which, ultimately, the interests of human beings must be of paramount concern.


1 All page references in the text are to the second edition of Man's Responsibility for Nature.

2 R.Attfield, The Ethics of Environmental Concern, p. ix.

3 Passmore, 'Environmentalism', in R.Goodin and P.Pettit (eds), A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 479, 1993.

4 Passmore's targets here are Ian McHarg and W.S.Blunt ('the ecologist's poet-laureate' (p. 180)).

5 See, e.g., C.A.Hooker, 'On Deep versus Shallow Theories of Environmental Pollution', in R.Eliot and A.Gere (eds), Environmental Philosophy, Milton Keynes: Open University, pp. 58-84, 1983.

6 See R.Attfield, The Ethics of Environmental Concern, pp. 4ff, and Val Routley, 'Critical Notice of John Passmore's Man's Responsibility for Nature', pp. 171-85.

See also in this book

Bacon, Emerson, Marx, McHarg, Naess, Plumwood

Passmore's major writings

A Hundred Years of Philosophy, London: Duckworth, 1957; republished by Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968.

The Perfectibility of Man, London: Duckworth, 1970.

Man's Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions, London: Duckworth, 1974; second and enlarged edition, 1980.

Further reading

Attfield, R., The Ethics of Environmental Concern, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Hooker, C.A., 'Responsibility, Ethics and Nature', in D.E.Cooper and J. A. Palmer (eds), The Environment in Question, London: Routledge, pp. 147-64, 1992.

Routley, V. (now V.Plumwood), 'Critical Notice of John Passmore's Man's Responsibility for Nature', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 53, pp. 17185, 1975.


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  • conor
    What is john passmore's view on environment?
    8 years ago
  • codi
    What motivated passmore to write the perfectibility of man?
    3 years ago
  • girma
    How did john passmore challenge the status quo?
    1 year ago

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