Is there a moral duty to appreciate un-scenic nature?

Philosopher Yuriko Saito argues in “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature” that there is. She reminds us that people once used to find mountains ugly; now, we spend our free time climbing them.  Our aesthetic judgments are still evolving.

We are witnessing another revolution in this country which started a century ago. Its primary purpose is to overcome the pictorial appreciation of the natural environment, a legacy left by the picturesque aesthetics established during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

The “picturesque” refers to appreciating nature as a picture, composed of formal qualities like shape and color.  Think postcards.

Professor Saito says in a separate article, “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms,” that it’s okay to begin our appreciation of nature in the picturesque:

Even Aldo Leopold, the champion of aesthetic education concerning nature, recognizes that “our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.”

But as in art, we should refine our taste.  Some philosophers think that the picturesque  is a shallow mode of appreciation, and that if we are to “truly” appreciate something as it actually is – whether it be art or nature – we must first acquire knowledge about the object.  For artworks, that’s art history. For nature, that’s science.

But Professor Saito points out that sometimes it’s more enjoyable to view something without knowledge.  A painting may contain historical references that take time and patience to decipher and appreciate.  It might be a lot more fun to simply appreciate the painting’s shapes and colors instead.   So why bother?

She says:

Our refusal to experience an art object on its own terms, that is, within its own historical and cultural context as well as by reference to the artist’s intention, indicates our unwillingness to put aside (at least to a certain extent) our own agenda…

This applies to nature too:

[I]n the case of nature, our effort at understanding its origin, structure, and function correctly indicates our willingness to recognize its own reality quite apart from us and to suspend our exclusive pursuit for entertainment in nature.



But why is this “willingness” so important?

The ultimate reason for aesthetically appreciating the scenically challenged is the moral importance of overcoming our perception of nature as (visual) resources to be used for our enjoyment.

So we have a moral duty to transcend shallow aesthetic appreciation. This suggests that it would be wrong to drive through a national park with a camera, hunting for the most picturesque scenes.  Or at least it would be wrong if you did that every time, never progressing toward a more informed appreciation.

And this duty extends to appreciating “ugly” or unscenic nature.


Santo and other philosophers think that scientific knowledge is key to appreciating nature “on its own terms.”  (In a separate article, she says that folklore and myths about particular regions are also useful in informing our aesthetic judgments).

But how do we appreciate unscenic nature?  How do you find beauty in a dead elk crawling with maggots?

One possibility is to view the object in context.  Try to appreciate the drama of life, the cycle of nutrients, etc.

But Saito asks where to draw the line: ultimately, the entire Earth is the context. And even if you draw the line at the level of the ecosystem, then the aesthetic value of the ecosystem predetermines the aesthetic value of the objects within the system. There’d be no need to even look at the individual objects to appreciate them.

Saito reminds us that aesthetic appreciation is sensuous.

I believe that the aesthetic appreciation has to begin and end with the sensuous, though the sensuous can be, and often is, modified or adjusted by the conceptual.

So the the “aesthetic value of the elk with maggots is not simply our conceptual understanding of its role in the ecosystem, but the way in which its various sensory qualities illustrate or express their important role.”

In our aesthetic appreciation, we are backtracking the scientific story to the sensuous, as it were, because the sensuous is what suggests the scientific account in the first place.

But is science the best way to appreciate nature on its own terms, as it truly is?

In a separate article, Saito responds to the objection that science “still does not tell us nature’s story; rather, it tells our story.”  She says:

[T]hey are stories of natural objects’ own lives, suggested by their specific perceptible features, even if they must be told by means of our images and vocabulary.

She also responds to the objection that science detracts from nature’s sensuous qualities.  She distinguishes physics and chemistry from the natural sciences, which focus on objects’ “secondary qualities,” like color.


This scientific approach leads to a Big Question:

Does all of nature have positive aesthetic value?  

Some say it does, for if we inform ourselves and appreciate nature based on scientific understanding, we cannot fail to see the beauty of the natural world everywhere.

This is different from art.  Even if you understand art history, you might find that an artwork is morally repugnant or that it’s dull and uninteresting.  Nature, however, is amoral, and even the tiniest story it can tell – a blade of grass poking up through the soil – is interesting.  (We can, of course, question these last claims).

Saito disagrees that all of nature is aesthetically valuable, even if we appreciate it with scientific knowledge.

For instance, some natural objects can be dangerous.  Think snakes.  Yet if we view them as “museum pieces” behind glass, can we really ever appreciate them on their own terms?  We cannot engage with them, as some philosophers think we must.

And what about natural disasters?  Could you aesthetically appreciate an earthquake while it’s happening?  It might overwhelm your senses and preclude any possibility of aesthetic appreciation.  Moreover, what if you know that people are being killed?

Whether desirable or undesirable, wise or unwise, our human oriented moral sentiments do dictate that we not derive pleasure (including aesthetic pleasure) from other humans’ misery, even if it is caused by nature taking its course.

Hurricane Isabel from space.
Hurricane Isabel from space.

 I don’t think Saito adequately explains why we have a moral duty to inform our appreciation of nature through science.  

The philosopher Allen Carlson says that we should do so to appreciate nature as it truly is.  For instance, if we mistakenly believe that a whale is a fish and not a mammal, our appreciation of its underwater movements would be inaccurate.

But Saito extends this farther, into the realm of moral obligation.  She says, again:

The ultimate reason for aesthetically appreciating the scenically challenged is the moral importance of overcoming our perception of nature as (visual) resources to be used for our enjoyment.

I’m sympathetic to this feeling, but I’m not sure it makes sense.

I do think I have a moral duty to appreciate a person beyond their superficial appearance.  Why?  Because a person is not merely a means to some other end – in this case, as a means to my aesthetic enjoyment.

But does this reasoning extend to nature?  Does this return us to the hunt for nature’s “intrinsic” value?

Are Saito and Carlson and other philosophers saying that we have a moral duty to understand the world scientifically?  Is it morally wrong to live a life uninformed by science?  That seems like a rather bold claim.  You could object that it’s culturally biased toward Western ideas of truth, etc.

Perhaps there is a difference between understanding and appreciation.  Perhaps the moral duty that Saito argues for is confined to appreciation.  Thus, I do not have a duty to understand the world scientifically, as long as that act of understanding does not turn into the act of appreciation.

But is there really a difference between understanding and appreciation?

One possibility is that appreciation suggests action.  To appreciate is to relate to an object, and that relation leads to a change in behavior.  In fact, we might view appreciation as a moral virtue, which has a motivational component.

Professor Saito does not believe that everything in nature deserves aesthetic “appreciation,”  such as natural disasters that harm people.  But doesn’t she really mean that not everything deserves our positive response?   Can’t we appreciate something truly as it is, on its own terms, and still not like it?

Appreciation, even well-informed by science, does not necessarily lead to positive evaluation.  

If this is so in the case of natural disasters, why is it not the case for bug-infested swamps, etc?

Does Saito’s moral requirement for appreciation extend to the non-natural world?


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