Animal Beauty, Ethics, and Environmental Preservation

Ned Hettinger, College of Charleston, November 2007


1.          Animal beauty is a significant component of aesthetic protectionism (using natural beauty to justify environmental protection)

2.          Paper defends this view against two worries: (1) Beauty is not an appropriate basis on which to value/protect people and thus animals; (2) Widespread suffering, death and predation of animals compromises a positive aesthetic response to animals and seriously weakens aesthetic protectionism

Part I: Beauty as an Objectionable Basis for the Treatment of Humans and Animals

3.          Valuing and treating people differently based on aesthetic merit is thought to be biased and superficial; so too for aesthetic discrimination concerning animals

4.          Aesthetic Merit and Moral Equality

             a.          Aesthetic discrimination seems to violate moral equality (e.g., beauty queens should not get fairer trials or better medical treatment)

             b.          If so, and if we accept equality for animals, then preference for more beautiful animals is wrong (e.g., we can’t rescue hawks before vultures or choose pets based on aesthetics)

             c.          Questions:

                          i.           Is aesthetic discrimination wrong for public policy but permissible in private decision making?

                          ii.         Might considerations of aesthetic merit ever override considerations of moral status (e.g., preference for bison over cows, or salmon–given their spectacular life cycle--over more sentient sea lions?)

                          iii.        Might aesthetic merit play a more legitimate role in the treatment of animals than in the treatment of people? (Yes)

5.          Aesthetic Merit and Autonomy

             a.          In so far as aesthetic merit is not under a person’s control, it is (1) unfair to differentially treat them on this basis and (2) doing so reduces their autonomy.

             b.          Much human beauty is, however, under our control, and aesthetic discrimination based on these features is neither unfair nor autonomy reducing.

             c.          Aesthetic discrimination is not unfair to animals because there is no possibility of treating animals on the basis of choices for which they are responsible (for they are not responsible for their choices)

             d.          Aesthetic discrimination (based on uncontrollable characteristics) does not reduce animals’ autonomy because animals (probably) are not capable of exercising autonomy and taking control of their lives (at least not nearly to the extent humans can)

                          i.           Animals can (sometimes) alter their choices to get better treatment

                          ii.         Do we enhance their autonomy by only differentially treating them on the basis of factors over which they have choices?

6.          The Superficiality of Physical Appearance and Deeper, Inner Beauty

             a.          Some believe that aesthetic discrimination is problematic because if focuses on a trivial value in humans and animals (beauty is only skin deep)

             b.          But (1) physical beauty is not a trivial value (thought an overemphasis on it is problematic) and (2) human (and animal) beauty involve much more than physical appearance (just as beauty in art involves more than formal, surface features)

             c.          Deeper beauty in humans and animals depends on aspects of their behavior, personality, origin, context, and what they represent

             d.          Animal beauty in general (and their physical beauty in particular) should count more (than it does with people) in terms of how we value and treat animals because

                          i.           Animals lack the depth of psychological inner beauty present in the character of people, thus a sole focus on their physical appearance misses less than such a focus does in people

                          ii.         In human value, beauty has many more competitors than it does in animal value (e.g., moral virtue–but see Jessica Pierce’s paper for some important qualifications to this claim)

                          iii.        A sole focus on a human’s physical attractiveness is demeaning, in a way it is not with animals (e.g., wildlife calendars are not like Playboy magazines)

Part II: Animal Beauty and the Ugliness of Animal Suffering, Death, and Predation

7.          Is there significant animal ugliness in nature that weakens the use of animal aesthetics for aesthetic preservationism?

8.          Ugliness in the Lives of Animals

             a.          Deformed animals, “creepy crawlies,” dirty, diseased and dying animals

             b.          Predation as an important case of alleged animal ugliness

                          i.           But people seek out and aesthetically appreciate predation events

             c.          Is predation aesthetically negative? Is it inappropriate to aesthetically appreciate it?

9.          Environmental Aestheticians on Nature-Caused Suffering

             a.          Saito argues that one is morally obligated not to aesthetically appreciate natural events that cause great suffering to people, but does not apply this to animal suffering

             b.          Carlson’s point that nature is not morally assessable ignores (1) that suffering and death in nature are assessable on nonmoral grounds, (2) that there are moral questions about our responses to and responsibility for these events, and (3) that such judgments might bear on the aesthetics of these events

10.        Relations Between Aesthetic and Other Values

             a.          Aesthetic apartheid (i.e., the view that moral questions are not appropriately applied to aesthetics responses or objects) is a mistake (e.g., aesthetic appreciation of posters of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud is morally assessable)

             b.          Autonomism: Moral evaluation of aesthetic objects is appropriate but irrelevant to their aesthetic merits (a moral defect is not an aesthetic defect)

             c.          Integrationism: Aesthetic values and non-aesthetic values (including moral values) can interact (e.g., racists jokes are not funny, pollution sunsets are ugly, and the suffering involved in predation could negatively affect its aesthetic value)

11.        Evaluating Predation

             a.          If we accept integration and the negative value of animal suffering and death, then aesthetically appreciating predation seems wrong (or even perverse) and predation appears aesthetically negative

             b.          Animal death is a disvalue (though not a seriously grave one); animal suffering is a greater disvalue (and should elicit a sympathetic response)

             c.          But predation also involves the positive values of promoting animal life, admirable animal traits, and the functioning of health ecosystems

             d.          Although with contraception we could lower the suffering and death in nature, such human involvement in nature would so compromise the animals’ and nature’s wild integrity that we should not do so

             e.          Thus there is no conflict between a (non-existent) duty to prevent predation and a positive aesthetic response to it

             f.          A positive aesthetic response to predation is appropriate but only if it includes significant sympathy for the prey

             g.          The aesthetics of predation is not an easy or fun beauty, but a sad, terrible, more profound beauty deepened by taxing emotional involvement

             h.          The disvalue of the suffering and death of the prey in the context of positive values of predation may increase the aesthetic value of the event and our response to it

12.        Conclusion

             a.          Animal beauty contributes importantly to an aesthetic justification for environmental protection

             b.          There are sufficient differences between humans and animals to disarm the suggestion that the problems with aesthetic discrimination with humans apply straightforwardly to animals.

             c.          In the case of animals, aesthetic discrimination is neither morally objectionable nor superficial

             d.          Although involving suffering and death, animal predation does not count as ugliness in the lives of animals that undermines using the beauty of animals for aesthetic protectionism