Holmes Rolston III

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Holmes Rolston III
Born (1932-11-19) November 19, 1932 (age 91)

Holmes Rolston III (born November 19, 1932) is a philosopher who is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He is best known for his contributions to environmental ethics and the relationship between science and religion. Among other honors, Rolston won the 2003 Templeton Prize, awarded by Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. He gave the Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh, 1997–1998. He also serves on the Advisory Council of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

The Darwinian model is used to define the main thematic concepts in Rolston's philosophy and, in greater depth, the general trend of his thinking.[1]


His grandfather and father Holmes Rolston, and Holmes Rolston Jr (who did not use the Jr) were Presbyterian ministers.[2] Rolston III was married on June 1, 1956 to Jane Irving Wilson, with whom he has a daughter and son. He holds a B.S. in physics and mathematics from Presbyterian-affiliated Davidson College (1953) and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary (1956).[3] He was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA) also in 1956. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1958;[4] his advisor was Thomas F. Torrance. He earned an M.A. in the philosophy of science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1968, beginning his career later that year as an assistant professor of philosophy at Colorado State University and becoming a full professor in 1976. He became a University Distinguished Professor in 1992. He gave the Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh, 1998-1999. He was named Templeton Prize laureate in 2003. He has lectured by invitation on all seven continents.[5]

Holmes Rolston 1900-1977[edit]

Holmes Rolston (1900-1977), father of Holmes Rolston III, was the Editor-in-Chief of the Presbyterian Church Board of Christian Education, in the United States, Richmond, Virginia between 1949 and 1969, and a widely published author of curriculum materials in Christian education.[6][7]

He gave the Sprunt Lectures, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Series XXXI 1941-1942, published as The Social Message of the Apostle Paul (John Knox Press, 1942). He also wrote a number of books on personalities in the Bible, for example: Faces about the Christ (John Knox Press, 1959) and Personalities Around David (John Knox Press, 1968). See Who's Who in America, 39th ed., 1976-1977.

Views on rights[edit]

Rolston accepts that humans have rights but has criticized the idea of animal rights and extending rights to flora because there are no rights in the wild. Rolston has argued that a rights approach to sentient life is ill-suited to ecosystems and when a moral agent is faced with suffering in an ecosystem there is no duty to intervene.[8] In 1991, Rolston stated:

When we try to use culturally extended rights and psychologically based utilities to protect the flora or even the insentient fauna, to protect endangered species or ecosystems, we can only stammer. Indeed, we get lost trying to protect bighorns, because, in the wild, cougars are not respecting the rights or utilities of the sheep they slay, and, in culture, humans slay sheep and eat them regularly, while humans have every right not to be eaten by either humans or cougars. There are no rights in the wild, and nature is indifferent to the welfare of particular animals.[9]

Rolston has also argued that "environmental ethics accepts predation as good in wild nature", Rolston says that wild predation should be respected because it has great importance for larger ecosystem and evolutionary processes.[10] For example, predators eliminate weak and unfit individuals from populations of prey organisms contributing to the overall integrity of those species and culling of unfit organisms by predators is vital to the evolutionary process of natural selection, which Rolston believes trends towards more complex and diverse life forms.[10] Rolston has stated that predation is an integral part of nature which "yields a flourishing of species" and has contributed to some of the most significant achievements in natural history and that without predation, life on earth would be greatly impoverished.[10]

Rolston has argued that when humans encounter wild nature they are not under any duty or obligation to alleviate any wild animal suffering and that since animals in the wild have no claim to a pleasant life free of pain then humans have no moral duty to provide them with one.[10] Rolston says that this also holds true for domesticated animals because although they have been brought under the care of humans, their origins are from wild nature so the comparison class for assessing conduct towards them should not be from humans but from other animals. In Rolston's view domesticated animals like wild animals "have no right or welfare claim to have from humans a kinder treatment than in nonhuman nature".[10]


Holmes Rolston III is author of eight books that have won acclaim in both academic journals and the mainstream press. They are:


We can be thrilled by a hawk in the wind-swept sky, by the rings of Saturn, the falls of Yosemite. We can admire the internal symmetry of a garnet crystal or appreciate the complexity of the forest humus. All these experiences come mediated by our cultural education; some are made possible by science. An Iroquois would have variant experiences, or none at all. But these experiences have high elements of givenness, of finding something thrown at us, of successful observation. The 'work' of observation is in order to understand the better.

— 'Are Values in Nature Subjective or Objective?', Environmental Ethics (1982)[11]

We rationalize that the place we inhabit has no normative structures, and that we can do what we please.

— 'Are Values in Nature Subjective or Objective?', Environmental Ethics (1982)[12]

The interface between science and religion is, in a certain sense, 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. ... The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow. ... But the religion that is divorced from science today will leave no offspring tomorrow.

— Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (1987, 2006)[13]

... On larger planetary scales it is better to build our cultures in intelligent harmony with the way the world is already built, rather than take control and rebuild this promising planet by ourselves and for ourselves. ... We do not want a de-natured life on a de-natured planet.

— A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth (2012)[14]

We walk too hurriedly if ever we pass the season's first Pasqueflower by, too busy to let its meeting stay us for a quiet moment before this token of the covenant of life to continue in perpetual beauty despite the storm. ... Let winters come; life will flower on as long as Earth shall last.

— Rolston Viewing a Pasqueflower (2014)[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Afeissa, H. S. (2008) "Darwinian Storied Residence. An introduction to the Work of Holmes Rolston III". S.A.P.I.EN.S. 1 (2)
  2. ^ Barrett, Greg (2003-03-22). "Philosophy Professor Applies Morals to Protect Ecology". The Newark Advocate. pp. 8B. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  3. ^ Gifford Lecture Profile Archived 2009-01-25 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Rolston, Holmes (1958). The understanding of sin and responsibility in the teaching of John Calvin (Doctoral thesis). The University of Edinburgh.
  5. ^ Philip Cafaro, "Holmes Rolston, III, — 1932–" in Callicott, J. Baird and Robert Frodeman, eds. Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, 2:211-212. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2009.
  6. ^ Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch Archive. 1977, November, p. 16.
  7. ^ Spaugh, Herbert (1954-11-02). "Great Figure". Fort Lauderdale News. p. 6. Retrieved 2022-09-12.
  8. ^ Attfield, Robin (1989). "Book Review: Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values of the Natural World". Environmental Ethics. 11 (4): 363–368. doi:10.5840/enviroethics19891144.
  9. ^ Rolston, Holmes. Environmental Ethics: Values in and Duties to the Natural World. In F. Herbert Bormann and Stephen R. Kellert. (1991). Ecology, Economics, Ethics: The Broken Circle. Yale University Press. pp. 73-96.
  10. ^ a b c d e Diehm, Christian. (2012). Unnaturally Cruel: Rolston on Animals, Ethics, and the Factory Farm. Expositions 6.1: 29-40. ISSN: 1747–5376.
  11. ^ Environmental Ethics 1982 (vol. 4, number 2), pp. 133-4.
  12. ^ Environmental Ethics 1982 (vol. 4, number 2), p. 150.
  13. ^ Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, Holmes Rolston III, (1987), page vi, page ix (preface), Temple University Press, 1st ed., 358 pages, ISBN 0-87722-437-4
  14. ^ A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth, (2012), pages 26, 46, 48 Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-88484-6
  15. ^ Rolston, Holmes (31 December 2013). Rolston viewing a Pasqueflower. Colorado State University. hdl:10217/192784.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]