Aesthetics, Ethics and Nature

Paul O’Brien


Should we value baby seals over baby rats, just because most people believe that seals are cuter? If it’s inappropriate to judge humans on aesthetic grounds, why is it appropriate to judge between species of animals on those grounds? Is nature a value to which we should always aspire? What are the exceptions? In the struggle between Gaia and humanity, which side should we come down on, and why? Can war, or pollution, be beautiful? Where evil is beautiful, is it to be valued—and if not, why not? Is “art for earth’s sake” possible or desirable? This presentation briefly highlights some key tensions that arise in the interface between ethics, aesthetics, politics and the environment. On the way to a new global value system, it is important to examine not only the traditional axiological categories of ethics and aesthetics, but also the areas of tension and conflict that they sometimes involve.


Aesthetics, Ethics and Nature

I would like to consider a few issues on the interface between ethics and aesthetics, with particular reference to some recent discussions surrounding ethics and aesthetics.  I’m particularly interested in the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgements, and the issues—not least political issues—that arise in their interface. Aesthetic concerns (specifically the valuation of beauty) are more basic to our judgments than we imagine; and—arguably–for the most part, that’s the way it should be. They are also politically useful in the context of environmental politics, though at times they may be philosophically questionable or even inadequate.

In important ways, beauty is not necessarily coincident with moral goodness, or the aesthetic with the ethical. That which is good is not always aesthetically pleasing (for example, the unpleasant duties involved in caring for a sick family member) and that which is evil may be beautiful. Some great art has morally deplorable aspects (at least from our privileged historical standpoint): for example the music of Wagner which acted as a cultural reinforcement of Nazism, or Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.[i] Mary Devereaux points out that, given our Platonic tendency to equate the beautiful with the good, “there is something paradoxical about a work of art that so tightly weaves the beautiful and the morally evil” (Devereaux, 1998, p. 250). Less extreme examples might include gangster films (such as the Godfather films) which reflect both the positive (loyalty, family affection) and the negative (ruthless violence) aspects of the gangster lifestyle.

We could also consider the tension between aesthetic and ethical values when it comes to art, in its relation to the environment. Suzi Gablik (Gablik, 2002) argues for an ecologically-committed art practice, as distinct from a (purely) aesthetically-based one. On the one hand, we may object that didactic art, including art that consciously tries to save the planet, is stillborn in aesthetic terms (when the artist becomes a teacher, the argument goes, he/she ceases to be an artist). On the other hand, there is the historical example of Brecht and a whole raft of Leftist-minded artists: there has often been an implicit running-together of aesthetic with political/ethical values in art practice and discourse, going back to the early part of the twentieth century, however much one might desire to distinguish the  categories of the aesthetic and the political.

In terms of contemporary environmental politics, if nature is compromised to the extent that human habitation of the earth is no longer possible, then it will mean the end of art in a very real sense, as distinct from a theoretical sense, thus making the whole debate irrelevant.

It is, indeed, questionable how much, with the best will in the world, art can do to save the planet. But since our desire to save nature is itself, in large part, based on our aesthetic valuation of nature, it could be argued that even ethical, politically-motivated environmental art is ultimately based—like so much else[ii]–on aesthetics itself.

Aesthetics may be a sound indicator of something wrong in an ethical or ecological sense. The “yuck factor” in regard to genetically manipulated plants and food may indicate an instinctive apprehension of the dangers of the practice—dangers perhaps yet to be revealed in the laboratory–just as the incest taboo may indicate a (possibly unconscious) awareness of the (scientifically verifiable) increase in the likelihood of genetic defects through inbreeding. Nevertheless, some attempts to base ethics on aesthetics have been historically disastrous in a political sense (as in the Nazi project of attempting to breed a—purportedly–aesthetically-superior “master race”) so that is at least an argument that we should be careful of any such project.

However, in the sphere of everyday life, aesthetics commonly guides our actions, consciously or unconsciously, rightly or wrongly. Take the case of a person with two children, one of whom is beautiful and the other plain (or at least they are regarded as such by the parent in question). The parent treats the beautiful child well, and the plain child less well. Most people would agree that this is not morally-correct behaviour, but rather bad parenting and psychologically damaging for one (or possibly both) of the children. Behaviour based on aesthetic differentiation is, therefore, sometimes morally questionable.

Nevertheless, most people want to have beautiful children, and are not criticized for such desires. We may prefer one of our children who is more beautiful, to another who is less beautiful, though—for moral reasons–we may try to hide such preferences from the children in question. So if it’s justifiable to want beautiful children (as distinct from plain children)–though it may be wrong to treat them differently on grounds of appearance—it is presumably also justifiable to choose a beautiful partner over a plain partner—one, indeed, who is more likely to produce healthy children. (Indeed, if Arthur Schopenhauer is to be believed, that may have been the unconscious reason for the choice of partner in the first place)[iii] More recently, Deborah Rhode (citing a number of studies[iv]) writes that:

“Over time, individuals whose genes survive are those who choose mates with characteristics conducive to reproductive success. Attractiveness is one such characteristic because it signals health and fertility, particularly in females. Evolutionary imperatives similarly encourage parents to favor children who are attractive because they are likely to have greatest reproductive potential.” (Rhode, 2012, p. 46)

We normally give more weight to aesthetic rather than moral issues in making a choice of partner—and there is little condemnation of such a reproductive preference. Few people are criticized for making aesthetics the major, or at least a major, factor in their choice of partner, or in their preferences as to how their children should turn out. However, it is regarded as unacceptable for such biases to enter into the courtroom or the workplace: attractive defendants, or prospective employees, should, we feel, surely not be treated any more favourably than their unattractive counterparts.  We think differently (albeit perhaps unconsciously) in regard to the future of the species, than we do in regard to how we should treat the rest of the species as it currently exists. There is consequently a tension between the way we behave according to nature, and the way we believe we ought to behave according to social norms of equality, justice and fairness. Aesthetics, in the latter case, is replaced (or at least tempered) by morality and ethics.

In the sphere of sexual relationships, eros, at least in terms of conscious choice, usually triumphs over agape. Most of us do not consciously engage in breeding from an altruistic desire to improve the human race—though that may indeed be the outcome. On the other hand, it might be argued that because beautiful children are liable to be happier in life, such an aesthetic bias in favour of beautiful offspring is in fact morally as well as aesthetically justifiable (though if such a moral basis for the aesthetic choice in terms of reproduction exists, it is normally unconscious).

If, then, there is some kind of “natural” drive that impels us to prefer beauty over its opposite, and if that drive is acceptable—or indeed desirable–in the sphere of human reproduction, the moral (and political) question arises as to whether such drives of nature are to be rejected in other areas, such as law and employment. For example, as Rhode argues (2010) there is an argument that we should institute laws to make “lookism” (the tendency to prefer attractive people over unattractive) as unacceptable as racism or sexism, for example in the area  of employment. Most people would say that discrimination based on looks is, as a general rule, undesirable, though apparently this commonly happens (eg Rhode, 2010, pp. 19-22, 148-150). As Rhode writes, “the clearest argument for condemning appearance discrimination is that it offends principles of equal opportunity and individual dignity.” (Rhode, 2010, p. 11)

In regard to our valuation of nature, aesthetics plays a large and perhaps predominant part. We like trees not just because they provide wood or soak up Co2, but also because of their aesthetic value. In the terms of Aldo Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (Leopold, 1949 [1987] p. 224, qtd in Palmer, 2003, p. 24.) In a sense, destroying a species could be regarded as a worse aesthetic crime than destroying a work of art by da Vinci or Michelangelo: the latter could in principle be re-created, while the former could not. (Nelson, 2003, p. 419) Tom Regan raises the question, though, as to what one should do if faced with the choice between killing a rare wildflower and a (plentiful) human being. Such “aggregative” (or numerical) considerations should not weigh in such a situation, he argues. (Regan, 2003, p. 72) Intuitively, it is hard to argue against that position. A person who deliberately ran over a human being to avoid swerving and thereby destroying a rare plant at the side of the road, would, we feel, justifiably be convicted of manslaughter (at least). His or her environmental motivations would hardly be taken into account, nor should they be.

However (hard cases apart) we tend to believe that a person who deliberately and unnecessarily damages a tree should be held accountable, and that accountability has, in large part, a basis in our judgement about the value that trees have for us in aesthetic terms. However, it would be wrong to make aesthetics the sole basis of judgement in regard to the preservation of nature. In terms of nature as a whole, the beautiful is not necessarily coincident with the well-being of nature. Some areas that we might want to preserve are just not that attractive (Parsons, 2008, p. 55). Some things are environmentally beneficial that may be aesthetically displeasing: wind farms may spoil the landscape (according to some aesthetic evaluation) while at the same time helping to head off global warming.

On the other hand, some things are beautiful that may indicate environmental damage: polluted waterways may provide aesthetically-pleasing patterns of colour. Emily Brady gives the example of the importation of Rhododendron ponticum to Britain in the eighteenth century. While beautiful with its bright and colourful flowers, it is toxic to plants and animals. (Brady, 2002, p.114) She observes: “I may wish to support the eradication of a non-native species on moral grounds, but it would not be inconsistent for me to continue to find the species aesthetically appealing.” (P. 118) Our appreciation of a striking sunset may be dampened when we find out that the cause is due in part to sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere. (P. 117)[v] Furthermore, attempts to intervene in nature may be aesthetically self-defeating. Brady remarks that thin, or shallow, aesthetic response differs from thick, or deep aesthetic responses (ie those informed by knowledge). (P. 120)

Some (aesthetically pleasing) manifestations of nature may, then, be environmentally damaging; other manifestations may be aesthetically neutral, or negative; and it may in the future be possible to replace the experience of nature completely with some virtual reality simulation. (Parsons, 2008, p. 100) Aesthetics may be philosophically consistent and rhetorically beneficial in regard to the political defense of nature, but if aesthetics is all we have to rely on in terms of the defense of nature, it may not be enough. (Aesthetics is only one of a number of competing, albeit sometimes overlapping, potential bases for the valuation of the environment—these include arguments citing the intrinsic value of nature, bio-spherical egalitarianism, eco-feminism, and others.)

In a discussion entitled “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Ethics” Holmes Rolston III points out that: “…the world is beautiful in something like the way it is mathematical. Neither aesthetic experience (in the reflective sense) nor mathematical experience exist prior to the coming of humans. Mathematics and aesthetics are human constructs; they come out of the human head and are used to map the world.” (Rolston, 2002, p. 133) However, he argues that the wildness of a place, which we enjoy aesthetically, is not in the mind, but in the place itself (pp. 135-36). Rolston concludes that aesthetics can provide an adequate foundation for an environmental ethic insofar as aesthetics is founded on natural history.

Whether wildness, or indeed nature itself, exists outside of human experience and construction is a thorny epistemological question beyond the scope of this essay, and invokes an ongoing theoretical struggle between (interpretations of) realism on the one hand, and relativism/postmodernism on the other.[vi] However, the crucial point, from a political as distinct from a purely philosophical point of view, in favour of aesthetics as a basis for environmental politics is that it comes with a built-in bias in its favour. The aesthetic normally pertains to something we like. The drawback to this view is stated succinctly by Parsons: “if what we value aesthetically is the aesthetic experience generated by nature, and not nature itself, then any argument based in aesthetic value will only be effective as an argument for preserving the experience, not for preserving nature.” (Parsons, 2008, p. 100)

The issue of aesthetic evaluation becomes even more complicated when we look at competing claims, particularly in the area of animal rights. Should we value baby seals over baby rats, just because most people believe that seals are cuter than rats? We may become upset at reports of cats, dogs and monkeys being used in laboratory experiments, but (perhaps) less so at the use of rats and mice, even though the latter may feel pain or distress as much as the former. A cat may be preferred to a crocodile, perhaps because as a mammal it is closer to us, more intelligent than a crocodile, and (usually) more cuddly. Aesthetics is often the basis of our valuation of one species over another–just as it is in regard to the comparative valuation of individual members of our own species, when it comes to making vital reproductive choices. Indeed, aesthetics is often the reason for our valuation of nature itself. Even in the case of those who regard nature as having some kind of intrinsic value, all we know or can know of nature is what we perceive of it; and we value it, to a large extent, in proportion to how aesthetically pleasing we find it[vii].

Kate Soper writes: “Either some parts of nature are more valuable (rich, complex, sentient, beautiful…), and hence to be more energetically preserved, or they are not. But if they are not, then we should take the measure of the value system involved, and not present bio-centrism as if it were plainly in the interests of the species being called upon to adopt its values.” (Soper, 1995, p. 257.) This quote may illustrate the limits of the aesthetic response in providing an arguable basis for nature-conservation: if we want to protect nature for itself, we may need to provide some rationale that is not limited by our own, species-specific, aesthetic and other values. But whether it is even possible—even if it were desirable–for us to think outside the boundaries of our own species is another question.

In one sense, we are all speciesists. When it comes to the crunch, we prefer our own species to others, or at least we tend to think that we should. A pilot of a stricken airplane who chose to crash into an apartment block rather than a zoo (or a wildlife-rich park) is, we tend to feel, not the kind of person who should have been employed as a pilot in the first place. Faced with a choice whether to save a drowning human or a drowning hedgehog, most people would argue that the human should be saved, regardless of how morally deplorable an individual he/she may be (or, indeed, how blameless the hedgehog). For one thing, there is at least the possibility of a moral turn-around on the part of the human, particularly if faced with a new lease of life. Perhaps we are hard-wired in favour of our own species. (Whether nature got that right, or not, is of course another question.)

As a vegetarian, I wear leather shoes and belts since I have not found a useful substitute, but eyebrows might be raised if I were to wear similar articles of clothing made of human skin. Similarly, even the carnivores among us tend to eschew cannibalism—except perhaps as a last resort in a survival situation—out of respect for our own species, in addition to whatever health benefits may accrue from avoiding anthropophagy.

Most of us feel an over-riding sense of loyalty to our immediate family over other human beings; and we feel that a loyalty to our own species in the case of conflict with animals, plants, extra-terrestrials (or whatever) is a justifiable motivating factor. On the other hand, we feel loyalty, or at least responsibility, to other species insofar as they conform to our preferences, preferences in which aesthetics plays a large part.

The aesthetic response, then, provides a politically-useful, though perhaps speciesist, rationale for a defence of the environment. We should preserve nature—apart from whatever other things it might offer in terms of life-preservation, bio-diversity and so on–because it is a source of aesthetic delight and spiritual renewal for human beings. In terms of a philosophical justification of the defense of nature, aesthetics has important competitors (for example the concept of the intrinsic value of nature, or biospherical egalitarianism). But most of us, when the chips are down, would prefer our own lives to the lives of mosquitos, and not only that, but we feel we are correct to do so. Whether we are “right” on that is another matter, and one for ongoing philosophical debate.


List of references

Berleant, Arnold (ed.) (2002) Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics, England: Ashgate.

Brady, Emily (2002) Aesthetics, Ethics and the Natural Environment, in Arnold Berleant (ed.) Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics, pp. 113-126.

Devereaux, Mary (1998) “Beauty and Evil: the Case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will,” in Jerrold Levinson (ed.) Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Gablik, Suzi (2002) The Reenchantment of Art, London: Thames and Hudson.

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949, 1987).

Light, Andrew and Holmes Rolston III, Environmental Ethics: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Nelson, Michael P., “An Amalgamation of Wilderness Preservation Arguments,” in Light and Rolston (eds.) pp. 413-436.

Parsons, Glenn (2008) Aesthetics and Nature, London: Continuum, p. 2008.

Palmer, Clare, “An Overview of Environmental Ethics,” in Light and Rolston (eds), pp. 15-37.

Regan, Tom, “Animal Rights: What’s in a Name?” in Light and Rolston (eds.) pp. 65-73.

Rhode, Deborah L. (2010) The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Rolston, Holmes, III, “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Ethics” in Berleant (ed.) pp. 127-141.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1928) The World as Will and Idea, trans. R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sontag, Susan (1980) “Fascinating Fascism,” Under the Sign of Saturn, New York: Writers and Readers.





[i] Mary Devereaux argues that “Part of the evil of the film [Triumph of the Will] consists in the fact that is designed to move us in…the direction of evil.” (Devereaux, p. 249). This is surely wrong. Apart from the issue of the  “intentional fallacy”—the position that an author’s intentions do not necessarily weigh in terms of the meaning of the work–Riefenstahl could hardly have been consciously aware in 1934 of the depths to which the Nazi project would later sink. (There was, of course, already evidence of the dark side of Nazism in the early 1930s—though how aware of that Riefenstahl would have been, remains in question. Nor is Triumph of the Will an anti-semitic work on the lines of, eg, the film Jud Suess made under the Nazi aegis, or even The Merchant of Venice.) See also Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” where she finds fascist elements not just in Triumph of the Will, but even—a monumental paradox–in Riefenstahl’s later aestheticisation of the African male body.

[ii] Including aspects of scientific practice, as when qualities like simplicity or elegance are preferred over complexity or ugliness.

[iii] See Schopenhauer, “The Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes,” in The World as Will and Idea, pp. 330-363; also Rhode, “Sociobiological Foundations,” in The Beauty Bias, pp. 45-48

[iv] David M. Buss, Sex Differences in Human Mate Selection Criteria: An Evolutionary Perspective,” in Charles Crawford, Martin Smith, and Dennis Krebs, Sociobiology and Psychology:  Ideas, Issues and Applications (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987), 335-51; David M. Buss and Michael Barnes, “Preferences in Human Mate Selection,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (1986): 559-70; Don Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Judith Langlois et al., “Maxims or Myths of Beauty: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review,” Psychological Bulletin 126 (2000): 390, 407-8.

[v] Brady supports what she calls “moderate autonomism” in regard to the relationship between the ethical and the aesthetic. She writes: “Moderate autonomism preserves the separation of the aesthetic and moral domains. It supports the intuition that moral concerns can be legitimately brought into aesthetic appreciation, but rejects the view that aesthetic defects follow from moral defects and that moral merits create aesthetic merits.” (Brady, p. 121.)

[vi] See, eg, Christopher Norris (1997) Against Relativism, Oxford: Blackwell.

[vii] We may of course also value nature for its biodiversity that contributes to the availability of medicines for our use, or for the rainforest that acts as a carbon sink and helps to keep global warming at bay, but these are moral or ethical reasons and not aesthetic ones.