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The Father of Environmental Ethics


Pitt alumnus Holmes Rolston III’s work in environmental ethics has brought him face-to-face with mountain gorillas in Uganda and with Britain’s Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace.

In 2003, the latter presented Rolston (A&S ’68) with the Templeton Prize for “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities.” Established in 1972 by American-born entrepreneur Sir John Marks Templeton, the annual prize includes a tribute of 1 million British pounds (about $1.6 million in 2012 dollars). Templeton stipulated that the prize’s purse always exceed that of the Nobel.

While some scientists have criticized the prize for mixing religiosity with scientific inquiry, Templeton said it is intended to recognize outstanding work to advance peace, social justice, and human knowledge of the universe.

Rolston himself has called the interface between science and religion “a no-man’s land. No specialized science is competent here, nor does classical theology or academic philosophy really own this territory. This is an interdisciplinary zone where inquirers come from many fields. But this is a land where we increasingly must live.”

Rolston’s article “Is There an Ecological Ethic?”, published in Ethics in 1975, was the first article in a major philosophical journal to challenge the idea that nature is value-free and that all values stem from human perspectives; it also helped to launch environmental ethics as a branch of philosophical inquiry, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Today the University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, Rolston was honored by the Templeton Prize judges for his efforts to reconcile Darwinian naturalism with classical theology. This lifelong quest has inspired Rolston to (among other things) earn an MA in philosophy of science at Pitt, perform fieldwork in such places as Siberia and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University in 1997-98. Rolston is believed to be the only academician to have lectured by invitation on all seven continents.