John Passmore (9 September 1914 – 25 July 2004)

Portrait of Australian philosopher John PassmoreBy Bill Grey
John Passmore (1914-2004) died in July 2004, a few months before his 90th birthday. In his seminal book Man’s Responsibility for Nature (1974) Passmore argued that there is urgent need to change our attitude to the environment, and that humans cannot continue as predators on the biosphere. However he rejected the view that we need to abandon the Western tradition of scientific rationalism, and was unsympathetic towards attempts to articulate environmental concern through radical revisions of our ethical framework, which he conceived as misguided mysticism or irrationalism. Passmore’s unequivocal anthropocentrism made him a reference point in the discourse of environmental ethics and many treatises in field begin with (or include) a refutation of his views. Passmore’s skepticism about attempts to attribute intrinsic value to nature, and his preferred position of valuing nature in terms of what it contributes to the flourishing of sentient creatures (including humans), is perhaps not as unfashionable now as it was 20 years ago. Passmore was as much a historian of ideas as a philosopher and his scholarship always paid careful attention to the complex historical context of philosophical problems. He published about twenty books, many of which have been translated. Passmore will be remembered as a thinker who helped to shape public debate and who helped to open up domains of applied philosophy and the history of ideas to the wider world.

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