Positive Aesthetics of Nature

Draft, Ned Hettinger 2007


1.         Introduction

            a.         Unscenic nature/scenery cult

            b.         Knowledge supports positive aesthetics:

            c.         Who supports positive aesthetics?

            d.         Not pos aes for art (rewrite)

2.         No negative judgment thesis

            a.         Not intentionally designed argument (and nature appreciation not aesthetic)

            b.         Nondiscriminating appreciation, equal beauty, and degrees of aesthetic value

            c.         Incommensurable value

            d.         Summary

3.         Versions of positive aesthetics

            a.         Holism/individualism

            b.         Rolston’s aesthetic holism

            c.         Individualism

            d.         Carlson’s version

            e.         Hargrove’s version: No negative aesthetic qualities in nature

4.         Evaluating positive aesthetics

            a.         Examples of negative aesthetic qualities

            b.         Negative qualities, but not negative value (as in grotesque art)?

            c.         Do negative aesthetic qualities disappear with appropriate appreciation?

            d.         Are all natural items aesthetically positive on balance?

            e.         Saito’s psychological objection Footnote

            f.         Moral worries about positive aesthetics Footnote

5.         Arguments for positive aesthetics

            a.         A priori or empirical?

            b.         How Rolston’s account is an empirical account (need to write)

            c.         Hargrove’s arguments for positive aesthetics

            d.         Naturalness and positive aesthetics

            e.         Is naturalness an aesthetic quality? (includes Elliot’s ideas)

            f.         Carlson’s arguments for positive aesthetics

            g.         Parson’s beauty-making argument for positive aesthetics and an assessment of the alleged problem of category relativity that it addresses

            h.         Positive aesthetics and conservation

6.         Leftovers (points to add?)

            a.         Counter arguments to pos aes, mainly (all?) Budd’s

            b.         Argument for positive aes of all living things:

            c.         Miscellaneous?


1.         Introduction

            Positive aesthetics holds that nature is specially and thoroughly beautiful. According to this doctrine, “nature is aesthetically privileged as a storehouse of unending, unbending aesthetic goodness” (Godlovitch, VNANA–Valuing Nature and the Autonomy of Natural Aesthetics" BJA 38, 2 (1998): 192). With roots in romantic attitudes toward nature in the 19th century, it flourishes today among many who appreciate, think and care deeply about the natural world. Given the human onslaught on the natural world, accepting the universal beauty of nature is one way to affirm and justify the importance of its preservation.

            One of the first to formulate positive aesthetics was the naturalist founder of the Sierra Club John Muir. Muir claimed that “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” [[(Muir) : “everything in natural world, all nature, esp all wild nature, is aes beautiful and ugliness exists only where nature is despoiled by human intrusion” “none of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild” 73 Carlson]] His contemporary William Morris argued that “Surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from willfully destroying that beauty. ” The close connection evidenced here between positive aesthetics and environmental preservation (viz., protecting nature by leaving it alone) continues today. (Be good to find e.o Wilson quotes or other modern enviros who support P. Aes) [Morris quote is from Carlson; does Rolston have better quotes?]]

            According to positive aesthetics, those who find ugliness in nature are making a mistake, perhaps due to ignorance or a myopic vision. Consider a mid 19th century proposal to drain the Florida Everglades to facilitate agriculture because “the Ever Glades are now suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilent reptiles . . . millions of acres . . . now worse than worthless.” (Fudge: 1). But the notion that wetlands are worthless, monstrous, foul, even evil places– Carlous Linnaeus describes muskegs as “more horrible than hell”(Rolston swamps: 1) Footnote –manifests ignorance of their manifold values (wildlife habitat and nursery, pollution filtering, and flood control) including their beauties. Or consider Muir’s assessment of aesthetic responses to alligators that were typical in his day:

“Many good people believe that alligators were created by the Devil, thus accounting for their all-consuming appetite and ugliness. But doubtless these creatures are happy and fill the place assigned them by the great Creator of us all. Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God” (Rolston EE, 240)

            (Henry David Thoreau even saw swamps as sacred places [Thoreau quote].)

            a.         Unscenic nature/scenery cult

            According to positive aesthetics, it is not only a mistake to find natural items repellant. Those who find parts of nature dull or aesthetically uninteresting are also failing, even if they are lovers of nature’s grand attractions. Aldo Leopold, often considered the father of modern environmental philosophy, argues that “In country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches” 276. Just as focusing on superficial surface features results in missing much about human beauty, so much is missed by those who can only find beauty in nature’s spectacular scenery. Positive aesthetics opposes the “scenery cult,” a type of nature appreciation that is limited to nature’s “show pieces” (Saito) or to an appreciation of nature’s “easy beauty.” According to positive aesthetics, what Yuriko Saito calls “the scenically-challenged” parts of nature that many find boring and tedious (e.g., the plains and deserts) also have a subtle, “inner” beauty that is aesthetically appreciable. Saito believes we have a moral obligation to listen to unscenic nature’s own story and drop the demands of “entertainment seekers” who insist on getting their “aesthetic kicks” solely from nature’s easy beauty.

            b.         Knowledge supports positive aesthetics:

            Many who defend positive aesthetics argue that as we learn more about nature, we find more to appreciate, just as when we learn more about people, we find more to appreciate in them. [drop: Sure the bog stinks, but the smell is of decaying plants returning nutrients to the soil, a recycling process that is essential to healthy ecosystems and flourishing life on earth.] Positive aesthetics is thus typically allied with a cognitive focus in the aesthetics of nature whereby knowledge of nature is central to its proper appreciation. According to Rolston, the beauty in the unscenic, perhaps even prima facie ugly parts of nature “is not so much viewed as experienced after one reaches ecologically tutored understanding. It is not so much a matter of sight as of insight into the drama of life. In many of life’s richest aesthetic experiences there is nothing to put on canvas, nothing to take snapshots of” (EE 241). Natural history and science allows for the aesthetic appreciation of what might otherwise seem to be aesthetically negative. Footnote

            c.         Who supports positive aesthetics?

            Many contemporary environmental philosophers defend positive aesthetics, including some of the most prominent figures in environmental ethics and aesthetics. Holmes Rolston, III, a founder and leading figure in the field of environmental ethics was an early proponent:

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) [Better Rolston quotes, perhaps need to as I later quote rolston as allowing individual ugliness and the “invariably” language here is a problem for that]

            Allen Carlson, the leading figure in environmental aesthetics, has advocated positive aesthetics in one form or another for over twenty years. Here is his first formulation:

The natural environment, in so far as it is untouched by humans, has mainly positive aesthetic qualities; it is graceful, delicate, intense, unified, orderly, not dull, bland, insipid, incoherent, chaotic. All virgin nature in short is essentially aesthetically good. The appropriate or correct aesthetic appreciation of the natural world is basically positive and negative aesthetic judgments have little or no place” (72).

            Gene Hargrove, the founder and editor of the journal Environmental Ethics argues that nature’s purposeless creativity insures that “nature is always beautiful and never ugly” because whatever is created in that way “always brings with it compatible standards of goodness and beauty. Put another way, nature is itself its own standard of goodness and beauty, making ugliness impossible as a product of nature’s own creative activity” (FEE,184). Other environmental philosophers who embrace positive aesthetics include Robert Elliot (“I endorse . . . ‘positive aesthetics’; namely, the view that all natural objects have aesthetic value” (p. 61, Faking Nature), Janna Thompson (“The idea that all of nature, above all, wild nature, should be judged to be beautiful is extremely appealing, and not one that I want to dispute” (p. 296)), and environmental aesthetician Glenn Parsons who argues that “the essential and universal beauty of nature is not a dubious idea that we must argue for based on whatever our conception of appropriate aesthetic appreciation happens to be, but rather part of the intuitive data that we use in constructing our theories of appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature.’ (PA, p. 294)

            d.         Not pos aes for art (rewrite)

            As is evident from the above formulations, there are many different versions of positive aesthetics. One thing they agree about is that nature’s thorough beauty is not shared by art: Not all art is aesthetically positive. Evaluations of artworks are often as negative as positive. Some movies are second-rate, some songs are trite, some paintings are boring and so on. If positive aesthetics for nature is to be a thesis worthy of discussion, it must be formulated in such a way that it does not apply to the rest of the world (including art). If landscape painter John Constable was right when he said "No, madam, there is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life,”(Carlson 95 for references), then there would be nothing special about nature’s beauty. Further, the connection between positive aesthetics and environmental preservation would be weakened or broken, for one could not truthfully say that environmental destruction produced ugliness.

2.         No negative judgment thesis

            Positive aesthetics is a controversial thesis and many who work in environmental aesthetics have rejected it. For example, Emily Brady, Malcolm Budd, perhaps Stan Godlovitch are all critics of the thesis. Let us begin our evaluation of positive aesthetics by considering Carlson’s claim that “The appropriate or correct aesthetic appreciation of the natural world is basically positive and negative aesthetic judgments have little or no place.” Call this the “no negative judgment thesis.” Are negative aesthetic responses ever appropriate for nature? Let us examine several rationales suggesting they are not

            a.         Not intentionally designed argument (and nature appreciation not aesthetic)

             One reason why negative aesthetic judgments about nature might be inappropriate is because, unlike art, nature has not been intentionally designed. Footnote As Budd points out, nature “is immune to all the defects to which art is liable in virtue of being the product of intelligent design” (p. 98, fn 6). For example, nature can’t be trite, sentimental, crude, derivative, or shoddy–whereas works of art can be any of these. To move from these correct observations to the no negative judgment conclusion, we need the premise that all negative aesthetic judgments critically assess an object’s design and the extent to which the design is successfully embodied in the object. According to this supposition, if there is no design to critically assess, then no negative aesthetic judgments are possible.

            A broader thesis that supports this assumption has been held by those who claim that the appreciation of nature is not aesthetic. For example, Robert Elliot once argued that “an apparently integral part of aesthetic evaluation depends on viewing the aesthetic object as an intentional object, as an artifact, as something that is shaped by the purposes and designs of its author.” On whether responses to nature are aesthetic, he says, “I agree that they are not.” (Throop, p. 79). Obviously, if nature can’t be aesthetically evaluated, then negative aesthetic judgments about nature are impossible. But this not only short-circuits negative aesthetic judgments about nature, but positive ones as well, and so it will obviously not do as a defense of positive aesthetics. [[FN: Unless, aesthetic appreciation is possible without aesthetic evaluation; see below.]] Additionally, it is abundantly clear that aesthetic responses to nature are possible (because they are actual) and, furthermore, that not all aesthetic response to art are responses to design. Consider aesthetic responses to formal features in both nature and art: Pleasing shapes and colors can be aesthetically appreciated independently of any considerations about their being designed.

            Could it be that only negative aesthetic evaluations require critical assessment of design while positive aesthetic response do not? This would explain why the no negative judgment thesis applies to nature and not to art, while allowing positive aesthetic response to nature. But why this lack of parallelism should exist is unclear: if assessment of design is required for negative appraisals, why it is not required for positive appraisals? In general, it would seem that if one rejects negative appraisals of a subject matter, then one must reject positive appraisals as well. Additionally, there are clear examples of negative aesthetic judgments that do not critically assess design. Consider the judgment that a landscape (e.g., a desert) is boring or uninteresting. Even if such judgments are mistaken, this is not because they fail to critically assess design. The argument for rejecting negative aesthetic judgment about nature based on its lack of design seems unsupportable.

            b.         Nondiscriminating appreciation, equal beauty, and degrees of aesthetic value

            [[I’m not clear that cramming equal beauty discussion into no neg judge discussion makes sense.]]

            A second line of argument for the no negative judgment thesis is that negative judgments involve (implicitly or explicitly) discriminating between degrees/levels of aesthetic value in nature and that this is problematic because it is either not possible or inappropriate. Examples of negative judgments that involve comparative judgments of differential amounts of aesthetic value include criticizing an awkward impala in light of her more graceful cousins or downgrading a recently-emerged avian species in comparison to the ancient lineage represented by the crane.

            One way to reject such comparative judgments is to embrace an “equal beauty thesis” for nature, according to which, all natural items are of equal aesthetic value. Surprisingly, this equal beauty thesis has had some currency in the literature and positive aesthetics is sometimes even assumed to involve the claim that natural items have equal beauty. [[FN-Budd does this.]] Carlson has argued that nature appreciation involves appreciating the order in nature (“order appreciation” in contrast to the “design appreciation” of art) and this led him to the equal beauty thesis (a thesis he now explicitly rejects):

                        All of nature necessarily reveals the natural order. . . It is present in every case and can be appreciated once our awareness and understanding of the forces that produce it and the story that illuminates it are adequately developed. In this sense, all nature is equally appreciable and therefore selection among all that the natural world offers is not of much ultimate importance. As Arp observes, “in nature a broken twig is equal in beauty and importance to the clouds and the stars.”(120)

            In his critique of positive aesthetics, Malcolm Budd often takes aim at the equal beauty thesis. He builds the equal beauty thesis into what he calls “the most ambitious version of positive aesthetics–that each individual natural item, at each moment of its existence . . . has roughly equal positive overall aes value” (127). Stan Godlovitch also ties positive aesthetics to equal beauty when he characterizes the idea that “all aspects of the environment are to be deemed of equal appreciative value and cannot thus be differentially treated, at least on aesthetic grounds” as “an expression of positive aesthetics” (ENA 113). Even Emily Brady, ties the two: “Because I do not follow positive aesthetics, I believe that some natural and modified environments or objects will be judged to have more value than others. One waterfall is more dramatic than another (Brady 214). [[Godlovitch’s and Budd’s focus on a positive aesthetic that embraces equal value is surprising given that the three main contemporary philosophic defenders of positive aesthetics--Carlson, Rolston and Hargrove-- all accept degrees of natural beauty. Cite references or quotes?]]

            What can be said for the equal beauty thesis and, more generally, for the notion that natural beauty does not come in degrees and thus that we may not discriminate between amounts of natural beauty? One reason to worry about degrees of natural beauty is because when natural beauty is considered in environmental policy, the focus tends to be on “areas of outstanding natural beauty” (e.g., Niagra Falls); more modest beauties (e.g., small waterfalls) are ignored. A belief in differential aesthetic value in nature accounts for environmental policy that requires great sacrifices to preserve charismatic megafauna (e.g., wolves) and ignores potentially more ecologically important “creepy crawlies” (e.g., endangered snails). Godlovitch worries about the fact that friends he was visiting felt the need to apologize for the small stature of the waterfalls they were to pass on a hike (EVA, 113). Once we allow differential aesthetic value in nature, Godlovitch suggests, we will end up with negative aesthetic judgments about nature that are on a par with critical judgments about art: “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” (God ENA 121). Allowing degrees of natural beauty leads us to a rejection of positive aesthetics.

             Many think it unenlightened to prefer certain species to other species, [[FN: There has been significant criticism aimed at the implementation of the endangered species act for its focus on the charismatic megafauna.]] arguing instead for an egalitarianism based on their alleged equal importance to the functioning of ecosystems or their being equally miraculous or equal in the eyes of God. Footnote Precluding degrees of natural aesthetic value can be seen as part of a laudatory, non-judgmental attitude toward nature. Unlike the art world--a world we created, which belongs to us, and were critical judgment is appropriate–the natural world created us and continues to sustain us, it does not belong to us, and it is something to which we owe love and respect (VNANA 194?). A refusal to differentially grade and rank natural items acknowledges this relationship. Just as we should not grade and rank our parents or our children, so too we should not grade and rank nature. The suggestion might be made that we should appreciate natural items without evaluating them.[FN Godlovitch’s discussion of whether or not this is possible]. To evaluate and then rank them aesthetically amounts to “playing God.” It is to put a value or price tag on something that is should not be priced: “How many dollars is your mother’s life worth?” deserves a response of disdain. So too, the argument goes, we should reject the attempt to differentially rank the aesthetic value of natural items.

            Perhaps part of the intuitive appeal behind rejecting degrees of natural beauty comes from an analogy between morally ranking persons and aesthetically ranking natural items. It is arguable that one should not morally rank people for we are all equal in inherent moral worth and have equal human rights. But it is a mistake to shift the plausibility of this idea to the aesthetic ranking of natural items. Not only are natural items not persons, but the ranking is an aesthetic, not moral one. Just as ranking people aesthetically as more or less beautiful need not be morally inappropriate, so too one can rank natural items aesthetically while maintaining an appropriate moral attitude toward them. Footnote

            Not only is it morally permissible to distinguish between degrees of beauty in natural items, but doing so is far more plausible than embracing the equal beauty claim. Budd, for example, credibly argues that given the tremendous diversity of natural items (clouds, seashells, gusts of wind, birdsongs, snake skins, etc.) and the variety of scales on which we can focus, “it would be remarkable if everything in nature, no matter how nature is cut at the joints, were to have a roughly equal positive overall aesthetic value” (127).

            Note as well that the three main contemporary philosophical defenders of positive aesthetics--Carlson, Rolston and Hargrove--all accept degrees of natural beauty. In response to Budd’s attack on positive aesthetics as claiming all natural items have equal positive aesthetic value, Carlson writes, “I am inclined to interpret the doctrine [positive aesthetics] . . . not as attributing equal positive aesthetic value to all natural things” (Resp to Hargrove, fn 27). “Positive aesthetics . . . holds not that all natural things have equal aesthetic value, but only that all have only positive aesthetic value” (Brady/Budd, 112). [Worry that this suggests they have no negative aes qualities at all.]] Rolston claims that “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). Hargrove argues that “There are degrees of beauty, and that some objects are more beautiful than others, and that the more beautiful objects ought to be given priority for preservation over less beautiful ones” (Hargrove 179).

            It is true--as Godlovitch suggests--that once we start ranking natural items aesthetically, those items with the lower aesthetic value will get less environmental protection, at least on aesthetic grounds. All other things being equal, the big waterfalls will get protected on aesthetic grounds before the little ones, the wolves before the snails. Godlovitch is mistaken, however, when he argues that such discrimination amounts to giving up on positive aesthetics:

            “If Positive Aesthetics accepts the notion of ‘degrees of beauty,’ . . . the effect of such discrimination is tantamount to the denial that things all have positive value . . . Because, as far as protection goes, to declare something to be the least value is tantamount to saying it is the least worth saving. Where not all can be saved–and that is the practical reality--that which is the least worth saving is indistinguishable, for all intents and purposes, from that which is not worth saving” (195 VNANA).

            But all that follows from degrees of natural beauty is that things of lower aesthetic value are not as worth saving (on aesthetic grounds) as things of greater aesthetic value, and that they should not be saved when saving them involves sacrificing natural items of greater aesthetic value. But natural items of lower aesthetic value may well be worth saving when the opportunity costs are not so high. Further, differential aesthetic value is compatible with differential positive aesthetic value (and even a high degree of such value). Godlovitch’s suggestion that degrees of beauty will lead to natural items with exceedingly low (or negative) aesthetic value (“pathetic creeks,” “junk species,” “inconsequential forests”) does not follow. Although degrees of beauty do allow for the possibility of negative comparative judgements about nature (this gazelle is less graceful that one or wolves are aesthetically more stimulating than snails), it does not entail that natural items have low or negative aesthetic value. Whether there are any natural items with such value is importantly an empirical question. Additionally, the way to respond to the practical worry that once we allow degrees of natural beauty, the less beautiful parts of nature will get left out of consideration is not to deny that there are differential amounts of beauty in nature, but to advocate positive aesthetics and to educate people about the beauties in all natural items, including the less beautiful ones.

            c.         Incommensurable value

            A related challenge to the possibility of differential comparative judgments about natural beauty comes from the suggestion that natural beauty involves incommensurable values. This view not only rejects differential aesthetic value judgments about natural items, but also judgments of equal beauty, for if the beauty of natural objects is incommensurable, they can’t be judged in the same terms. On the incomensurability view, the beauty of natural items are sui generis, and thus claiming they have equal value is as incoherent as claiming they have differential value. David Ehrenfeld hints at this challenge: “Many critics would say el Greco was a greater painter than Norman Rockwell, but is the Serengeti savanna artistically (i.e., aesthetically) more valuable than the New Jersey Pine Barrens”(p. 206 of Arrogance)?” [Quoted in Godlovitch] The suggestion is that we cannot aesthetically compare dramatically different natural items. Trying to aesthetically compare a birdsong with a glimpse of a gazelle is like trying to compare a piece of music with a painting. The aesthetic qualities of sound and sight are so radically different that they cannot be compared, much less ranked. So too with comparing a blue whale with a limestone pebble, or according to this argument, any other two natural items: The beauties involved cannot be put on a common scale and ranked.

            This argument is much less persuasive if we consider comparing two entities of the same kind. One could easily choose two waterfalls that were not difficult to compare and rank them in terms of expressive power, sound quality, scale, and general ambience. Footnote Furthermore, while it is true that individual aesthetic qualities of different kinds of entities (such as the brilliant color of a painting and the sadness of a piece of music, the grace of an gazelle and the majesty of a mountain) are not easily compared (or ranked), in many cases, overall aesthetic value judgments comparing two very different kinds of things are easily made. For example, I doubt any one would object to the aesthetic judgment that a Karoke rendition of the Beatles “She Loves You” has less aesthetic value than Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Nor should anyone doubt that Mt. Saint Elias has greater aesthetic value than does a small drop-off in a creek after a rain shower.

            One certainly should worry about the appropriateness of the standards used for making such judgments. With waterfalls, for example, one might worry that the standards of judgment are macho, unjustifiably privileging size and power over other aesthetic qualities. If degrees-of-beauty judgments always result in scenic nature outranking the unscenic parts of nature, one should suspect that easily accessible visual qualities are being given unacceptable priority over more subtle, multi-sensory or cognitive qualities. Some (perhaps Godlovitch) might argue that standards for ranking natural beauty will invariably be anthropocentric or humanly parochial in some unacceptable way [FN Icebreakers]. Godlovitch also suggests that the only standards we can use for such ranking would be standards transported directly from art evaluation and this seems problematic. [[This claim is mistaken. Wildness, is an aesthetic value of nature, and it is not a standard used in art evaluation.]] Specifying and defending standards for differential judgments about degrees of natural beauty will not be an easy task, but this should not lead us to reject the possibility of such widespread and important judgments. [[I might want to look at Godlovitch where he argues that we ought to rank things by relative standards –Brady 214; Leagues of major versus minor waterfalls.]]

            Perhaps the strongest reason to accept judgements about degrees of natural beauty (including claims of equal beauty in nature) is that such views are necessary if natural beauty is to play a role in conservation decisions. Despite the energy Godlovitch puts into exploring the anti-ranking position, in the end, he too accepts ranking and rejects equal beauty. “No account of appreciating nature convincingly does away with differential evaluative judgement and grading so familiar and fitting in our appreciation of cultural things” (ENA 121). A failure to discriminate between natural beauties means “the aesthetic dimension will simply be canceled out as an effective factor in nature conservation policy (ENA113). “If Positive Aesthetics resists the ranking of nature’s things, then Positive Aesthetics alone cannot discriminate between the aesthetic value of aspects of nature. But if Positive Aesthetics cannot thus discriminate, it cannot offer anything decisive in conservation deliberations where choice of a favoured site is forced upon us, as it always is” (VNANA 195). Ambivalent to the very end, Godlovitch concludes that, however necessary, such ranking “is utter madness” (ENA 123).

            d.         Summary

            We have considered two arguments against the possibility of negative aesthetic judgment about nature, neither of which were found to be supportable. Negative aesthetic judgments about nature do not require that nature be designed. Further, even if such negative judgments depend upon accepting degrees of beauty in nature, such differential aesthetic ranking of natural items is–while not unproblematic–possible, acceptable, and necessary.

            [Not clear I want this para and argument structure]] No negative aesthetic qualities in nature?: Of course that negative aesthetic judgments about natural items are possible and that such judgments are appropriate when comparing two items with differential beauty leaves open the possibility that natural items are nevertheless thoroughly aesthetically positive. This gazelle may be less graceful than her cousins, but she still may lack negative aesthetic qualities. Thus a version of the no negative judgment thesis that claims that natural items possess no negative aesthetic qualities remains to be evaluated. We examine this claim below in the context of a discussion of the different versions of the positive aesthetics held by environmental philosophers. Footnote

3.         Versions of positive aesthetics

            Advocates of positive aesthetics typically moderate the view by limiting its scope in various ways. Most limit positive aesthetics to pristine nature, allowing negative aesthetics only in human-influenced nature (and typically insisting that such influence necessarily reduces aesthetic value). Some have suggest that positive aesthetics be limited to inorganic nature in order to avoid counterexamples presented by diseased, deformed, or dying organisms.

            [[Budd claims that nature has a positive overall aes value is questionable, “holding true for at most items that are not or do not containing forms of life”; Parsons also seems to buy this?]],[[Parson argues that positive aes is more plausible for nonliving nature than living nature: “For the idea that nothing in nature is ugly is vastly more plausible when applied to non-living things and environments, such as lakes, rocks and clouds, that it is when applied to the organic world” He got this from Budd, see book p 125-26.]]

            a.         Holism/individualism

            One important difference [[in scope]] is between those who advocate what might be called a holist type of positive aesthetics and those who advocate an individualist account. The individualist suggests that each item in nature (or possibly every natural property) is positive aesthetically. In contrast, the holist claims that nature as a whole (or perhaps ecosystems, species, or other natural kinds such as landscapes) are positive aesthetically. This view allows for “Itemized individual ugliness in nature” (Rolston 240) while insisting that nature more generally is aesthetically positive. Budd worries about this holist/individualist distinction by asking if we can make sense of “the idea of a kind possessing a positive aesthetic value which does not reduce to the idea that each instance of the kind has that value” (127). But as Budd himself notes, the claim of positive aesthetics for kinds might be the claim that “normal instances of the kind have positive aesthetic value.” It might also be the claim that the vast majority of instances of the kind do, or that they do on average. Holism of this sort is immune to objections to positive aesthetics based on counterexamples such as “monstrosities” and deformed instances of kinds (e.g., amphibians with missing, malformed, or extra limbs or digits).

            A very modest version of holist positive aesthetics would be the claim that nature as a whole (on balance) is aesthetically positive. This view would allow for significant aesthetic disvalue in nature that was outweighed (possibly only barely) by positive value. Such a view would not distinguish nature from art, which is undoubtedly “beautiful on the whole” as well.

            b.         Rolston’s aesthetic holism

            A far stronger type of holistic positive aesthetics is one advocated by Holmes Rolston. 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.

            c.         Individualism

            In contrast to holistic positive aesthetics, individualist positive aesthetics focuses its claim about natural beauty on individual natural items or events and asserts that they are positive aesthetically. Footnote A weak version of the individualist positive aesthetics would claim that there is some aesthetic good in any natural thing. As with the weak holist claim that nature on balance is positive aesthetically, the “claim that every natural item has some aesthetically valuable quality or qualities” is “a claim that would appear to be almost as plausible for artefacts as for nature” (Budd, 98). In addition to failing to distinguish positive aesthetics for nature from the aesthetics of anything else, this view is weak because it is compatible with all natural items having negative aesthetic qualities, even ones that outweigh their positive qualities.

            Budd suggest a somewhat stronger version of individualist positive aesthetics: “Positive aesthetics with respect to nature would be more plausible if it were to maintain that each natural thing, at some level of observation, has a positive aesthetic value” (107). Here Budd is relying on his idea that nature can be legitimately viewed from a variety of different perspectives. (For example, one can look at a grain of sand with the naked eye or through a microscope. Budd claims that the latter provides for more aesthetic appeal.) This version is stronger if we take Budd as suggesting that we can always perceive a natural item in some (legitimate) way so that its aesthetic value turns out to be positive overall or on balance (at least from this perspective).

            d.         Carlson’s version

            In response to Budd’s suggestion, Carlson maintains that this individualist account of positive aesthetics is not sufficiently strong:

“This version seems plausible enough, but is, I think, too weak. It does not accommodate what seems to me undeniably true: that whether we maintain a notion of appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature or grant Budd’s promiscuity concerning not only “levels of observation” but also “conditions of observation and time,” 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.” (Carlson repeats this footnote in his more recent-2006-- paper on Rolston.....Footnote 62, pp. 122-23)

            This view is stronger than Budd’s proposed version because it suggests that in appreciating natural items from many (and perhaps almost all) perspectives, those items have substantial aesthetic value on balance (that is, after subtracting any negative aesthetic value which is at most a small amount). Note as well the increase in strength of this version of positive aesthetics from Carlson’s original, more holistic, formulation (see above) Footnote where he merely claimed that nature was “mainly” or “basically” positive aesthetically. Carlson’s latest formulation claims positive aesthetics not just for natural kinds but for “each natural thing” (his individualism). Footnote He no longer uses the language of “essential beauty,” which can be interpreted as allowing for accidental ugliness (though in some contexts, it seems clear that he means necessarily beautiful). And he explicitly rejects a possibility left open in his original formulation that the beauty in question is minor, by now insisting that it is substantial. Carlson has explicitly denied the strongest version of positive aesthetics, namely, “perfect beauty thesis,” which holds that nature is maximally aesthetically valuable. “For all we know, the natural world also could have been different, could have been aesthetically better than it is. In fact, that it could have been seems very likely” (80, 1984). Footnote

            e.         Hargrove’s version: No negative aesthetic qualities in nature

            Because of its individualism and its denial of significant negative aesthetic in nature, Carlson’s version of positive aesthetics seems stronger than Rolston’s holism. It is not, however, as all encompassing as Hargrove’s version of positive aesthetics. Hargrove denies the presence of negative aesthetic qualities in nature entirely: “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” (177). His argument for positive aesthetics, for “why nature is always beautiful and never ugly” (184) also seems to entail the lack of negative aesthetic qualities in nature. Because “nature’s indifferent creativity . . . always brings with it compatible standards of goodness and beauty. . . Nature is itself its own standard of goodness and beauty, making ugliness impossible as a product of nature’s own creative activity” (184). Footnote

            Budd points out that attributing an overall positive aesthetic value to nature requires only “a very small step” beyond the claim that nature possess no negative aesthetic qualities, because “the kind of freedom that characterizes the aesthetic appreciation of nature . . . guarantees that any natural item will offer something of positive aesthetic value, something that is aesthetically rewarding, even if the rewards are very small” (125). While Hargrove does not explicitly mention the degree of positive beauty he attributes to nature (as does Carlson with his claim of “substantial” aesthetic value), the beauty Hargrove attributes to nature is not minimal. He writes about “the superiority of natural beauty” (185) and argues that “all human standards of beauty are derived from nature” (191) so that natural beauty is the “well spring” of artistic beauty. “It is not true, of course, that all natural beauty is superior to all art. There are degrees of beauty both in nature and in art, and some of the best works of human art compare favorably with, and are perhaps superior to, many of nature’s creations” (191). Hargrove also thinks nature’s beauty gives us a strong reason for protecting it: “Natural beauty . . . is, in most cases, as valuable as artistic beauty and therefore as worthy of being promoted and preserved” (198).

4.         Evaluating positive aesthetics

            That nature lacks any negative aesthetic qualities is an exceeding unbending version of positive aesthetics and one whose plausibility is seriously open to question. This is not the claim that everything in nature has positive aesthetic value overall or that nature is (or natural items are) on balance aesthetically valuable. Such a view allows for natural items to possess negative aesthetic qualities that are outweighed by more substantial positive ones. Instead, the claim is that none of the features or dimensions of natural items have any aesthetic qualities that have a negative value considered in themselves. This view amounts to the idea that all of nature, perceived from all possible perspectives and using all senses, is invariably aesthetically positive in every detail!

            a.         Examples of negative aesthetic qualities

            Counterexamples to this view are not hard to come by. Some natural items (or dimensions of natural items) seem boring, clumsy, chaotic, dangerous, deformed, dirty, disgusting, destructive, grotesque, merciless, painful, terrifying, or unpleasant. In so far as natural items or properties can be so characterized, nature would seem to possess negative aesthetic qualities.

            Budd argues against the no negative aesthetic quality thesis by focusing on defective instances of living kinds:

A negative aesthetic quality is a quality that, considered in itself, makes a negative contribution to an item’s aesthetic value and so constitutes an aesthetic defect in the item. . . . for a natural item to possess a negative aesthetic quality it must be defective as a product of nature. . . . a member of a species can be a defective instance of that species, malformed, unable to function in one or more ways normal for the species, perhaps disabling it from flourishing in the manner characteristic of the species, and only living things can be in an unhealthy state, be ill, decline, and die. Hence an adherent of the view that a natural thing cannot possess a negative aesthetic quality would need to show that none of the ways in which organisms can be defective instances of their kinds could be manifest in their appearance in such a way as to display a negative aesthetic quality. It does not seem possible to establish this (126).

            In addition to deformities in plants and animals, it is arguable that all animals (and plants) possess negative aesthetic qualities at some point in their lives. They get dirty, become sick, decline, and die, in the process losing their attractive colors and gracefulness of movement. Footnote 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).

            One might conclude from this that only animals in their prime or animals that live up to the ideal of their species are thoroughly beautiful and possess no negative aesthetic qualities.

            Even Ronald Hepburn, whose 1966 article “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” started the renaissance in nature aesthetics suggests that some parts of nature may be “irremediably inexpressive, unredeemably characterless and aesthetically null.” Footnote  

            The implausibility of the claim that nature has no negative aesthetic qualities becomes even clearer when one considers the variety of ways one can aesthetically attend to nature. Many have argued that, unlike much art appreciation, nature appreciation is multi-sensory. Let us consider the smell, taste, or feel of some natural items. If one comes across a “rotting carcass of an elk, full of maggots”–“a putrid elk” (238, EE) as Rolston calls it– one encounters a negative olfactory quality. Or consider the taste in ones mouth after bitting into a rotten apple: Is it not indubitably negative? Both Budd and Rolston have generalized these examples: Budd writes: “Smells or tastes that all human beings find physically nauseating” require placing “restrictions on the scope of the doctrine of positive aesthetics” (Budd 107). 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). Qualities of nature that are universally found to be nauseating or repulsive seem to be reasonably good candidates for negative aesthetic qualities (assuming that one countenances tastes and smells in the realm of aesthetics).

            Fisher objected to my use of disgust because not cognitive?

            Some affective responses are primitive reactive and not cog based (disgust) this is Davies ch 6.

            Does it matter to my argument that disgust is a non-cog emotional response?

            Some tactile encounters with nature seem clearly negative as well. Consider the unpleasant physical sensations experienced by those who stumble into a hot spring, break through the ice while attempting a winter crossing of a river, or are suffocating while buried under an avalanche. Perhaps the pain involved in such experiences may not be compatible with aesthetic contemplation of these events. Footnote Consider a less extreme and more frequent encounter with nature: Weather can be exceedingly hot, sticky, and buggy. While some may claim not to mind hot, humid weather, it is hard to imagine that they have no problem with the sting of bug bites or the annoying itch that follows. Footnote

            b.         Negative qualities, but not negative value (as in grotesque art)?

            It is true that displeasure, discomfort, or even disgust resulting from attending to an aesthetic object is not necessarily a sign of negative aesthetic value, for some works of art elicit these reactions and yet are nonetheless judged to be aesthetically positive. For example, consider depictions of explicit battle scenes in films or descriptions of the suffering of loved characters in novels. These can provoke such negative feelings but we often judge these works to be aesthetically positive, in part because of (and not in spite of) the “negative aesthetic qualities” that provoke these feelings. Similarly, there are art genres that emphasize the grotesque, the shocking, the morbid, the horrifying, and the ugly, and works of these sorts are not necessarily aesthetically negative.

            We might draw a distinction between negative aesthetic qualities and negative aesthetic value to help us understand these examples. The sadness of a piece of music need not be of negative aesthetic value even if we categorize the aesthetic quality as a negative one. As Fudge puts it: “Even when the content of an aesthetic object is sad, tragic, scary, we can nevertheless delight in perceiving the object” (277). Could it be that nature’s putrid smells, disgusting tastes, and unpleasant sensations are similarly not of negative aesthetic value, despite their “negative” aesthetic quality?

            One explanation for this distinction is available for art but not nature: An artist can show great artistry in the creation of disgusting, grotesque, or otherwise “ugly” artworks. For example, the performing artist Stelarc is known for suspending himself with fishhooks. While his works might make one’s skin crawl, one can legitimately judge these performances to be ingenious and amazing. Thus artworks with negative aesthetic qualities might be judged to possess positive aesthetic value because they instantiate creative genius. Since nature does not have an artist (whose artistry we could praise and value), “ugly” nature can not be redeemed in this fashion. Footnote

            It is not clear however that it is simply the artistry that we value when we value art that shocks, unsettles, disturbs or disgusts us. Even though experiencing these artworks does not give us a pleasurable state of mind, we might judge them of positive aesthetic value because we intrinsically value the experience of engaging with them (separate from our admiration of the artistry that produced them). Footnote We might find Damien Hirst's bisected cows "repellent but curious" and this might have nothing to do with our views about the quality of the artistry that when into them. Footnote

            Now it could be that some of nature’s negative aesthetic qualities are of this sort: Experiencing them is unpleasant, but we nonetheless find (intrinsic) value in the encounter with them. Watching a wolf pack kill an elk is disturbing, but nonetheless it is an experience sought by many and appreciated for its own sake. Nevertheless, if we are careful to distinguish the different dimensions of our aesthetic experiences of nature, it does not seem plausible that all of the suggested negative aesthetic qualities we experience in nature are ones that we intrinsically value for their own sake. There might be much in our encounter with a rotting carcass in the wild that we can intrinsically value, but the putrid smell is not one of those dimensions. Footnote The doctrine that any aesthetic experience of nature-- perceived from any possible perspective and using any sense modality–is invariably aesthetically positive in every detail seems unsupportable. Nature, it seems, has negative aesthetic qualities that have negative aesthetic value. Footnote

            c.         Do negative aesthetic qualities disappear with appropriate appreciation?

            One might try to salvage the claim that there are no negative aesthetic qualities in nature by invoking the distinction between better and worse aesthetic appreciation of nature and by claiming that the experience of negative aesthetic qualities invariably involves an impoverished type of nature appreciation, perhaps because it is uninformed or biased. If we locate the experience of the putative negative aesthetic quality in a broader context and add aesthetically relevant information, the negative experience will dissipate. (This approach is similar to the one Rolston uses to contextualize intrinsic ugliness in nature.) Now while this maneuver may work to make the case that natural items are aesthetically positive on balance, it is hard see how it could remove the aesthetically negative quality entirely. What kind of bias is one showing when revolted by the smell of a decaying carcass or what information could one add that would make the taste of a rotten apple itself aesthetically appealing (or at least neutral)?

            Once running in the Yukon, we came across feces on the trail. Upon examination, it turned out to be fresh bear scat containing partially digested berries. The encounter was aesthetically stimulating and by no means totally negative. Many would consider feces clear refutations of positive aesthetics. But we judged the encounter to be significantly positive overall. We marveled at the size of the pile. We looked around for the source of the red berries the bear had been eating. The fact that a bear had been in the area recently leant a seriousness to the mood: Running in the presence of bears is not a good idea. Nonetheless, the smell of the scat was disgusting. Although in its broader aesthetic context, the smell sensation might have been different than the smell of bear scat in a zoo (or unidentified in a room), its aesthetic quality was not changed from negative to positive. Nonetheless, the overall experience of the bear scat was an aesthetically positive one, for the negative smell was outweighed by cognitive interest and emotive depth.

            Fudge develops a similar example: (Fudge before my example?)

Consider rotting plant material in a bog. . . . its scent is not particularly pleasing , and it does not possess scenic value. Science (especially botany and ecology) instructs us about how the decaying plants help to return nutrients back to the soil, contributing to the bog’s continued health. Science, then, teaches us about the systemic or relational properties that hold between the plants and other parts of the bog, which ideally leads to a newfound appreciation of the bog” 277.

            Note that Fudge does not suggest that this scientific information makes the scent of the bog pleasing or aesthetically positive. Placing the smell of the bog in its broader ecological context by providing information about it can change the valence of one’s response to the bog from negative to positive. Before, one’s response to the bog was based solely on the negative smell. With the additional information, the bad smell is backgrounded and other features of the bog are noted and highlighted. Given the smell is caused by plants returning their nutrients to the soil, a sensitive observer will not be particularly bothered by it. Further, in its expressive/representative dimension, the smell is now positive, not negative: It represents ecologically important recycling activity. Nonetheless, the smell still stinks, but it doesn’t just stink. Footnote

            d.         Are all natural items aesthetically positive on balance?

            These examples suggest that an informed appreciation of negative aesthetic experiences of nature can transform them into positive aesthetic experiences. This phenomenon, while not supporting the claim that nature has no negative aesthetic properties, does provide some support for the idea that natural items are aesthetically positive on balance (i.e., after considering both their positive and negative aesthetic qualities). This is Glenn Parsons’ understanding of positive aesthetics: “I take positive aesthetics to be, roughly, the claim that any natural object, appropriately aesthetically appreciated, is on balance aesthetically good” (p. 288, 2002 BJA). (As we shall see below, Parsons holds this version of positive aesthetics on apriori grounds.) When seemingly aesthetically negative natural items (e.g., carcasses, scat) are placed in an informed context that specifies what they are, how they came to be, and in what way they relate to other natural items, frequently the negative dimensions are either transformed and/or outweighed by positive aesthetic features. Saito, for example, argues that there are always scientifically interesting accounts that can make any natural phenomenon appealing.

“I cannot think of any stories of nature that are uninteresting or trivial. . . No matter how seemingly insignificant, uninteresting, or repulsive at first sight, natural history and ecological sciences reveal the marvelous works of every part of nature. . . every part of nature is aesthetically positive for its storytelling power.” (105, Unscenic).

            The version of positive aesthetics that claims that all natural items are aesthetically positive on balance when they are appropriately appreciated has a good deal of plausibility. Appropriate appreciation is typically cashed out as scientifically informed appreciation (though it need not be). This version is close to the view that Carlson has embraced. Footnote

            Nonetheless, many environmental aestheticians, including some who are sympathetic to the aesthetic value of non-scenic nature, deny this thesis. Budd for example, maintains that “grossly malformed living things will remain grotesque no matter how comprehensible science renders their malformation” (102). Of course, they might remain grotesque but have other more than compensating positive aesthetic characteristics. Similarly, Fudge argues that:

Despite the role science plays in helping us appreciate unscenic nature, we must still face the prospect of being unable to overcome the aesthetic displeasure caused by certain parts of nature. No matter what we learn about a rotting elk carcass, we may be unable to overcome its negative aesthetic properties, and therefore deem that it has a negative net aesthetic value. (Goes on to say that like method of app sculptures can’t guarantee positive, so sci app nature can’t either) (278) Footnote

            e.         Saito’s psychological objection Footnote

            Saito, though not (exactly) arguing that some natural items have overall negative aesthetic value, nonetheless does “take exception to the claim that everything in nature is aesthetically appreciable” (109 Unscenic). Her reasons are not straightforward aesthetic ones, but rather moral (discussed below) and psychological. Despite arguing for the existence of aesthetically stimulating scientific stories for all natural items, Saito takes the following objection to scientifically informed, positive aesthetics quite seriously:

One might say that even if we try to bring ourselves to listen to nature’s stories, some things in nature are so repulsive, annoying, or unattractive that we cannot bring ourselves to appreciate the positive aesthetic value of their story telling. Fleas, fliers, cockroaches, and mosquitoes, no matter how interesting their anatomical structures and ecological roles may be, are simply pesky–only an entomologist will be able to take an objective stand toward them. Bats, snakes, slugs, worms, centipedes and spiders simply give us the creeps and cause us to shudder. Dandelions, crabgrass and “weeds” are eyesores. Our negative reaction to these things outweighs their positive aesthetic value of embodying their interesting life story (Unscenic 106, emphasis added)

            There are two separate claims here. The first is that some dimensions of natural items are sufficiently negative to outweigh their positive scientifically informed aesthetic interest and that this renders them aesthetically negative on balance. Saito does not (unequivocally) embrace this claim. What Saito does insist upon is that although for every natural item there is a (scientifically-informed) aesthetic story that makes it positively appreciable, there are cases where we are unable psychologically to access that story. Her most forceful examples have to do with dangerous natural items. She considers natural phenomena that present an imminent threat to our existence, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions: “How many of us can have an aesthetic appreciation if we are actually in the midst of a tornado or facing the flow of lava approaching us?” (107 Unscenic). In response to the suggestion that we need proper distance to achieve the disinterestedness necessary for aesthetic appreciation, she argues that such distance undermines the aesthetic experience and she stresses the need for engagement:

The actual experience of natural calamities . . . affects our whole being through the unnerving shaking of the ground, the shower of volcanic rocks and ashes raining on us, or the roar and vibration of the wall of moving snow. ...the painful awareness of our vulnerability and fragility, experienced immediately by our being situated in the midst of these natural events, is essential in our aesthetic experience of them (if we can manage to have such an aesthetic experience). (197 Unscenic)

            Saito argues that sometimes the aesthetically stimulating natural history “story may be told too dramatically and powerfully for us to listen, comprehend and appreciate” (108). Since we are concerned with the aesthetic experiences people can actually have (and not with those of a “super human being” “whose attitude toward its own existence differs from ours”) (108), not every natural phenomena is aesthetically appreciable.

            It is hard to know just what Saito has shown about positive aesthetics with these arguments. Her point that there is a scientifically interesting story about every natural item provides support for positive aesthetics. It is not clear that the psychological fact that we cannot access and directly aesthetically experience the positive aesthetic story of some of these items shows that they lack positive aesthetic value. If a great work of art were somehow made inaccessible to people, this would not show that it lacked aesthetic value. That tornadoes or earthquakes or attacking grizzly bears are not psychologically aesthetically appreciable seems compatible with their possessing positive aesthetic value, unless we insist that all positive aesthetic value is necessarily something we can (potentially?) appreciate. Perhaps we want to insist on this, but I shall leave that question open.

            f.         Moral worries about positive aesthetics Footnote

            Several philosophers, including Saito, have identified moral considerations that seemingly count against positive aesthetics. Footnote Mill’s conception of nature as an “odious scene of violence” expresses the general sentiment behind these considerations. Rolston 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).

            Malcolm Budd criticizes the claim that, because of their nature, ecosystems are positive aesthetically, by asking how “this essence is supposed to guarantee a positive overall aesthetic value, especially in the light of there being a great deal of killing and suffering in most ecosystems” (2002, p. 104).

            The vast amount of suffering, death, killing and other violence in nature seems a threat to the view that nature is thoroughly aesthetically positive. Consider for example the centrality of predation to the way the natural world works and the suffering it involves.

            Yuriko Saito has addressed this problem more directly than anyone else and argues that we have a moral obligation not to aesthetically appreciate events in nature that cause great human suffering.

Aesthetic appreciation of a natural disaster without regard to its impact on humans, even if possible, conflicts with moral concerns . . . We do not make a negative moral judgment on natural disasters themselves because they are not created by a moral agent, unlike the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. However, the same moral considerations that question the appropriateness of our aesthetic appreciation of the mushroom cloud, I believe, are also applicable to possible aesthetic experiences of natural disaster which cause people to suffer. . . Our human-oriented moral sentiments do dictate that we do not derive pleasure (including aes pleasure) from other humans’ misery, even if it is caused by nature taking its course . . . Although all natural phenomena have their place, their potential aesthetic value is held in check or is overridden by our moral concern for the pain, suffering and difficulties that these phenomena cause for human beings (108-109, Unscenic).

            Allen Carlson responds to this challenge of Saito’s to positive aesthetics by arguing that it misses the point, because the claims of positive aesthetics apply only to pristine nature and not to natural items with which humans are involved. Positive aesthetics is an account of “natural value and thus seemingly does not address the issue of nature’s effects on humans” (Carlson in Preston, p. 115, emphasis in original). Whatever we think of this response, neither Saito nor Carlson take seriously the challenge to positive aesthetics posed by naturally-caused suffering and death of animals.

            This challenge can be seen either as a moral challenge to the appropriateness of the aesthetic appreciation of all of nature or as an aesthetic challenge. Along the lines of Saito’s challenge, we might worry about the moral appropriateness of aesthetically appreciating events in nature that cause great suffering. Or we might question the positive aesthetic value of natural events involving great suffering (and thus the aesthetic appropriateness of positively appreciating them).

            Consider the aesthetics of predation. People find predation events to be aesthetically stimulating, searching them out and valuing them as some of their most precious encounters with the natural world. Attendance in Yellowstone National Park has increased since wolves were brought back and seeing a wolf pack bring down an elk is a prize many seek. Given the intense suffering of the prey that is typical in predation and given a conception of moral standing that takes sentient animals seriously, taking aesthetic pleasure in an event that involves the significant suffering of another sentient being is ethically worrisome. Further, if we allow for the integration of non-aesthetic values into aesthetic ones, the suffering of animals so characteristic of nature might legitimately be considered aesthetically negative whatever our views are about the morality of a positive aesthetic response to it. Thus the suffering of prey in nature presents a challenge to positive aesthetics.

            There is a plausible response to this challenge. Footnote First we should note that a sympathetic emotional response to the prey’s plight is morally required, but a duty to aid is not, because interference in natural processes would create disvalues so significant that they would overshadow the benefits to the prey. We should also note the significant positive values involved in predation, including life for the predator, the creation and maintenance of healthy ecosystems, and refinement of admirable characteristics in both predator (e.g., cunning) and prey (e.g., fleet footedness). Given that our sympathetic response to the prey’s plight is genuine and that we have no duty to rescue the prey, a positive aesthetic response to predation’s positive values does not seem morally impermissible. Further, it is arguable that the suffering of the prey deepens the positive aesthetic qualities of predation, rather than taking away from them. The aesthetics of predation is not an enjoyable or easy beauty like watching sunsets or galloping horses. Predation is a sad, perhaps even “terrible” beauty. Carolyn Korsmeyer describes terrible beauty this way: “With terrible beauty attention is arrested by elements that strain the heart and yet they induce us to linger over them and savor them in all their heartache and woe” (Korsmeyer, 2005, p. 59). The disvalues to the prey can heighten our affective absorption as we experience this fundamental way that sentient life functions on our planet. While such a response may be sufficient to support positive aesthetics from the suffering involved in predation, it is unclear if such an account can be given for other sentient animal suffering in nature (e.g., due to disease, starvation) or for the violence and death in nature more generally.

5.         Arguments for positive aesthetics

            a.         A priori or empirical?

            A number of arguments have been put forward in support of positive aesthetics, including ones by Carlson, Hargrove, Parsons, and Rolston. Most of these arguments are conceptual and support the thesis on a priori grounds. Rather than viewing the claim that all of nature is beautiful as a contingent, empirical thesis to be supported inductively by descriptions and evaluations of natural items, types, and processes, these arguments appeal to analyses of the concepts of nature or of the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature. Verifying or falsifying the a priori versions of positive aesthetics do not require actual experience of the natural world nor a knowledge of the particulars of natural history more generally. The empirical version, on the other hand, depends on such experience and knowledge. I consider Rolston’s support of the doctrine of positive aesthetics to fall under this empirically-based approach, while the defenses give by Hargrove, Carlson, and Parsons are of the a priori sort. Footnote

            b.         How Rolston’s account is an empirical account (need to write)

            Though most arguments in the literature for positive aesthetics tend to make the claim a necessary truth or defend it apriori, Rolston’s defense is not. He provides an account of natural history that defends positive aesthetics through a rich description of the actual character of the natural world.

            c.         Hargrove’s arguments for positive aesthetics

            Hargrove’s discussion of positive aesthetics seemingly attributes necessity to the thesis. At one point he defines positive aesthetics as “the view held by many environmentalists that whatever exists is in some significant way beautiful simply because it exists” (168) He argues for this by claiming that “existence is not simply an arbitrary ingredient in states of affairs in the world, but is rather a positive value in its own right enhancing our aesthetic/scientific appreciation of the natural world: In other words, existence is an aesthetic property of natural objects” (168). Hargrove’s claim that the mere existence of natural objects is sufficient to give them a positive aesthetic value is obviously not an empirical claim; it is not one we could verify or falsify by descriptions of actual natural objects. It is also an extremely peculiar claim whose rationale is unclear. Why would the mere existence of something guarantee that it had either an overall positive aesthetic value or even any positive aesthetic dimension? Why think existence is value adding at all? Footnote

            The other rationale Hargrove gives for positive aesthetics also makes its truth a priori (and necessary). Hargrove argues that unlike traditional art, where a conception (or essence) of the aesthetic object preexists the actual physical existence of the object, in nature “existence precedes essence” (that is, there is no antecedent conception of the object before it exists). Hargrove goes on to argue that

If nature’s existence precedes its essence, the natural product of nature’s indifferent creativity . . . is and has to be good and beautiful, because whatever is so created always brings with it compatible standards of goodness and beauty. Put another way, nature is itself its own standard of goodness and beauty, making ugliness impossible as a product of nature’s own creative activity . . . [Concerning the existence of beauty in the world, if beauty is always the result of creative activity in nature, then as long as some natural objects exist that are unspoiled products of that creative activity, some beauty also exists in the world] (184). Footnote

            If we can make sense of the claim that nature has its own standards of beauty and that any natural item must meet these standards, then we have a version of positive aesthetics that is necessarily true. It is not entirely clear, however, that Hargrove intends these arguments to establish the truth of positive aesthetics. He sometimes suggest that instead of trying to provide “a proof” of positive aesthetics, he is simply trying to show that an “argument appropriately grounded in our Western traditions can be formulated” (200) in defense of positive aesthetics.

            d.         Naturalness and positive aesthetics

            Another non-empirical (conceptual or a priori) argument for positive aesthetics stems from the idea that naturalness (or wildness) is a value-adding property and then interpreting this value as importantly aesthetic. Naturalness (or wildness) involves the degree to which an entity is not influenced by humans. That human influence on nature degrades its value has been a major (though controversial) idea in environmental ethics. Leopold provides an example illustrating this view and suggesting that the type of value involved is aesthetic:

Consider . . . a trout raised in a hatchery and newly liberated in an over-fished stream. The stream is no longer capable of natural trout production. Pollution has fouled its waters, or deforestation and trampling have warmed or silted them. No one would claim this trout has the same value as a wholly wild one caught out of some unmanaged stream in the high Rockies. Its esthetic connotations are inferior (1966, p. 260). Footnote

            Given these premises, it follows that all of pristine nature is beautiful in at least one dimension, namely its naturalness (i.e., lack of humanization). As noted above, the positive aesthetics claim is typically limited to nature unaltered by humans: “All of nature, in so far as it is untouched by humans, is beautiful.” Thus the assumption that naturalness is aesthetically valuable provides support for one (albeit weak) version of positive aesthetics, namely, that all of nature has at least one aesthetically valuable characteristic (its naturalness).

            The idea that naturalness is an aesthetic value also helps make sense of the notion that nature is beautiful merely because it exists (apart from humans) and it may underlie (and help explain) Hargrove’s claim that the mere existence of natural items is a positive aesthetic property. Note however, that without a strong (and in my mind counterintuitive) assumption that naturalness value is invariably an overriding (aesthetic?) value, Footnote that natural items are aesthetically positive in this respect (their naturalness) entails nothing about natural items or nature’s overall (on balance) aesthetic value.

            Some interpret positive aesthetics as claiming a very close connection between nature’s naturalness and its aesthetic value: “Positive aesthetics is also able to provide an answer to the question: ‘What in nature is beautiful?’ All of wild nature is beautiful and thus deserves our appreciation and protection. The more wild, the better” (Thompson, p. 296. Note that this is not a view that Thompson embraces). This view can be interpreted as claiming that nature is positively aesthetically valuable to the extent that it is free from the human touch. But the extent of human manipulation of a natural area is not a reliable gauge for how much aesthetic value it has. Human manipulation of nature produces a wide variety of outcomes, including, on the one hand, flower gardens, farm fields, and architectural marvels, and on the other hand, oil-soaked beaches, clear-cut forests, and billboards. Although the former are superior aesthetically to the latter they seem to involve more rather than less human manipulation of nature. We may not assume that the positive aesthetic value of an environment is determined solely by the extent of its freedom from human alteration. Clearly, some human created or altered environments have greater aesthetic worth than the natural (or more natural) areas that they replaced. Imagine, for example, building the Sistine Chapel in some aesthetically undistinguished natural area.

            e.         Is naturalness an aesthetic quality? (includes Elliot’s ideas)

            The idea that naturalness is an aesthetic quality (or an aesthetically relevant quality) with positive aesthetic value is both controversial and potentially problematic. Many take nature’s naturalness to ground a kind of moral value of nature, for it is related to the idea of (morally) respecting nature as other, and they think of this as somehow incompatible with naturalness being a kind of--or bases for--aesthetic value.

            But unless one assumes that aesthetic values cannot be the basis for moral regard, this fails to show that naturalness is not an aesthetic value. It is not clear why we should hold that any value that is the basis of moral regard must itself be a moral value. The assumption that aesthetic values cannot be the grounds for moral duty is clearly false on a consequentialist conception of morality, where one’s duty is to produce (or protect/preserve) the most good. Further, it seems likely that different types of value can supervene on the same empirical property and thus naturalness could ground both aesthetic and moral values.

            Robert Elliot has considered the relations between the aesthetic and moral value of nature in great detail. (62-73 Faking Nature Book) He distinguishes between nature’s aesthetic qualities (e.g., diversity, richness, harmony, grandeur, and intricacy,) and its naturalness and argues that the latter turns what he takes to be otherwise morally weak or inert aesthetic values into a constellation of value that engenders strong moral obligations. Elliot thinks that, by itself, aesthetic value (even when intrinsic) does not involve “intrinsic moral value” by which I think he means a type of value that engenders strong duties (for example the duty not to harm or destroy). He agrees with Peter Singer that the aesthetic value of art has no intrinsic moral value and that if the last sentient being destroyed the Louvre on a whim, he would be doing nothing wrong. Footnote He argues, in contrast, that nature’s intrinsic aesthetic value does bring with it intrinsic moral value and so if the last sentient being was a person and this person destroyed all of nonsentient nature she would be doing something wrong. The relevant difference between the art and nature cases is naturalness.

That nature’s organization complexity arises in absence of intention and design itself contributes crucially to nature’s aesthetic value. Moreover, this fact transforms the aesthetic value in question into the kind of aesthetic value that gives rise to moral value. The claim that there is such a transformation is fundamental to the advocacy of natural values, since in many contexts outside the natural, aesthetic value does not yield intrinsic moral value” ( p. 61) “Humans create artefacts and create their value, and the value of those artefacts disappears when humans disappear. This is not so, however with nature’s aesthetic value. And that it is enduring provides the differentiation that allows us to say that natural aesthetic value is a basis for intrinsic moral value, whereas the aesthetic value of artefacts is not. (68)

            Elliot thinks that naturalness is central to nature’s value. Not only does it “contribute to nature’s aesthetic value” but it turns that value into a value with moral clout. In spite of the fact that he distinguishes between intrinsic aesthetic and moral value, Elliot admits that in the case of nature although “some people are able to detect a sharp exclusive difference between the aesthetic and the moral in this context. I am sure, thought, that I cannot” (p. 72).

            Even if naturalness is an aesthetic property of nature it is clearly not the only such property. Even if some item in nature (or nature itself) has a high degree of naturalness, this is no guarantee of its overall beauty, for something might be entirely natural and also be boring, bland, dull, and even ugly. But this point is compatible with naturalness being a (positive) aesthetic quality, for the positive value of a thing’s naturalness might be outweighed by its other (negative) aesthetic qualities. Footnote

            Naturalness is sometimes held to be a value enhancer, increasing the value of the qualities to which it applies (as in the Elliot view above). So, for example, the beauty of an item might be judged especially valuable given its naturalness. Hargrove makes the point this way: “Our aesthetic admiration and appreciation for natural beauty is an appreciation of the achievement of complex form that is entirely unplanned. It is in fact because it is unplanned and independent of human involvement that the achievement is so amazing, wonderful and delightful” (1994: 183). I do not think this point counts against the view that naturalness is an aesthetic quality, for a property might both be a value enhancer and of value in itself. Footnote

            Whether or not naturalness is an aesthetic property depends on our account of aesthetic properties, a contentions and inconclusive area of aesthetic theory. Even if naturalness is not itself an aesthetic property/quality, if it is a base property on which aesthetic value properties supervene, that would be sufficient for a naturalness argument for positive aesthetics of pristine nature. Emily Brady’s categories of natural aesthetic properties include historical properties (e.g., original, ancient) and symbolic properties (e.g., representing freedom) and naturalness fits reasonably well under these rubrics (Brady, book, p. 16 or so). Allen Carlson’s treats an object’s “expressive qualities” (such as roadside litter being an eyesore because it expresses “waste, disregard, carelessness, and exploitation”) as aesthetical relevant qualities, and being natural (having a nonhuman origin, or representing a world beyond human influence) fits well with such examples of aesthetically relevant properties. Bernard Williams’ focus on nature’s otherness (naturalness) as an important component of its value is expressed in a way that makes it plausible to interpret naturalness as having aesthetic import:

“(It is?) Nature’s otherness, its separateness, and distinctness from ourselves who are to a large part produced and produce within culture and technology–that underwrites its intrinsic value. Our comprehension of nature’s otherness sparks and sustains the valuing response. . . What impresses and moves us in nature is something that is there independently of actions of creatures like ourselves” (quoted in Elliott’s Faking Nature p. 59).

            One reaction to the claim that naturalness is valuable is that this value is merely a “sentimental” value. This too suggests that naturalness is an aesthetic value. Paradigm moral values are character traits and motives like compassion, actions like truth-telling, consequences like the elimination of pain. Paradigm aesthetic values are the quiet beauty of a sunset or imagery or meaningfulness of a poem. Valuing a part of nature because it was not produced by humans and because it remains relatively beyond human influence, fits at least as well with the second examples as with the first. The worry about whether naturalness is an aesthetic or moral value may be pointless if we give up the notion that there is always a sharp distinction between moral and aesthetic values. Footnote

            Insofar as the argument for positive aesthetics is based on the idea that nature’s naturalness is a positive aesthetic quality, the truth of positive aesthetics, once again, is independent nature’s actual characteristics (other than its extent of humanization).

            f.         Carlson’s arguments for positive aesthetics

            For over 20 years, Carlson has consistently defended positive aesthetics, though–as we have seen–he has adjusted his formulation of the type of positive aesthetics he embraces. Until recently, his arguments for positive aesthetics have also remained consistent, relying on the cognitivist justification formulated in his original 1984 “Nature and Positive Aesthetics” paper which argued that science must inform appropriate nature appreciation and that scientific categories insure the presence of positive aesthetic value in that to which they apply. Footnote Most recently he has embraced a very different argument by Glenn Parsons. Both arguments provide a non-empirical justification for positive aesthetics.

            The 1984 cognitivist justification for positive aesthetics relies on an analogy with an imagined world where art objects are found, where artistic creativity comes from designing categories for these object under which they appear to be aesthetically as good as possible (“masterpieces”), and where the correctness of a category is a function of its success in making the object appear aesthetically good.

"The aesthetic situation concerning virgin nature in our world is essentially analogous to that concerning art in our previously imagined world. Our natural objects and landscapes, like its works of art, are discovered and categories are created for them. Our scientists, like its artists, create these categories in virtue of these given objects and, over the long run, with an eye toward aesthetic goodness.. . . Thus our natural objects and landscapes, like its works of art, are essentially aesthetically good" p. 94.

            A key part of Carlson’s argument is the claim that aesthetics plays an important role in the development of the scientific categories that we use to understand nature and this insures (somehow) that appreciation of nature through these categories will be aesthetically positive. In a more recent paper, Carlson explicitly formulates the premise needed:

“A significant consideration in the creation and selection of scientific descriptions is whether or not they make the natural world appear aesthetically better . . . more unified, orderly, or harmonious. (Carlson, “Hargrove, Positive Aesthetics, and Indifferent Creativity,” p. 229.)

            We can summarize Carlson’s argument this way: Natural science interprets nature as orderly, harmonious, and unified (or the like). If it did not so interpret nature, it would fail in its task of rendering the natural world intelligible. Because these characteristics (and others that science might use to make sense of nature) are partially chosen based on aesthetic criteria, our appreciation of the natural world as interpreted by science will be aesthetically positive. In short, if nature is scientifically intelligible, it is positively aesthetically appreciable. Footnote

            There are several potential problems with this argument for positive aesthetics. One is the previously mentioned concern about treating positive aesthetics as an a priori, rather than, empirical thesis. Carlson’s argument makes the truth of positive aesthetics virtually independent of all the actual characteristics of nature. As long as nature is such that science can render it intelligible, it has positive aesthetic value, for science will interpret nature in ways we find aesthetically stimulating. Positive aesthetics is thus rendered necessarily true: “Science reads its values into nature; in describing the facts, it does so in such a way that positive aesthetic values are necessarily present” (Carlson in Preston p. 115).

            But the contingent characteristics of our world should matter to the thesis of positive aesthetics. Given Carlson’s justification, the existence of sunrises and sunsets, mountains, forests, flora and fauna, etc. are not relevant to the assessment of positive aesthetics. In fact, the argument would work just as well if applied to a lifeless and geologically inert planet (or universe). It would apply just as well to a colorless world and one where the insect-flower co-evolution produced putrid smells rather than the delightful aromas of nature in our world. This fails to capture the intuition that there is something special about the beauty of the natural world we in fact inhabit and have inherited. Nature’s significantly positive aesthetic value is special in part because it need not have been so. Nature could have been dull, bland, relatively boring, and even significantly disorderly or chaotic. But whether we have our spectacular nature or a dull nature, scientific knowledge would still be possible and thus, given Carlson’s argument, positive aesthetics would apply in either case. An argument for positive aesthetics that ignores the impressive beauty of our world and guarantees that any intelligible world is aesthetically positive fails to do justice to the intuitions and motivations that underlie the thought that our natural world is thoroughly and specially beautiful.

            Note as well that Carlson’s argument does not specifically support the strong thesis of positive aesthetics that he has embraced, namely that each individual natural item has “substantial” positive aesthetic value (and little or no negative aesthetic value). It is not clear how the scientific cognitivist argument for positive aesthetics could support this claim for it concerns the degree or amount of aesthetic value in nature and this seems like an empirical matter.

            Carlson’s focus on science’s (and especially ecology’s) rendering of nature as “orderly, harmonious, and unified” should also give us pause. Many have claimed that there has been a paradigm shift in ecology that suggests that disorder, disharmony and instability are more accurate accounts of natural systems. (Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies). Jason Simus has identified this problem for Carlson’s argument and argues that these new scientific categories will also make the natural world intelligible to us and thus positively appreciable. Rather than positively responding to nature’s order, harmony and unity, we now need to aesthetically appreciate is disorder, disharmony and instability which are seen to be “aesthetic qualities” as well (Simus, p. 42). Carlson responds to this problem in a similar way: “I think we will increasingly find the “discordant harmonies” of nature just as aesthetically pleasing as we have come to find the comparable seemingly discordant, chaotic, and contingent worlds of 20th Century art and music” (Preston p. 122, fn 59). While I do not dispute the suggestion that we might be able to find some aesthetic value in disharmony and perhaps even in disorder, I continue to worry about an account of positive aesthetics that turns out true no matter what nature happens to be like.

            A further (and related) worry has been identified by Gene Hargrove. He argues that Carlson’s argument makes science (and scientists) the source of nature’s beauty, rather than nature being the source of its beauty:

I am troubled by Carlson's claim that the creativity involved in the aesthetic appreciation of natural objects is in the human activity producing aesthetic categories, not in the activity that produced the natural objects themselves. The problem is that the appreciation is not primarily directed at the appreciation of the natural objects, but rather at the appreciation of the scientists-artists who invent the categories that render the objects 'masterpieces'" p. 217 Footnote

            In response to Hargrove, Carlson says (P&G 5,2, 2002 p. 230)

"My line of thought places within human creative activity and experience not the objects of aesthetic appreciation but only the ultimate source of that which we find aesthetically appreciable in such objects. That is not a fallacy but rather the correct account of the beauty of the natural world."

            This certainly sounds like the claim that natural beauty is read into the world by humans (i.e., by human science). Although the aesthetic objects are found in nature, what is appreciable about them, their "order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, resolution and so forth" (book p. 93), that is to say, their aesthetic qualities, come from the human creative activity of scientific understanding and explanation.

            But it seem odd to claim that the grace of the gazelle, the power of a waterfall, the peacefulness of a meadow, or the majesty of the mountain comes from the appreciator or (even stranger) from the scientists who helps us understand these natural items. Nor does it seem plausible to think that nature’s “scientific” aesthetic qualities–its order, regularity, harmony, and balance (to the extent they exist)–come from the scientifically informed appreciator.

            This criticism need not assume a naive realism about aesthetic qualities. Even on an account of aesthetic qualities as response-dependent properties (i.e., features of objects that tend to cause certain responses in normal or perhaps ideal appreciators), although a reference to appreciators is included in the account of such aesthetic properties, appreciators are not the “ultimate source of that which we find aesthetically appreciable.” That the graze of a gazelle or the regularity of April showers depends on human spacial and temporal scales of perception does not make humans the “ultimate source” of this grace or regularity. The beauty of nature can make essential reference to the aesthetic sensibilities of appreciators without that beauty being a conceptual construct or other type of artifact of appreciators. To tie this criticism with the earlier one: It is only because Carlson makes the “ultimate source” of nature’s positive aesthetic qualities scientifically-informed appreciators (or appreciation) that he can guarantee that nature is positive aesthetically, regardless of nature’s actual contingent properties. Footnote

            g.         Parson’s beauty-making argument for positive aesthetics and an assessment of the alleged problem of category relativity that it addresses

            See Davies 122, value max criterion of interpretation

            More recently, Carlson has embraced an argument for positive aesthetics developed by Glenn Parsons. Parson’s argument is intriguing and provocative (but also problematic). It advocates adopting a “beauty-making” criterion for appropriate appreciation of nature that has us choosing categories for appreciating natural objects that “maximize their aesthetic merit” (295). (Note the similarity here to Carlson’s 1984 argument/analogy where the found aesthetic objects are categorized so they become masterpieces.) Parsons takes what I believe to be a virtue (viz., positive aesthetics understood as an empirical thesis) and treats it as a vice. He objects to “head-counting aesthetic qualities” and conceiving of positive aesthetics as “the shaky empirical hypothesis that every natural object happens to have more positive qualities than negative ones (p. 288).

            Parson develops his argument in response to a set of problems that Budd and others (e.g., Stecker) have identified for any position that purports to make claims about the aesthetic value of nature (including positive aesthetics). The problem is that there are a vast multitude of categories and perspectives with which to view any natural item (even if we limit these to scientifically correct categories, as does scientific cognitivism) and we need a criterion to determine which are aesthetically appropriate. Footnote One might think that they all are aesthetically appropriate, but this seems problematic once we notice that the aesthetic qualities and judgments resulting from these different categorizations and perspectives may be conflicting. Carlson sees this as a

“Serious problem facing scientific cognitivism. . . it will not do to say that any or all such categories and concepts are correct in the sense of being those that reveal the true aesthetics properties and value of nature, for the diversity and variety of (even only the scientifically correct) concepts and categories will certainly result in the attribution of conflicting aesthetic properties and value.” (Budd and Brady on the Aes of Nature,” Phil Quarterly Jan 2005, p. 111)

            As Budd puts it: “A natural item cannot be deemed to possess a particular set of aesthetic properties, but will possess contrasting sets for at least some of the categories of which it is a member.” (Budd 124). Thus there can be no single answer to questions about what is the aesthetic value of nature (or a natural item), nor what aesthetic qualities it possesses. Parson uses the example of a Venus fly trap whose jaw-like features appear grotesque (or ugly) when we appreciate it as a plant, but not when we categorize it more specifically as a carnivorous plant (pos aes, p. 288). So is the Venus fly trap grotesque or not? The problem is that there is no single correct answer but only various answers depending on how we conceptualize it. (This is Walton’s “category-relative” interpretation of nature’s aesthetic qualities and value. Strictly speaking, there is no conflict as each claim is relativized to a certain category or way of viewing.) Or consider the “Elegant and somewhat dainty beauty of a polar bear swimming under water” (Zangwill Formal natural beauty 214) in contrast with the anything but dainty beauty of this bear lumbering across the ice. [Notice that this is an example of how a natural phenomenon changes its aes qualities over time, perhaps like Zangwill’s idea that the left and right corner of a painting can have dif aes properties. This is not the same as perceiving the same thing at the same time, but from different perspectives/senses or under different categorizations/descriptions.]] A (mini) elephant, viewed under the category of elephant, might appear petite, whereas considered more generally as an animal, it is massive. Footnote

            Parsons’ beauty-making criterion is offered as the solution to this relativism problem: Appropriate aesthetic appreciation of an object would have us “view the object under the scientific categories in which it truly belongs and which maximize the aesthetic appeal of the object” (Pos aes, p. 292). The beauty making criterion is what determines which categorization or way of viewing a natural object is appropriate.

            Parsons’ suggestion is also a way to respond to an often mentioned worry about invoking science in the aesthetic appreciation of nature: While some science enhances appreciation, some scientific knowledge and ways of conceptualizing nature detract from the aesthetic appreciation of nature, perhaps by clouding the object in a “fog of details or abstraction” (John Fisher’s language). The beauty-making criterion would rule out such (correct) scientific accounts as inappropriate. Note that this is in fact how we use science in practice to appreciate nature. If one is visiting Yellowstone National Park and someone offers a natural history guide of the park and it is boring, too abstract, or doesn’t tie in with what one is experiencing, one ignores the information and categorizations. On the other hand, if the scientific guide does enhance (increase) our aesthetic enjoyment of the park, one would use it to do so. Footnote

            Parsons points out that such a beauty-making criterion was used by Walton to help determine the correct categories for art: According to Walton, that a work “is better or more interesting, or more pleasing aesthetically, or more worth experiencing when it is perceived” in one category rather than another, counts in favor of that being the correct category (Walton, CA, 347). In response to the objection that the fact that a categorization makes an object look good does not make that object belong to that category, Parson notes that he is only using the beauty-making criterion to select between (scientific) categories which are already shown to be correct. “I suggest using the criteria of aesthetic maximization to select one category that truly applies to the object over another one that also truly applies to it” (Pos aes 292). So Parsons is not recommending that we choose mistaken ways of conceiving of nature in order to maximize its aesthetic value, but rather that we choose between otherwise correct categories and deem the category that maximizes the object’s aesthetic value as the category required for appropriate aesthetic appreciation. (Thus there are correct categories but not appropriate for aesthetic appreciation.)

            Positive aesthetics is thus made internal to the theory of appropriate appreciation of nature. “The essential and universal beauty of nature” (i.e., positive aesthetics), is no longer a “dubious,” “shaky,” and “implausible empirical hypothesis” but “part of the intuitive data that we use in constructing our theories of appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature” (p. 294). “A realization of the deep beauty of nature is not where we need to end up in our theorizing, but the place where we should begin. (Pos Aes, 295) Parson notes that although this suggestion makes the “universal beauty of natural objects. . . less mysterious” 294 (note the understatement), it does not guarantee the truth of positive aesthetics, for “it may be that despite this particular beauty-making criterion, there are yet natural objects that cannot be construed as aesthetically positive.” 295 Footnote Perhaps any way of appreciating certain natural objects using scientifically correct categories results in a negative aesthetic appraisal of those objects.

            Parsons argument for positive aesthetics, while ingenious, raises a host of concerns. Footnote While not turning positive aesthetics into a necessary truth, nature’s special and thorough beauty is stipulated on a priori grounds due to theoretical considerations about aesthetic appreciation of nature, leaving the actual contingent character of the natural world to play a subsidiary role. On Parsons’ justification, a natural item is guaranteed to be positive aesthetically, as long as “there are (scientifically correct) ways of appreciating it such that, so appreciated, it has positive aesthetic value” (Carlson on Brady and Budd p. 112, parentheses added). If there is only one such way, the natural item is to be judged aesthetically positive even if (1) there are many other--perhaps more fundamental or relevant--ways of appreciating it that reveal its negative aesthetic value and (2) the negative value evident from such alternative modes of appreciating the item are far greater than the positive aesthetic value resulting from appreciating it using the beauty maximization criterion. Rather than attempting to combine these positive and negative characterizations and arrive at an overall judgment of the aesthetic value of the item, Parsons would have us choose the most positive characterization and ignore the others.

            Notice how implausible it can be to stipulate such a beauty-making criterion for artworks. Consider a movie that has superlative special effects, but its acting and story line leave much to be desired. The beauty-making categorization would have us aesthetically appreciate and evaluate it as a “movie with excellent special effects,” rather than a “movie with poor acting and a weak story line.” But it seems clear that such an evaluation is not just partial, but inadequate, not to say biased. Similarly, the beauty-making criterion applied to nature could also lead to such inappropriate appreciation. In appreciating a bat, the beauty making criterion might have us focus on “the ‘exquisite fashioning’ of their features for the task of sonar emission and detection” (Parsons, Freedom p. 35). But it could be that this bat is diseased with internal parasites and that it is a slow and awkward flier compared to his cousins. Why focus only on the positive aesthetic characterization rather than to attempt to integrate them with the negative?

            In certain respects, there is an intuitive plausibility to using a beauty-making criterion in art interpretation. But such plausibility does not transfer to nature interpretation. If we don’t know the intentions of an artist, then a principle of charity suggests that we interpret the art object produced in a way that makes it as aesthetically rich as possible. This is reasonable because we can assume that the artist was trying to maximize the aesthetic value of the artwork created. Such an assumption makes no sense in the case of nature.

            Furthermore, Parsons’ solution to the multiple and conflicting categories and perspectives problem is only partial. While the beauty-making criterion limits the diversity of appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature to those that maximize its aesthetic value, there is no reason to think that such a criterion will result in a unique solution. There may be two or more ways of correctly (and scientifically) appreciating nature that maximize its aesthetic value and these might also involve incompatible (noncombinable) aesthetic characterizations (or qualities). For example, we might maximize a wolf’s aesthetic value both by conceiving of it as the gentle mother of pups and by conceiving of it as a ruthless predator capable of taking down an elk. If one thinks it is a problem for natural objects to have such diverse and seemingly incompatible aesthetic properties (e.g., gentleness and ruthlessness), such a problem remains even when appropriate aesthetic appreciation of natural objects is defined as coming from conceptualizations and perspectives that maximize their aesthetic value.

            Perhaps the most important objection to Parson’s beauty-making criterion comes from scepticism concerning the very existence of the problem that Parson’s solution seeks to address. Even if one allows there to be a puzzle here, one might judge that the severity of the problem is not such as to warrant the extreme measures Parsons’ employs to avoid it (viz., virtually stipulating the truth of positive aesthetics). Why can’t a wolf both be gentle and ruthless? And a polar bear be both dainty in some contexts and lumbering in another? Why can’t the Venus fly trap be grotesque under one categorization and not grotesque under another? What exactly is the problem suppose to be? Footnote

            Objects and events can have various quite different descriptions and we might value an object under one description and not under another. My car trip can be described both as “going to the grocery store” and as “wearing down my tires;” I value the car trip when described one way and not when described another. Which aesthetic properties and value judgments apply to an aesthetic object may depend on how it is described. It is far from clear that this presents a problem we have to try to get around. Footnote

            Zangwill suggests that related problems (the “frame problem” and the “magnification problem”) aren’t really problems (Formal Natural Beauty, pp. 218-222). If we focus on the individual flowers on a hillside they appear delicate but the flowers are “magnificently powerful in concert” (220, italics in original).

“In a sense, nature has contradictory properties, but not in the same place and the same time. That is one combination of things does not have contradictory properties, but different combinations can do so. There is nothing mysterious about that” (220)

            Or consider that if we look at nature at one level of magnification we will see certain aesthetic properties and if we look at it at another level we will see others (222). This is certainly true of color, for example. Budd wonders what level of magnification we should view a grain of sand and argues “that it is arbitrary or indeterminate at what level of magnification we should view a grain of sand, and that, if so, what aesthetic properties it has is also arbitrary or indeterminate” (221).

            Zangwill replies that

If we place ourselves differently, different aesthetic properties of nature become available to us. It is quite unproblematic that one part of something can have a property that another part lacks. And the same goes for different levels of magnification. ...Things can be differently coloured at different levels of magnification . And something might have a rectilinear design at one level of magnification and a spiral design at another. So even if things do possess conflicting aesthetic substantive properties on different levels, there is no problem for aesthetic realism”

            Zangwill’s thinks that rather than accept a kind of relativism about aesthetic properties we should conclude that “nature turns out to be enormously complicated and aesthetically varied” 222 and that we can use “a notion of the total aesthetic nature of a thing, which is the sum of all the aesthetic properties that it possesses (221).”

            Although Budd dismisses the notion of the total value of a natural item as unhelpful, it is not clear that it is

Perhaps the only viable conception of the aesthetic value of a natural item qua the natural item it is represents this value as being a function of the totality of positive and negative aesthetic qualities possessed by the item as an instance of its kind. If so, the multifaceted indefiniteness of this function underscores the problematic character of a positive aesthetic of nature. Budd 102

            Another way to question the genuineness of this problem is to notice that it is also present (although perhaps to a lesser extent) in art and yet we don’t take it as a problem there. Consider a painting by Cezanne. As a Cezanne painting it might be immature, but as a cubist painting (relative to other cubist painters) it is not. Or perhaps the painting categorized as a cubist painting is fabulous, but categorized as a work of art is merely good and not great. A theater production might be exciting/lively (or not) if categorized as a play performed at this theater, or written by this author, or performed on Sunday night, or written by an American Footnote . Zangwill (222, Formal Natural Beauty) gives the following example: “A thing might be elegant at a high level of magnification and not elegant at a lower level, just as the top left-hand corner of a painting might be elegant but not delicate while its bottom right-hand corner might be delicate but not elegant.” Why think these divergent descriptions constitute a problem that needs to be resolved? We certainly wouldn’t propose a beauty-making criterion for art that had us focus only on an artwork’s most positive dimension (or positive conceptualization) as the only appropriate way to appreciate in order to rule these alternative aesthetic judgments out as inappropriate.

            h.         Positive aesthetics and conservation

            A final objection to Parsons’ version (or argument for a version) of positive aesthetics concerns its implications for environmental policy. One of the obvious uses to which the positive aesthetics thesis can be put is environmental protection. If nature is specially and thoroughly beautiful then this provides a solid premise from which to launch an aesthetic preservationist argument for environmental protection. Aesthetic preservationism is the view that natural beauty provides a strong and major rationale for environmental protection. If we accept some reasonably strong positive aesthetics thesis for nature and reject a similar thesis for the human made or altered environment (a rejection that seems quite plausible, for who would think that all human-constructed/altered environments are specially and thoroughly beautiful?), then we can expect that aesthetic values will be on the side of environmental preservation. Human-shaped environments that replace natural environments are likely to have less aesthetic value (think of strip malls, Wal-marts, and highway interchanges). And assuming that beauty is a major player in environmental policy (or that it should be), the truth of positive aesthetics will have significantly beneficial consequences for environmental protection.

            Parson’s defense of positive aesthetics undermines these benefits. County commissioners considering development in some natural area and who are wondering how aesthetically valuable the area is will rightfully object to an argument that ask them to conceive of that natural area in a way that maximizes its aesthetic merit, particularly when there are alternative ways of conceiving of it that are less positive or perhaps even negative. Developers and anti-environmentalists will justifiably claim bias in a procedure that claims the only appropriate aesthetic response to a natural area is one that conceptualize it so that it possesses maximum beauty when there are equally correct ways of conceiving that diminish this value. Why not require that appropriate appreciation of natural areas requires choosing categories for aesthetic response that makes those areas have the lowest aesthetic value so they can most easily be exploited? From the policy perspective, a beauty maximization criterion is no more justified than a beauty minimization or ugliness maximization requirement. If we are trying to decide whether or not the community should publicly fund a new art genre, the suggestion that we conceive of it only in those ways that maximize its aesthetic merit and overlook those ways of thinking about the genre that are critical of it would be preposterous. So too is the suggestion that in deciding whether natural areas are worth preserving appropriate assessment must choose the most positive perspective.