Ned Hettinger on Holmes Rolston on Positive Aesthetics

 Holmes Rolston, III, a founder and leading figure in the field of environmental ethics was an early proponent of positive aesthetics:

The Matterhorn leaves us in awe, but so does the fall foliage on any New England hillside, or the rhododendron on Roan Mountain. Those who linger with nature find this integrity where it is not at first suspected, in the copperhead and the alligator, in the tarantula and the morel, in the wind-stunted banner spruce and the straggly box elder, in the stormy sea and the wintry tundra. . . . This value is often aesthetic and invariably so if we examine a natural entity at the proper level of observation or in terms of its ecological setting. The ordinary rock in microsection is an extraordinary crystal mosaic. The humus from a rotting log supports an exquisite hemlock. . . . Should we say that we find all life beautiful?” (COFN, p. 44-45)

Rolston does not claim that all of nature is equally beautiful, but rather that there are degrees of beauty:

Rather like clouds, which are never ugly, only more or less beautiful, so too, mountains, forests, seashores, grasslands, cliffs, canyons, cascades, and rivers. . . [Positive aesthetics] does not find all places equally or perfectly beautiful; it maps them on a scale that runs from zero upward but has no negative numbers (EE, 237).

Rolston also is well aware of the putative ugliness in nature. Rolston conveys the ugliness of diseased animals with this example: “Once as a college youth I killed an opossum that seemed sluggish and then did an autopsy. He was infested with a hundred worms! Grisly and pitiful, he seemed a sign of the whole wilderness, . . . too alien to value” (1986, p.128-29, quoted in Carlson 2007, p. 107). Rolston also powerfully expresses the idea that seeing only beauty in animals is Pollyannaish:

The critic will complain against admirers of wildlife that they overlook as much as they see. The bison are shaggy, shedding, and dirty. That hawk has lost several flight feathers; that marmot is diseased and scarred. The elk look like the tag end of a rough winter. A half dozen juvenile eagles starve for every one that reaches maturity. Every wild life is marred by the rips and tears of time and eventually destroyed by them (1987, p. 192).

Rolston points out that “We can expect that humans, like other animals, will have been naturally selected to find certain things repulsive, those things (rotting carcasses, excrement) that they as individuals need to avoid in order to survive” (EE 241). He describes the violence in nature thus:

The wilderness teems with kinds but is a vast graveyard with hundreds species laid waste for one or two that survive. Wildness is a gigantic food pyramid, and this set value in a grim death bound jungle. All is a slaughterhouse, with life a miasma rising over the stench. (10 From Values gone Wild).

Rolston is a master at powerfully articulating negative aesthetic qualities in nature and then placing them in a larger context that results in an overall positive aesthetic experience: “If hikers come upon the rotting carcass of an elk, full of maggots, they find it revolting. Here is a bad example of its kind, disharmony, a putrid elk” (EE 238). Later he writes:

Once, tracking wolves in Alberta, I came upon a wolf kill. Wolves had driven a bull elk to the edge of a cliff, cornered it there, before a great pine, itself clinging to the edge. It made a good picture; the mountains on the skyline, the trees nearer in, the fallen elk at the cliff’s edge. The colours were green and brown, white and grey, somber and deep. The process, beyond the form, was still more stimulating. I was witness to an ecology of predator and prey, to population dynamics, to heterotrophs feeding on autotrophs. The carcass, beginning to decay, was already being recycled by microorganisms. All this science is about something vital, essential, and also existential about living on the landscape. In the scene I beheld, there was time, life, death, life persisting in the midst of its perpetual perishing. My human life, too, lies in such trophic pyramids. Incarnate in ths world, I saw through my environment of the moment into the Environment quintessential, and found it aesthetically exciting (Science based, 384-85). [Place for Saito critique?]

Rolston embraces a type of holistic positive aesthetics: Nature as a whole is aesthetically positive. Rolston’s overall judgment about nature is that it has substantial beauty (nature, he often says, is “a wonderland”). Though Rolston allows individual instances of ugliness in nature, he argues that we should accept “these ugly events as anomalies challenging the general paradigm that nature’s landscapes without fail have an essential beauty”(243 EE). “Landscapes,” he says, “always supply beauty, never ugliness.” He also claims that all individuals of many other natural kinds are beautiful: “Like clouds, seashores, and mountains, forests are never ugly, they are only more or less beautiful; the scale runs from zero upward with no negative domain.” (Forest paper 164.) [Wasn’t the previous quoted before?] “Never called for to say such places are bland, dull, boring, chaotic.” “To say of a desert, the tundra, a volcanic eruption that it is ugly is to make a false statement and to respond inappropriately.” Interestingly, although Malcolm Budd mainly criticizes positive aesthetics, he makes similar claims: “Many biotic kinds (all flowers, perhaps) undoubtedly possess a positive overall aesthetic value. There are even kinds of natural object (galaxy star, ocean) or occurrence (exploding volcano) which are such that . . . each instance of them is sublime” (Budd 103).

Rolston’s holism also involves the claim that nature itself has a “systemic beauty,”(241, EE) that is, a tendency toward beauty that turns ugliness into beauty. 

“Virgin nature is not at every concrete locus aesthetically good: consider a crippled fish that has escaped an alligator. Those who are not programmatic nature romantics will admit this and go on to recover what beauty they can. But ugliness, though present at times in particulars, is not the last word. . . regenerative forces are already present. . . nature will bring beauty out of this ugliness . . . this tendency is already present and aesthetically stimulating now. . . when the point event, which is intrinsically ugly, is stretched out instrumentally in the process, the ugliness mellows–though it does not disappear–and makes its contribution to systemic beauty and to beauty in later-coming individuals. . . There is ugliness, but even more, there are transformative forces that sweep toward beauty . . . disorder and corruption are the prelude to creation, and in this perpetual re-creation there is high beauty. Nature’s beauty can be costly and tragic, yet nature is a scene of beauty ever reasserting itself in the face of destruction.

Rolston’s positive aesthetics has been criticized by both Saito and Budd. They allege that Rolston’s views result either in the unappealing conclusion that “the only legitimate object for our aesthetic experience of nature is the global ecosphere” (Saito, Unscenic 104) or that his position involves the fallacy of division. As Budd puts it, “The idea that each ecosystem (or other natural system) has a positive overall aesthetic value implies nothing about the aesthetic values of the natural items it contains considered in themselves–in particular, that these are always positive” (106).

Both these criticism are off target. Rolston does say that: “Every item must be seen not in framed isolation but framed by its environment, and this frame in turn becomes part of the bigger picture we have to appreciate–not a ‘frame’ but a dramatic play.” 239. But Rolston’s point is not that we should stop aesthetically appreciating individual items or events in ecosystems (and turn our aesthetic attention instead to the wholes they are a part of), but that we need to appreciate these natural items in light of the larger systems of which they are a part. When we do so, he argues, we will come to appreciate that “the ugly parts do not subtract from but rather enrich the whole. The ugliness is contained, overcome and integrates into positive, complex beauty” (Rolston 1988, p. 241). He supports this claim thus:


Any landscape looked at in detail is as filled with dying as with flourishing things. Everything is in some degree marred and ragged–a tree with broken limbs, a crushed wildflower, an insect-eaten leaf. An eagle chick plagued with ticks is not a pretty thing. Sometimes there are disfigured, even monstrous animals. So why is this not ugliness in the landscape? It is! . . . If we enlarge our scope. . . we get further categories for interpretation. The rotting elk returns to the humus, its nutrients recycled; the maggots become flies, which become food for the birds; natural selection results in a better-adapted elk for the next generation. The monstrous mutants, unless by luck better fitted for some new niche, are edited out of the system, and the system continues to track new environments by casting forth further mutants. . . . The momentary ugliness is only a still shot in an ongoing motion picture. . . The clash of values, pulled into symbiosis, is not an ugly but a beautiful thing. The world is not a jolly place, not a Walt Disney world, but one of struggling, somber beauty. The dying is the shadow side of the flourishing. (EE 239).

Although one can dispute Rolston’s positive account of what goes on in nature (i.e., that the ugliness is always instrumental to greater beauty), one ought not dispute the importance of context in aesthetic appreciation. Just as an appropriate appreciation of a part of an artwork requires that we appreciate its role in the entire work, so too an appropriate appreciation of natural items requires that we consider them in light of their role in the system of which they are a part. (But this leads to Saito’s objection...) Rolston’s holism is not only aesthetic, but ontological as well. For example, he often claims that a tiger is what it is in its ecosystem; it is not the same tiger when transported to the moon or put it in a cage. One does not successfully preserve tigers by ensuring an ongoing population in a zoo. The aesthetic appreciation of a tiger should be cognizant of its context, just as the aesthetic appreciation of “individualized ugliness in nature” needs awareness of the roles that the ugly natural item plays in the larger natural systems of which it is a part. Insisting on contextualization of the aesthetic appreciation of a natural item is not the same as changing the subject of appreciation to the system that provides the context.

[It might be worth acknowledging the passages in Rolston where he does seem to shift the focus to the whole and also where he seems to take back claim individual ugliness? How get from instrumentally valuable/necessary to aes positive?]

The charge that Rolston is committing the fallacy of division misses the mark even more clearly . It mistakenly assumes that Rolston is trying to defend the positive aesthetic value of each individual natural item. But Rolston is a aesthetic holist and he repeatedly states that there is individual ugliness in nature. Systemic nature on his view overcomes this ugliness and turns it into beauty. Appreciating individual ugliness in its systemic context can even “mellow” the individual ugliness itself and it may become “less ugly than before.” But it does not “disappear.” [Some quotes above could be used here.]] Rolston is not trying to defend the positive aesthetic value of each individual natural item and so he has no need of (fallaciously) arguing that because the whole system of nature is beautiful, that each individual item is as well.