John Fisher and Ned Hettinger, Draft Chapter

Objectivity and Environmental Aesthetics: Is Natural Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?


             “What a beautiful hat!” “Are you kidding?” What some people find attractive, others find repulsive. This is true not only for personal appearance and fashion, but in taste for art and nature as well. Some like heavy metal and Grunge; others think it should not even qualify as music (Scruton). Some are in aesthetic ecstasy as they kayak through a southern swamp; others can’t imagine a more dreadful way to spend an afternoon. There are cultural differences as well: While many Americans prefer wild landscapes with minimal trace of humanity’s impacts, many Europeans may prefer natural landscapes that include a few cottages and cows (is this true?) (Walter article?).

Reasons For and (mainly) Against Anything-Goes Subjective Relativism


            One popular response to these phenomena is to accept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On this view, aesthetic responses are expressions of personal preferences and accordingly not subject to correction or criticism. After all, everyone is entitled to her or his own taste. Those who prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate aren’t making some mistake, even in the eyes of chocolate lovers. In the extreme, such a subjective relativism suggests there is no better and worse in aesthetic judgments. Any aesthetic response is as appropriate and/or reasonable (or justifiable) as any other (perhaps because reason has nothing to do with it). Such a view rejects the possibility of objectivity in aesthetics entirely.

Agreement 1: Lots of agreement in aesthetics

            There are a number of reasons to resist this “anything-goes- in- aesthetics” position. First is that it overemphasizes the disagreement in aesthetic judgmentss. While there is undoubtedly great divergence in aesthetic judgments and responses, there is also significant agreement, especially about extreme (or paradigm) cases. Few (if any) genuinely aesthetically prefer a slum to the Sistine Chapel, a battered woman to a beauty queen an abused and starved nag to a healthy thoroughbred in its prime, or a clear-cut to an old-growth forest. According to Emily Brady (2003, p. 222), "There have been psychological and scientific studies indicating widespread cross-cultural agreement concerning preferences for both artworks and landscapes." There is also evidence of considerable agreement on certain dimensions of human beauty (e.g., preference for symmetry in facial features). Of course, just as disagreement doesn’t prove subjective relativism, agreement doesn’t guarantee objectivity, at least in the sense of truth, rationality, or appropriateness. For example, it was once widely agreed that the earth was flat, that non-whites were inferior, and that jungles mountains were hideous (is this last true?). Nonetheless, realizing that there is a good deal of agreement in aesthetics (along with lots of disagreement) weakens one common motivation for adopting unqualified subjective relativism.

Agreement 2: Explaining away disagreement, convergence, irresolvable disputes

            Additionally, disagreement can often be explained by factors such as lack of proper attention (e.g., failing to notice the delicate lady’s slippers in one’s haste to ascend the mountain), insensitivity or poor taste (e.g., having never experienced the taste of wine before), ignorance of relevant information (e.g., that cubists painters were not aiming for representational accuracy), and bias (e.g., fear of an allergic reaction to mosquitos that blinds one to the beauty of the tundra). Some have argued for a great deal of convergence in preferences in art, such that when two people disagree about which of two artworks is better, over time, as they continue to appreciate those works, one frequently comes to agree with the other. One explanation of this is that one work is (objectively) better than the other and overtime people have the ability to realize this (Slote, 1971). Acknowledging widespread agreement, however, is not to deny that there may well be irresolvable aesthetic disputes, even among those acknowledged to be ideal aesthetic appreciators, in ideal circumstances.

Argument, giving reasons, revising aesthetic judgments              

            Anything-goes relativism in aesthetics also ignores that people argue about aesthetic judgements and give reasons for them. If taste in movies was were a mere subjective preference like taste in ice cream, why would we engage in heated discussions about the quality of the films we see? Such argument presupposes that others should agree, that there are better and worse responses, and that we can give reasons for our aesthetic judgments. Another reason to resist subjective relativism is the fact that people often revise their aesthetic judgments over time, and it is hard to see why they would do this unless they thought they were improving their aesthetic responses, that is, they now feel that they are seeing the object more accurately for what it is. This would not make sense if any response was as good as any other.

Fact/value gap and scientific verification

            Nonetheless, skepticism about the possibility of objectivity concerning aesthetic judgments (or any value judgments for that matter) is widespread both in the common mind and in philosophical discussion. Two related considerations support such skepticism: (1) The belief in a strict fact/value dichotomy and (2) the use of scientific objectivity as a model for all objectivity. Many hold that while judgments about matters of fact are true or false and can be verified as such, value judgments are neither true nor false and lack any mechanism for verification. The statement that “The Grand Tetons Mountains of Wyoming formed 7 million years ago when a flat seabed cracked from north to south and the western half rose 3,000 feet while the eastern half fell 24,000 feet” is a statement about a question of fact and its truth or falsity can be proven by geological experimentation. In contrast, the statement that “the Tetons are magnificent mountains” is a value judgment that the subjective relativist would hold? is mere personal opinion and lacks a settled method for assessment.

History and economics unverifiable too

            We do not really believe, however, that there are objectively correct (or better and worse) answers only when we can verify those answers by using the scientific method of testing hypothesis with experiments that yield observable and quantifiable data. We believe, for example, that historical and economic judgments have truth values, but their verification (when possible at all) does not involve the techniques of scientific experimentation. Why did John Muir fail in his campaign to save Hetch Hetchy valley from flooding by a dam? What would be the economic effects of removing the dam–as some environmentalists are now advocating–on the San Francisco economy? For neither question would we allow anything-goes for an answer, and yet answers to these questions are not verifiable using the methods of natural science (and perhaps not verifiable at all).

Justification of Aesthetic Value Judgments and Kinds of Objectivity

Examples of objective judgments and supervenience

            If there is objectivity in aesthetics we will need examples of objective judgments and some account of how it is possible to justify them. Consider these possible examples of objectively true aesthetic judgments about nature:

                                    (1)       Some rainbows are beautiful.

                                    (2)       White-tailed deer are more graceful than cattle.

                                    (3)       Fish kills in rivers polluted by overflowing hog waste lagoons are disgusting.

            It is doubtful that anyone would deny the truth of these, but how does one go about justifying such aesthetic value judgments? Interestingly, doing so often involves appeal to facts (suggesting that values are closely tied to facts): The rhythmic movement of deer as they flee; the great number, width and depth of colors in the rainbow; the smell of dead fish and hog waste. One common account of this process is that the existence of aesthetic properties (such as, graceful) and the justification of aesthetic value judgments (such as beautiful, disgusting) rely on (“supervene on”) nonaesthetic descriptive facts that are observable and about which, for the most part, there is near universal agreement. On this supervenience account, aesthetic properties and values cannot change without a change in the descriptive facts that underlie them, and justifying aesthetic responses involves (at least in part) appealing to these non-aesthetic “base” properties or facts. While there is no unanimity among aestheticians about how this process works, whether aesthetic properties and values really do supervene on descriptive facts, or even if aesthetic properties exist at all, the account given provides an illustration of how objectivity and justification is possible beyond the realm of the natural sciences. (I worry that the “justification” given here is too limited.)

Environmental aestheticians accept different kinds of objectivity

            Virtually everyone working in the field of environmental aesthetics rejects anything-goes subjective relativism and strives for some type and degree of objectivity. This is not surprising, for people that find it worthwhile to think about a subject matter must believe there are better and worse ways to think about it. Many explain their desire for objectivity in environmental aesthetics by mentioning its importance if aesthetics is to play a role in the conservation of nature.

            While agreeing on the need for objectivity, the kind of objectivity appealed to by these environmental aestheticians differs markedly. All believe in distinguishing in some manner between better and worse aesthetic judgments (responses?) about nature. Ronald Hepburn, for example, thinks it important to distinguishes between serious and trivial in the aesthetic appreciation of nature (Hepburn). For example, noticing that the outline of clouds resembles a basket of wash is a “trivial, shallow appraisal of a freakish element,” whereas focusing on the inner turbulence and the 250 mile wind speeds that determine the clouds structure is a less superficial experience and one more worth having. (Hepburn, 1966?)    

Brady on objectivity

            Emily Brady argues for environmental aesthetic objectivity by defending the rationality, justifiability, and communicability of environmental aesthetic judgments (Brady). In contrast to an account of objectivity that defends the “truth” of environmental aesthetic judgments, Brady’s develops a more pluralistic type of objectivity. Presumably, conflicting judgments about nature’s beauty can be both rational and justifiable, and certainly communicable (thought not both true). Brady’s defense of objectivity is particularly noteworthy because she rejects a “cognitive” approach to the aesthetic appreciation of nature that makes knowledge of nature central to its appreciation and argues that imagination is the key element in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Because imagination has a reputation for being subjective and undiscriminating, Brady rightfully worries that many will think “imagination inevitably leads to an experience that is too unpredictable, too arbitrary and prone to fantasy to guide appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature.” (Brady, 2003, p. 144.) Thus Brady “clips the wings of imagination” and rules out imaginative responses to nature that are shallow, naive, sentimental, aesthetically impoverishing, irrelevant and self-interested. Her procedure for establishing rationality and justifiability of aesthetic judgments, involves pointing out the aesthetic and non-aesthetic qualities that underlie the judgment, linking the two, encouraging others to experience these properties for themselves, explaining how these qualities support the aesthetic judgment, contrasting and comparing the object with other aesthetic objects, and using imagination and narratives about the object to explain and communicate one’s aesthetic judgment to others.

Eaton’s response to Brady: Imagination needs knowledge’s backing

            Marcia Eaton has argued in response to Brady that there is no way to distinguish between better and worse, correct and incorrect imaginings without relying on a more cognitivist, i.e., knowledge-based, account of the aesthetic appreciation of nature. For Eaton, objectivity in environmental aesthetics requires cognitivism. (Eaton, Fact and Fiction) Furthermore, Eaton argues that environmental aesthetic responses based on imagination (and narrative) have often been quite harmful from the perspective of protecting nature: Stories about monsters in swamps are part of the reason why swamps are seen as aesthetically impoverished and why they have gone largely unprotected (overstatement?). Little red riding hood and other “big bad wolf” stories undergird the fear and loathing of wolves that resulted in their extirpation in much of their historic habitat. The Bambi image of deer as sweet and pure ignores the ecological devastation they cause and makes it hard for forest managers to convey to the public the necessity of controlling deep populations. Eaton would have us judge theories of the aesthetic appreciation of nature by how well they let us use nature’s beauty for environmental protection. She thinks imagination-based aesthetics fails on those grounds and argues for an environmental aesthetic approach grounded firmly in scientific knowledge. “As we have seen, fiction can sentimentalize and demonize, with serious harm resulting. If sustainable environments are our goal, then fiction must be at the service of fact.” “For only with knowledge will sustainable practices develop.” Thus for Eaton, an account of environmental aesthetics like Allen Carlson’s--one solidly based on scientific knowledge--is what we must seek if environmental aesthetics is to ground aesthetic protectionism.

Carlson’s objectivity

            Allen Carlson’s (science and natural history based) environmental aesthetic has been crafted in large part to provide for objectivity. Carlson seeks a type of objectivity that makes (some) en environmental aesthetic judgments true or false, correct or incorrect. Carlson’s defense of objectivity relies on an analogy with aesthetic appreciation of art. Just as true judgments in art require that the artwork be appreciated under its correct category (Walton, 1970?), so true judgments about nature’s aesthetic value require that nature be appreciated under its correct categories. For example, it is a mistake to judge the quality of dancers doing the tango by applying the standards for quality in waltzes, for one’s appreciation is based on an incorrect category. Similarly, whether a small mammal running across the field is “charming and cute” or “massive and awe inspiring” depends on perceiving this aesthetic object under its correct category: Is it a (charming, cute) woodchuck or a (massive, awe-inspiring) rat? Which aesthetic qualities are appropriately attributable to it depends on which category the animal is appreciated under and one of these categories is correct (and the other not). Carlson provides other examples where appreciating nature under the correct category is necessary for correct appreciation: Is that an awkward deer or a graceful moose? Is that whale a clumsy fish or a graceful mammal? Carlson thinks that such examples are widespread in environmental aesthetics and that they support his claim that appropriate appreciation of nature requires appreciating nature under the correct (scientific or natural history) categories.

Carlson conceives of objectivity as appreciating an object for what it is and with nature, science is the best account of what it is

            Carlson’s account of environmental aesthetic objectivity relies on an apparently commonsensical underlying principle that he repeatedly stresses: One must appreciate an aesthetic object for what it is, rather than for what it is not. This is objectivity in a literal sense: Letting the nature of the object of appreciation be one’s guide to one’s assessment of it, rather than letting features of the subject doing the appreciation (e.g., emotion, imagination) guide one’s response. Carlson argues that because science investigates the nature of the natural world, it is scientific and naturalist knowledge that provides the correct categories and appropriate focus for the aesthetic appreciation of nature. In addition to providing an “object-focused” account of nature appreciation and providing for true and false categories for nature appreciation, Carlson’s reliance on science to determine the correct and incorrect categories adds a further dimension of objectivity. Science is the paradigm of objectivity and to the extent that the aesthetic appreciation of nature invokes science, it shares in this paradigmatic objectivity.

Heyd’s response to Carlson and his “functional” objectivity

            There are numerous objections to the Carlson’s account of environmental aesthetic objectivity. Thomas Heyd, for example, argues that science is simply another culturally-conditioned narrative by which we try to make sense of our world (Heyd, 135). Heyd rejects Carlsonian science-based objectivity, arguing that whether or not “the stories” we use to appreciate nature are “credible” or not is irrelevant. Heyd provides a “functional account” of better and worse in environmental aesthetics whereby any story that “enriches our capacity” to aesthetically appreciate nature is appropriate and only those stories which “subvert the full flourishing” of aesthetic appreciation of nature are ruled out.

Saito’s objectivity: Moral requirement to let nature tell its own story

            Yuriko Saito agrees with the importance of an “object-centered” aesthetic appreciation of nature (and thus accepts objectivity in environmental aesthetics in this sense). Saito argues that we should “appreciate nature on its own terms,” “listen to nature as nature,” “let nature tell its own story.” In contrast to Carlson’s cognitive motivation for such an “objective” approach, viz. in order “to make aesthetic judgments that are likely to be true,” Saito thinks it is a moral requirement that we acknowledge the reality of the other by “recognizing and sympathetically lending our ears to the story, however unfamiliar to us, told by the other” (Saito, 2004/1998, p. 146). In contrast to Heyd’s embrace of whatever cultural stories are successful in sustaining our aesthetic attention, Saito insists that we must focus on accounts of nature’s own history and functioning, independent of historical, cultural, and literary significance given to it by humanity (Saito, 2004/1998, p. 146). For example, appreciating a bald eagle because it is the symbol of America, though it might sustain our aesthetic attention to the eagle, is not to appreciate the eagle on its own terms (Saito’s example is Plymouth Rock). But unlike Carlson, Saito does not think that science has a monopoly on making sense of nature “in its own terms” and argues that scientific knowledge must be supplemented by “some indigenous traditions, folklore and myths” (150), for these can also be attempts to help nature “tell its own story to us concerning its own history and function through its sensuous surface.” (150).tivity and more.