Holmes Rolston, “Valuing Aesthetic Nature”,

Env. Ethics 1988


Three questions:

     Subjectivity or objectivity of natural beauty?

    Is natural beauty in the eye of the beholder or in the world?

     Is aesthetic experience limited to humans?

     Positive Aesthetics? Is all nature beautiful?

Objectivity/subjectivity of beauty

  Is beauty in experiencing subject or the objective world?

  Rolston’s view:

Beauty (as aesthetic experience and perhaps also aesthetic value) is only in the subject

But what this aesthetic experience responds to, namely aesthetic properties, is in the world (is objective)

Rolston’s list of aes properties

  Canyon’s abyss, fury of the storm, wildness of wilderness

  Form, structure, integrity, order, competence, muscular strength, endurance, dynamic movement, symmetry, diversity, unity, spontaneity, interdependence, lives defended, creative and regenerative power, evolutionary speciation

  Are these all aes properties? Are some (non-aesthetic) base properties on which aesthetic properties depend?

  For example, graceful is an aes property that depends on some non-aes features of the movement of a deer

Aes properties in nature “call for” certain aes responses

  We are not projecting these properties; they are there

Objectivity in the sense that these properties exist in the world (apart from us)

What is out there is aesthetically worthy (calls for, merits a certain aesthetic response)

Objectivity in the sense that our responses are governed by what is out there.

Analogy: Lines of latitude/longitude and contours on a map come from us but they map what is objectively there

So too aesthetic experience responds to what is objectively there (aes properties)

Nonhumans have aes experience (of a certain sort)

  Aes exp comes in diverse forms

  Higher aes exp (scenic beauty, sublime) only had by humans

  If aes exp accompanies physical satisfaction

If it is pleasure caused by way things appear to the senses

Eating a tasty meal

Enjoying warmth of sun

Surely some animals have these experiences

Big-Horn Sheep Ram

  We admire muscular strength and power of ram

  Ewe is attracted to him and permits mating

  Plausible to think she experiences some of this (admiration? attraction?)

  Consistent w/ natural selection that this attraction registers in her experience


  Peahen is attracted to peacock’s tail or it would be a liability and natural selection would have never preserved it

  Unless deny animals have experience at all, hard to deny they have nascent, precursor to aes experience

Is All Of Nature Beautiful?

Elk bottomJohn Muir’s Positive Aes

  “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild”

  19th century naturalist, writer, founder of Sierra Club

Positive aesthetics thesis not plausible for art

   Implausible to say artworks never badly done


Yet positive aesthetics claims this for natural objects

One rationale for the difference:

Can be no failures in nature (whereas there can be in art), as no artistic intention

Nature, unlike artist, can never fail as never tried

False assumption only failed art/nature can be poor aesthetically?

Rejections of Positive Nature Aesthetics


  “Just as there are rotten violinists, so there must be pathetic creeks; just as there is pulp fiction, so there must be junk species; just as there are forgettable meals, so there must be inconsequential forests”

 Stan Godlovitch, “Evaluating Nature Aesthetically,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56, 2 1998, p. 121

 Photo of Aye-Aye ( a mammal from Madagascar)

Bear scat aesthetically positive?

   Rolston 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 humus from a rotting log supports an exquisite hemlock. . . . Should we say that we find all life beautiful?” (COFN, p. 44-45)

Rolston’s Positive Aes

  Rolston embrace a type of holistic positive aesthetics: Nature as a whole is aesthetically positive, even if some individual items are not.

  Rolston’s overall judgment about nature is that it has substantial beauty (nature, he often says, is “a wonderland”).

Rolston accepts presence of some ugliness in nature


   Some items in nature are ugly when viewed from certain perspectives (in isolation)

   Inoculates him against obvious counterexamples

  Although Rolston allows “itemized individual 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).

Contrast Rolston’s positive aesthetics with


  Allen Carlson’s individualism

  “Each natural thing, either with appropriate appreciation or at many, if not almost all, levels and conditions of observation, has substantial positive aesthetic value and little, if any, negative aesthetic value.”

  Not just natural kinds, essential beauty, or minor beauty

  Each individual thing is aes positive

  Eugene Hargrove’s no negative qualities

  “According to positive aesthetics, nature, to the degree that it is natural (that is, unaffected by human beings), is beautiful and has no negative aesthetic qualities” (Foundations of Environmental Ethics, 177)

  Nature is itself its own standard of goodness and beauty, making ugliness impossible as a product of nature’s own creative activity” (184)

Rolston is a master at articulating disvalue in nature


   Surprising given his defense of positive aesthetics

  “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).

  “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 sets 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 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 denies equal or perfect beauty in nature


“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). Lenticular clouds


  Ordinary clouds

Negative judgments about landscapes are mistaken

  “Never called for to say such places are bland, dull, boring, chaotic.”

  Unfailingly generate favorable experience in the suitably perceptive

  Obviously, some don’t like swamps, deserts, prairies, but

  “To say of a desert, the tundra, a volcanic eruption that it is ugly is to make a false statement and to respond inappropriately.”

Rolston’s advocates nature’s “systemic beauty,” 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.

Negative aesthetic qualities properly contextualized become positive


  “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:

Ugliness in nature contextualized recovers (some?) beauty

   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 this world, I saw through my environment of the moment into the Environment quintessential, and found it aesthetically exciting (Science based, 384-85)

Possible counter-examples to positive nature aes?

  “Failures in nature are omnipresent, all organisms and ecosystems are finally ruined” (e.g., they die/come to an end)

  Tourists take no pictures of these “eye sores”

  They are not picturesque

Ugliness diminished/overcome when viewed in proper context

  Seen from a landscape and ecosystem perspective, these are not ugly

Ugliness transformed in ecosystem perspective

“Ugliness mellows—though it does not disappear”

“Ugly parts do not subtract from but enrich the whole”

Momentary ugliness a still shot in an ongoing (aesthetically positive) motion picture

From an informed, systemic perspective only get positive aes response

Each item must be seen in environmental context

Judgment of ugliness is like looking at piece of a jigsaw puzzle and saying pieces are misshapen

Humans selected to find some things repulsive (rotting carcasses, excrement)

But not ugly in the system of nutrient recycling  Systemic beauty of body decaying

  Rotting elk returns to humus and is recycled; maggots become flies, food for birds; natural selection leads to better adapted elk

Cognitive (i.e., knowledge) dimension of aes important to Rolston’s defense of positive aes


  Such beauty is not so much viewed as experienced after ecological understanding gained

  Many of life’s richest aes experiences can not be put on a canvas or have a picture taken of them

  Natural history/science allows aes appreciation of what might otherwise be aes negative

  Allows us to move beyond scenery cult

Fall Color

Scenery cult as a bad reason for rejecting positive aes  That nature isn’t picturesque, doesn’t mean it is not beautiful

  Nature’s positive aes value transcends scenic beauty

  Inappropriate to drive through a park and harvest scenic resources only

  “As if nature that can’t serve us must please us”

Is predation in nature ugly?


   “It was a spotted hyena, the kind people think of when they hear the word “hyena”–a dirty, matted creature, dripping with blood. It must have made a good kill. The prey must have been large enough for the hyena to thrust its whole head in, up to the block like shoulders. This must be why the hyena has such a snake of a neck–so it can delve deep into a dying animal and eat the best parts...I saw other hyenas...They were all dipped in blood...One could see which animal had gnawed at a leg, cheek pressed to bloody flank, or which had held a piece to its chest and embraced it there as it chewed...A crowd of vultures pounced on and squabbled over pieces of skin ripped free when the hyenas pulled off their parts, and a few insects had already stripped clots of blood from the soaked grass.” Joanna Greenfield, The New Yorker 1996


  Lamb killed by Bobcat

Coyote a bloodthirsty killer?


  “Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God”

John Muir on Alligators



Rolston’s reply

 Local disvalue to prey is value to predator, value to the prey species, and is systemically valuable

 “Ugliness here is only a projection; like the big bad wolf”

Forest fires aesthetically negative?

Amazon Burning  Recovery
from forest fire

  Releases nutrients, resets succession, helps regenerate shade intolerant trees.

Worrisome counterexamples to positive aesthetics

Three-Headed Frog Disfigured monstrous animalsMt. Saint Hellens (before)Mt. Saint Helens (after)Infrequent catastrophes  Nature can’t adapt and evolve in response to them, so not clear they lead systemically to good/beauty

  Rolston sees “Ugly events as anomalies challenging general paradigm of nature’s landscapes w/o fail having essential beauty”

  Helens recovery

Worries about Rolston’s strategy

  Reinterpret local intrinsic ugliness as systemic instrumental beauty

  Rolston shifting object of appreciation to the whole?

Saito: Rolston’s views imply that “The only legitimate object for our aesthetic experience of nature is the global ecosphere” (Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature 104)

No; Rolston is insisting on importance of context for aesthetic appreciation of nature

Tiger in a zoo (or on the moon) vs in the jungle

Appreciate the particular in light of the whole

Other worries:

Ecology makes these intelligible, but not beautiful?

How get from instrumentally valuable/necessary to aes positive?