Should aesthetic appreciation of the environment drive environmental ethics?

I read an article by Professor J. Robert Loftis entitled “Three Problems for the Aesthetic Foundations of Environmental Ethics.”  He argues that aesthetics cannot justify environmental protection for three reasons:

1) Aesthetics are too superficial.  


Professor Loftis compares natural beauty to human beauty and comes up with some absurd situations.  Would it be OK for a doctor to treat patients based on their good looks?  Should we view Julia Butterfly Hill, who sat for two years in a redwood tree, as a stalker?

From this angle, it appears that environmental ethics cannot depend on aesthetics – especially when environmentalists are demanding that society make real sacrifices to protect the environment.

So philosophers try to expand the notion of aesthetics to be more…serious.  What if “beautiful” and “good” are identical or closely related, as Plato believed?  This understanding of aesthetics is unfamiliar and strange to most people.  As Professor Loftis says, it can be difficult to swallow.  Yet without “reforming the metaphysics of aesthetics,” we’re left with a superficial aesthetics that does not lead to strong ethical duties.

2) It won’t justify protecting ugly nature.

Photo by Luis Sánchez

Aesthetic appreciation of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone might lead us to an ethic of preservation, but what about more mundane landscapes?  If their aesthetic value is minimal, will our duty to protect them be minimal too?

One answer is to say that aesthetic appreciation of nature requires scientific knowledge.  This analogizes from art: you can’t appreciate an impressionist painting unless you know a little something about that period in art history.  So to appreciate a dull, uninspiring landscape requires knowing facts about it: the web of life that it supports, its geological history, etc.

Another answer is to say that all of nature is beautiful (or has aesthetic value, which might consist of more than what we commonly call beauty).  But what about things we really do find ugly?  Tapeworms, smallpox, etc.?

Another approach would be to forget aesthetics: dull landscapes and ugly creatures might not have aesthetic value, but they do have instrumental value.  They’re valuable because of some other value, such as maintaining a stable ecosystem.  Yet this may not be true for many species.

3) The technological world can be aesthetically pleasing too.  

Photo by Nicolas Halftermeyer

Professor Loftis calls this the “Technology-Is-Beautiful Problem.”  He writes:

“The idea that technology can be beautiful might seem anathema to many environmental ethicists, but it must be acknowledged that it is at least a possibility.  Whole departments on our campuses are devoted to the study and production of good-looking buildings.”

I find this last line rather humorous.  I’d say, go to an Apple Store to see whether people find technology beautiful.  They do.

But what about freeway interchanges, strip malls, etc.?  Is it possible that we just don’t properly appreciate the technological world?  Maybe freeways and strip malls actually do have aesthetic value.  As Professor Loftis points out, environmentalists have asked us to revise our opinions on “ugly” nature, so why can’t technologists do the same for “ugly” technology?


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