James M Dow

July 27, 2017
by dow@hendrix.edu

environmental disobedience


In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in environmental disobedience, ecosabotage, and militant environmentalism concerning the issues of climate change, conservation, agriculture, and other environmental issues. Environmentalists of many stripes have argued that we are undergoing an environmental crisis: the usual levers of political action— voting, calling your local, state, federal representatives, attempting to change laws, lobbying in Washington, DC, boycotting, etc— have been ineffective at changing minds. Most legal, moral, and “culture war” battles surrounding environmental issues have been lost, especially since Reagan’s propaganda war on environmentalism. However, human relationships to the natural world continues to create natural disasters, human suffering, and moral crises. A key question is what is the appropriate political action to take in light of this environmental crisis?

For instance, last year in North Dakota at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, indigenous groups and environmental groups engaged in collective actions to protest the Dakota access pipeline. The kind of solidarity that emerged at Standing Rock, the degree of interest by academics and intellectuals, and the public response was unprecedented. However, the discourse around some of the direct action tactics taken at Standing Rock was either non-existent or not informed by the literature on the ethics of environmental civil disobedience. The key question has changed over the years, since it used to be that people asked “Is environmental civil disobedience morally justified?” Some argue now that environmental civil disobedience is necessary. The shift is in the ethical questions has more to do with tactical issues, namely how and when is civil disobedience, ecosabotage, e.g., monkeywrenching morally justified.

The difficulty with introducing the issue of environmental civil disobedience is twofold.  First, the lack of perspective-taking between environmentalists— those that believe that the non-human natural world has value that is worth protecting— and the non-environmentalists— those that believe that the non-human natural world is a resource for humans only. Environmentalists are often taken to be Chicken Little alarmists by non-environmentalists, but that may be caused by a lack of knowledge of the environmental crisis. Second, the usual laws and values that govern issues having to do with human beings have legal and ethical frameworks already that do not require the creation of new value systems. From the point of view of non-environmentalists, it seems radical or extreme to engage in acts of civil disobedience for the environment.

While there are articles that have discussed environmental disobedience— the best summary example of which is Hettinger’s (2001) article “Environmental Disobedience”— I would argue that the literature thus far has not addressed four important issues: 1) the tension between accounts of civil disobedience independent of environmental concerns and the specific concerns of the environmental disobedient; 2) a narrow focus on a consequentialist framework for justifications for environmental disobedience which leaves out conscience/commitments of the agents engaging in the acts of disobedience, the deontology of environmental disobedience is unexplored, in particular questions about moral respect for the environment; 3) a meditation on the concept of violence that is employed in arguments for and arguments against environmental disobedience; 4) which is most controversial, a failure to recognize how political violence in general has been justified as a means to directly or indirectly bring about new values.  In this post, I will focus on the first issue. Later posts will address issues 2-4.

Any discussion of environmental disobedience needs to first address the objection that one ought never to break the law no matter what. Because environmental civil disobedience involves law breaking, for instance trespassing at a logging site and chaining oneself to a bulldozer, one might argue that breaking the law is never justified. However, as Hettinger argues, “Legal obligations (what the law demands) and moral obligations (what valid moral principles require) are conceptually distinct and it is not plausible that legal obligations invariably outweigh conflicting moral obligations” (499). Hettinger argues that the question of whether moral obligations outweigh legal obligations depends upon whether the legislative institutions are just or not. However, as Earth First! Activists have argued, the legislative institutions in the US are not legitimate because they systematically ignore the values of nature. It may be that a blanket rejection of the legitimacy of the system is too extreme, but so is the assumption that because one lives in a mostly just democracy, that therefore there are no instances in which lawbreaking is justified. From the point of view of an environmentalist, we do not live in a mostly just democracy. The usual routes to giving voice to environmental values have failed to have lasting impact on laws, society, and culture in the US. There is little to no one representing the interests of the non-human natural world in our educational system, our media, or our government.

Thoreau says that “it is not desirable to cultivate respect for law, so much as for right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any tie what I think is right” (1849, 7). But, the general attitude of disrespect for the law neither compels morally nor convinces legally. As Hettinger points out, the person justifying environmental disobedience must be able to appeal to conscience and commitment as a framework within which the political actions are justified. Environmental disobedients also must be able to justify the breaking of the law through balancing a respect for the law beyond the one broken and the desire to express a general respect for the rule of law.

It will be helpful to outline the conditions for civil disobedience here, however, in order to make clear and precise how environmental disobedience differs. If one engages in a compare and contrast between the literature on civil disobedience and environmental disobedience, the former tend to ignore environmental cases and the latter tend to ignore the conditions and distinctions of civil disobedience in a way that is clear and precise. One place to start is Kimberley Brownlee’s (2010; 2012) research on civil disobedience. Brownlee provides a criterion for civil disobedience that can be used to rearticulate the questions about environmental disobedience, a topic Brownlee does not discuss as a special case. Brownlee outlines 4 central features of civil disobedience: 1) conscientiousness; 2) communication; 3) publicity; and 4) nonviolence. She distinguishes between civil disobedience on the one hand and normal lawbreaking and other forms of dissent on the other hand. In the context of the justification question, she distinguishes between justifications for the motivation and justifications for the action. While Brownlee focuses on the right of civil disobedience and punishments for civil disobedience, the focus of this essay will be on the issue of the moral justification for environmental disobedience, with a special focus on how the ordinary cases of civil disobedience are difficult to extend to the environmental case.

The condition of conscientiousness involves the “seriousness, sincerity, and moral conviction with which civil disobedients breach the law” (2010, 4). The expression of conscience is usually an expression within the sensus communis, meaning an appeal to what anyone who taking the position an engaging conscience would see as a principle of justice that is not represented in the contemporary government, legal, or economic policy. Rawls central condition for conscientiousness is that the justice principles appealed to can be in principle at least shared in the court of public reason. “Civil disobedience is giving voice to conscientious and deeply held convictions; while it may warn and admonish, it is not itself a threat” (Rawls 1971, 366). Conscientiousness is necessary but not sufficient for civil disobedience, because militant actions and revolutionary actions can be conscientious without being civil. For instance, a revolutionary environmentalist may argue that political violence involving covert or secretive destruction of the infrastructure of global capitalism is justified in order to bring about anarchoprimitive bioregional communities. They may provide as the sole reason the idea that Bakunin thought violence was creative and they love Bakunin. A key question that arises as a challenge for the condition of conscientiousness in the context of environmentalism, however, is that the fact of public reason may not carry the possibility of sharing a common reality as easily as Rawls suggests, because as Callicott (1995) points out, engaging in environmental thinking itself is a radical form of conceptual activism. Even if the actions of the environmentalists are not themselves militant, e.g., attempting to stop clear cut logging by embedding metal spikes in trees or by monkeywrenching logging machines to bring the logging to a halt, rather than for instance, blocking a road or chaining oneself to a machine track or hanging oneself in an old growth tree.

The condition of communication involves both forward-looking aims and backward-looking aims (Brownlee, 5). The backward looking aims attempt to highlight an unjust law and the forward looking aims attempt to either highlight the need to overturn that law or to bring about a more just law in its place. Communication of moral responsibility and awareness of agency is central for the condition of communication. It is necessary to highlight who is to be blamed and shamed for the environmental wrong or ecological injustice that one wants to highlight, and then to articulate the intentions with which that law or policy has been carried out. The difference between everyday disobedience and environmental disobedience is that most civil disobedience in history has been direct but most environmental disobedience is indirect. Direct lawbreaking involves breaching a law the disobedient opposes in order to highlight that empathy for those effected negatively by the law is unjust. Indirect lawbreaking involves breaching a law that is unrelated to the law or cause that one wants to highlight as being unjust. Black students sitting at a lunch counter in a segregated diner in Alabama is a form of direct lawbreaking to highlight the injustice of segregation laws. Environmental activists that hang post-it note Banners in front of 3M’s offices to protest bad forestry practices are breaking trespassing laws and laws governing hanging from bridges. However, these laws are not themselves the ones they are highlighting. Instead, they are gesturing to unrelated concerns about the environment, namely 3M’s deforestation practices that are harmful to biodiversity.

The condition of publicity includes the idea that the dissenters’ intentions are known publicly prior to the action and that the dissenter is willing to accept responsibility and punishment for that action in the public sphere. As a matter of tactics, however, the publicity condition can be challenged on the grounds that the political action could not be carried out if the disobedients’ actions were broadcasted in advance. For instance, if civil disobedients wanted to break into a nuclear power plant to show that the security systems do not work, then they could not broadcast their intentions ahead of time. In addition, the willingness to get arrested for one’s actions shows a fidelity to the law. However, environmental disobedience differs in some respects from civil disobedience cases, because the willingness to get arrested under the charge of trespassing is different from the willingness to get arrested for domestic terrorism. If some lawbreaking is presupposed to be given a charge, sentence, and punishment that is extreme for ideological reasons, for instance, the charge of domestic terrorism for photographing or filming unethical treatment of animals in factory farming, then the dissenter might be justified in not making intentions in advance public and not publically broadcasting the action with a willingness to be punishment. Arguably the covertness of the action is justified as a way to highlight the unjust punishment of domestic terrorism for the lawbreaking act of trespassing or taking photographs.

The condition of nonviolence is the most controversial condition of civil disobedience, because, while conscientiousness, communication, and publicity are central, the concept of ‘civil’ is usually tied directly to the concept of ‘non-violence.’ In addition, in the mainstream media, the focus of the moral assessment of the direct actions usually focuses on the assessment of political violence as if this is the core of ethical concern. One Kantian argument for why civil disobedience must be non-violent is given by Rawls. Since civil disobedience involves the expressing of a higher law or principle of justice, to engage in political violence in committing that action is inconsistent. One cannot at the same time will that a higher law or principle of justice be brought into being as violence against others occurs, because the interference with the ends of others is in conflict with the aim of bringing about justice. The central difficulty of this condition will occupy most the attention of this essay, since the concept of “political violence” has been contested in environmental activism. What is included in the concept of violence? The main debate is between those that restrict violence to bodily harm to oneself or to other human beings and those extend violence to include non-human animals, plants, trivial violence, and destruction of property or land.

Key questions: To what degree is non-violence necessary for civility? To what degree is non-violence sufficient for civility? One might for instance operate with a particularist conception of civility and suggest that non-violence as destruction against property is not necessary for civility because greater violence comes to animals and plants in a decimated rainforest from not destroying property than from destroying the logging equipment that causes deforestation. Another concern that is brought up in Edward Abbey’s MA thesis “Anarchism and the Morality of Political Violence” is to what extent we presuppose that political violence is necessary for new moral values to emerge as I will discuss in a later post. A pessimist about human nature might point out that historically, even in liberal democracies, there needs to be an amount of violence or destruction in order for new forms of justice to emerge.

In the justification for the political act of environmental disobedience, the two central questions: 1) To what extent could the moral aims of the act have been carried out without lawbreaking? And 2) To what extent is the act not a form of ecosabotage but instead something less violent? The contrast case against civil disobedience is often ecosabotage.  How that contrast is drawn mostly depends upon how we understand the type of political violence involved in the political actions and the extent to which we take those actions to be morally justified. The normative assessment of environmental disobedience usually tracks the degree to which it cannot be construed as ecosabotage. This should not be surprising considering that the major rent between Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherds had to do with where to draw the line between civil disobedience and ecosabotage, Greenpeace endorsing the former and Sea Shepherds arguing that the latter was also justified. As Jennifer Welchman (2001) has argued, “civil disobedience” is a pragmatic concept that aims to “regularly and reliably distinguish a form of social behavior for legal, political, and moral purposes” (99). If the concept being used in the present doesn’t fit with what the activists urge are civil disobedient actions, then while an ideal theorist may attempt preserve the concept, a non-ideal theorist might better ask for revisions in the concept to extend to the cases. In my next post I will consider Welchman’s argument that ecosabotage is a form of civil disobedience. While I will argue Welchman’s non-ideal argument is not effective, I will nevertheless attempt to argue against Rawls’ ideal view of civil disobedience.


Brownlee, K. (2010). “Civil Disobedience” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Brownlee, K. (2012). Conscience and Conviction: the Case for Civil Disobedience. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Callicott, J. Baird (1995). “Environmental Philosophy is Environmental Activism: the Most Radical and Effective Kind” in (1999). Beyond the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press pp. 27–44.

Hettinger, Ned (2001) “Environmental Disobedience” in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing pgs. 498-509

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (1849) “Civil Disobedience” in Civil Disobedience in Focus. Ed. Hugo Bedau London, UK: Taylor and Francis pp. 28–48.

Welchman, J (2001). “Is Ecosabotage Civil Disobedience?” Philosophy and Geography 4.1: 97–107.



July 18, 2017
by dow@hendrix.edu

Navigating Between the Scylla of Non-Aesthetics and the Charybdis of Freedom


Do responses to natural environments not count as aesthetic judgments because nature is not made by an artist? Are aesthetic judgments of natural environments free and unconstrained because aesthetic judgments of nature are relative to perceivers?  In this post, I discuss Elliott’s non-aesthetic view and Budd’s freedom view I articulate the debates between such views and Carlson’s scientific cognitivism about nature appreciation and focus on the impasses that require more discussion of philosophy of mind and action theory.

the tree of environmental aesthetics


The key questions of environmental aesthetics are:

Q1) What is a natural environment?

Q2) What is relevant, psychologically speaking, to the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments?

Q3) How should we appropriately aesthetically appreciate natural environments?

A few words about the questions in advance of laying out the views. Q1 is asking about the common sense or manifest image conception of a natural environment as it might be aesthetically appreciated. The distinction between “wilderness” and “country” and “land” are not hard and fast, and they don’t need to be, because there is a common sense conception of what ‘natural environment’ means that highlights the concept of a biotic community or ecosystem. Q2 is asking about what mental states and psychological processes— Cognitive or Non-cognitive? Sensations? Perceptions? Beliefs? Thoughts? Actions? Emotions? Imagination? Narratives? Wonder? Awe? Respect? Reverence?— are core for the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Of course, at the dawn of a conversation, the pluralist angle— all of them— seems compelling. And, if we take Q2 independently of Q3, as a strictly descriptive question, namely what is relevant for aesthetic appreciation in the sense of what do people actually rely upon as they “ooh” and “aah” about nature, then it becomes obvious that all manner of mental states and psychological processes are relevant. However, Q3 undermines that prima facie persuasiveness, since the view that cognitive states involving scientific beliefs is core to the aesthetic appreciation of nature is the dominant view (Carlson 2000, 2007; Parsons 2007, 2008). The difficulty is making sense of how given that people rely upon so many different frames of nature appreciation, should all that pluralism to bloom or is there some or other normative standard for nature appreciation.

Meditation on these three questions brings us to the oscillation that is common to value theory between two extremes: the Scylla of the non-aesthetic model and the Charybdis of the freedom model. According to the non-aesthetic model, defended by Robert Elliott (1982), we should not aesthetically appreciate natural environments, because response and evaluations of nature do not count as aesthetic responses. According to the non-aesthetic model, in order for an evaluation to count as an aesthetic evaluation, it requires aesthetic judgments. In order for aesthetic judgments to occur about an artwork, it is necessary to explain and predict the actions of an artist in making the object. In order to explain and predict the actions of an artist, we need to appeal to intentions. Elliott writes,

“An apparently integral part of aesthetic evaluation and judgment 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. Evaluating works of art involves explaining them, and judging them, in terms of their author’s intentions; it involves placing them within the author’s corpus of work; it involves locating them in some tradition and in some milieu. Nature is not a work of art, though works of art (in some suitably broad sense) may look very much like natural objects” (1982, 386).

Elliott allows that we speak as if aesthetic judgments apply equally in the case of art and in the case of nature. We apply concepts of intricacy and delicacy to eucalyptus forests. We talk about solidity and grandeur of Rocky Mountain bluffs. However, that talk is merely metaphorical because when we are literal in our use of aesthetic judgements we need to talk about intentions. The concept of an aesthetic judgment requires the recognition and acknowledgment of an artist that intended to make an aesthetic object.


The non-aesthetic view suggests that only human-made works— objects made by an agent— are worthy of aesthetic appreciation. Natural environments are not made by an agent with intentions. Therefore, natural environments are not worthy of aesthetic appreciation. A few objections can be provided against Elliott’s argument. First, Elliott assumes that the core reason why we assume that natural environments are worthy of appreciation is because of emotional responses. Elliott argues that aesthetic judgments require cognition and attribution of intentions that go beyond mere responses. However, it does not follow from the fact that emotions are involved in nature appreciation, that they cannot be cognitive and play a role in aesthetic judgments. One can make an aesthetic judgment that a waterfall is grand based on one’s emotions of grandeur. The correctness or incorrectness of the judgment is based not in a mere response, but in the cognitive assessment of the relative size between the person and the waterfall that is implicit in the emotional response. (I return to this issue in discussing Noel Carroll’s (1993) emotion model of nature aesthetics, because Carroll argues that emotions are cognitive, have correctness conditions based in evolutionary psychology, and play a role in aesthetic judgments.)


Carlson (1984) provides a response to Elliott’s non-aesthetic view. Carlson’s first response is to appeal to Paul Ziff’s “anything viewed” principle. According to Ziff, anything that can be perceived, can be aesthetically appreciated. Carlson provides a few examples of aesthetic appreciation of natural environments as instances of this principle, for example colorful sunsets or delicate wildflowers. He argues that these cases are “paradigmatic instances of aesthetic appreciation— ones in terms of which we acquire and understand the concept of aesthetic” (215). His reply is “to deny that these are cases of aesthetic appreciation comes close to challenging the coherence of the concept” (215). The trouble with this response is that it is question-begging. Elliott could argue that the common sense or ordinary notion of “aesthetic” being employed by Carlson is incorrect, that instead there is a technical or strict and philosophical notion of aesthetic judgment that must be defended.

Carlson argues that aesthetic evaluations are not necessary for aesthetic responses, so that the idea of aesthetic judgments requiring evaluations of nature does not follow. It might be that our engagement with nature is purely aesthetic in the sense that our engagements do not involve aesthetic judgments or might support non-aesthetic responses. For example, I might taste the bark of a tree not to see if it’s a birch tree, but to see if someone else should taste it. I am not concerned with the category in this case, but instead, with whether or not the bark is worthy of aesthetic appreciation.


Carlson argues that aesthetic judgments— understood as positive critique or negative critique— are not necessary for aesthetic appreciation. Carlson suggests that Elliott begs the question in terms of the kinds of aesthetic judgments we make about art, because he rigidly defines “aesthetic judgment” to exclude responses to natural environments. Carlson argues against the sufficiency of a work of art belongs in a particular category of artifact for making aesthetic judgments and evaluations. He argues that a similar point applies to natural environments. Instead of relying upon the object as an intentional object, an artifact, or thinking about designs and purposes, we could merely locate the aspect of the natural environment “in its natural history and in its environmental milieu” (216).

Notice there’s an intellectual impasse between Elliott and Carlson here which turns on central issues in philosophy of mind and action theory. A few central issues: How do aesthetic concepts develop in our upbringing? Do they require engagement with art or is engagement with natural environments sufficient? How central is the attribution of intentions of an artist or the artwork as an intentional object for the application of aesthetic concepts in perception? Do aesthetic evaluations require the application of concepts that are tied to the creation of art? What is distinctive about aesthetic appreciation insofar as the content of perception is concerned?

I said we are caught between a rock and a hard place in our initial theorizing about environmental aesthetics. The Scylla is Elliott’s non-aesthetic model which rules out that natural environments CAN be aesthetically appreciated. The Charybdis side of the oscillation in environmental aesthetics is the freedom model, which admits that there is aesthetic appreciation of nature, but does not put any constraints upon that appreciation. Like the debate between Elliott and Carlson, the discussion turns on what we think ‘aesthetic appreciation’ is. Maybe the OED definition of ‘appreciation’ would help: Appreciation 2. trans. a. To recognize as valuable or excellent; to find worth or excellence in; to esteem. In Budd’s view, the concept of appreciation is split between art and nature because the appreciation of nature needs to be appreciation “On Its Own Terms”.

According to Malcolm Budd’s (2002) view, “the difference between art and nature, which must figure in any adequate aesthetics, is reflected in a feature— a kind of freedom and a correlative form of relativity— attributed to aesthetic judgments about the beauty of natural items but which is not possessed by judgments about the beauty of art. I believe that judgments of natural beauty are distinguished by a kind of freedom and a form of relativity that does not pertain to judgments of artistic value” (287). Budd argues that merely because it is possible to judge a natural object as if it were a work of art, it does not mean that it is actually necessary to appreciate nature in this way. In this sense, Budd disagrees with Elliott’s view above and endorses a mildly revisionary notion of aesthetic appreciation.

We might consider the distinction between a regulative conception of appreciation— appreciating nature as if it were art— and a constitutive conception of appreciation— appreciating nature as art. Budd argues via a horned dilemma argument that either way we cannot provide an argument for an objective mode of appreciation. In the case of the regulative conception, then we are regarding nature differently than it is, and thus we are not following the appreciation of nature as nature. To appreciate an elk refuge as if it were a Hudson valley landscape painting is to misrepresent the sensations of green grass stretching for miles that one experiences. In the case of the constitutive conception, then there are differences in analogy between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature. Budd argues that it is obvious that nature is not art, and so to think there is an analogy is misplaced. To appreciate a ponderosa, a snowfield, or the sound of a swooping common nighthawk is not to conceive of an object in light of “an excellent solution to a problem within a set of aesthetic constraints constitutive of a style” (289). He argues that the horned dilemma argument supports the idea that the appreciation of nature is an “anything goes” endeavor.


Budd considers Carlson’s scientific cognitivism and presents an argument against that view. He argues “it is compatible with the requirement that the aesthetic appreciation of nature is aesthetic appreciation of nature as nature (as what nature actually is) that natural items should be appreciated aesthetically under no concepts at all (except that of nature itself), that is, not as instances of the kinds they exemplify, but only with respect to their sensible qualities, the way in which they compose their items’ perceptual forms, and the aesthetic properties they possess in virtue of these qualities and forms” (Budd 2002, 290). Budd is arguing that there’s a distinction between sensation and perception that supports the idea that appreciation does not require concepts or categories. Instead, Budd’s view is that nature appreciation involves the appreciation of sensible qualities or formal qualities. Carlson would reply that perception is always already structured by concepts. (Cf. Sellars’ (1956) and McDowell (1994) on conceptualism about perception. I will return to the conceptualist/non-conceptualist debate later in the project as it relates to the questions about nature aesthetics…) Carlson argues that we ought to utilize the true or the correct categories instead of solely relying upon manifest image categories. Budd admits that “we perceive only under highly general concepts (flower), not as instances of the specific kinds they exemplify (orchid), or under one concept (flower), but not another coextensive concept that expresses a deeper understanding of the nature or function of the kind (sexual organ of plant)” (290).


Budd contrasts two theses involved in the scientific cognitivist view of the aesthetic experience of nature. The psychological thesis is a claim about our awareness of our perception: “what aesthetic properties a natural item appears to possess— what aesthetic properties the item is perceived or experienced as possessing— is a function of the category or categories of nature under which it is experienced” (289). For example, what aesthetic qualities a flower appears to possess is a matter of the category through which it is experienced, for instance the conical shape of the coneflower. The philosophical thesis is a claim about whether our perception correctly represents the external world: “what aesthetic properties the time really possesses is determined by the right categories of nature to experience the item as falling under— it really possesses those aesthetic properties it appears to possess when perceived in its correct categories of nature” (290). For example, what aesthetic qualities a flower actually possesses is a matter of the natural scientific categories under which the flower falls, for instance the cone flower Echinacea category. According to Budd’s view of the structure of perception, aesthetic appreciation provides us with direct access to formal qualities of sensations. According to Carlson’s view, aesthetic appreciation is always already structured by categories that enable perceptions of natural environments. For Carlson, the structure of aesthetic appreciation is always a framing that distinguishes between the nature appreciator and the appreciated natural object.

Budd in a footnote correctly suggests that Carlson thinks that aesthetic formal qualities can only be assessed through a “framed view of the natural environment, not the environment itself, that possesses formal qualities” (299n6). According to Budd, however, appropriate appreciation is of nature itself not of natural environments in general. For Budd, “nature as nature” means we have access through sensation to the noumenal properties of the nature world. Notice here there’s an impasse between Budd and Carlson that involves a conflict between understandings of how mind and action is involved in perception. Budd argues from the assumption that there needs to be an independent way to determine whether aspects of natural environments actually are under those categories in order for us to determine whether the philosophical thesis is true. A key question, however, that is central to resolving this debate between Budd and Carlson is the question of the myth of the given in perception. To what extent can we appeal to an independent standard of sensation of nature that enables us to think about our experiences independent of multiple sets of concepts? Budd thinks this is necessary. Carlson denies this is possible. Impasse?

A central impasse between Budd’s view and Carlson’s view has to do with whether scientific cognitivism demands that a particular category has to structure perception. For instance, suppose we are looking at and listening to a northern mockingbird.


We could categorize the northern mockingbird in the order, genus, or species or be more specific to a region. Since mockingbirds imitate different animals, not only birds but also insects and frogs, we could be more specific to the region as well. We could articulate the different songs that might be differentiated. Budd’s argument is that there’s a difference between categorizing a mockingbird as nature versus not categorizing it as nature, namely insofar as we could listen to a call of a synthetic mockingbird blasting from an iPhone. But, Carlson wants to argue that there’s a difference between getting the category wrong and getting the scientific category wrong in the listening to a mockingbird. What makes the category THE correct or THE true category?

This question creates a dilemma for Carlson. One the one hand Carlson argues that we should defer to natural scientists for the proper category. However, either that presupposes a natural kind assumption that natural scientists do not operate with or the proper category of a mockingbird is so specific and fine-grained as to become observation-independent. That means that the category itself is typed in a way that is independent of aesthetic appreciation. On the other hand, Carlson argues that the proper category is that category that maximizes aesthetic goodness (229): “A more correct categorization in science is one that over time makes the natural world seem more intelligible, more comprehensible to those whose science it is. Our science appeals to certain kinds of qualities to accomplish this. These qualities are ones such as order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, resolution… When we experience them in the natural world or experience the natural world in terms of them, we find it aesthetically good” (229). The phrase “or experience the natural world in terms of [the qualities]” points to the problem with Carlson’s view, because the qualities listed are aesthetic, but 1) they are aesthetic qualities that apply to our understanding, or knowledge, or thinking about nature not about nature itself and 2) they are not themselves scientific categories in the sense in which Carlson has committed to or if they are, then we are back to the first horn of the dilemma. Resolving this impasse will require being clear and precise about the boundaries of aesthetic appreciation and in particular digging deeper into the philosophy of perception.

Once we distinguish between views that do not engage in theorizing about the three questions and those that do, we need to think about the distinction that is often drawn between cognitive versus non-cognitive models of environmental aesthetics. One way to distinguish between dotted line views and solid line views is to suggest that the latter attribute an intellectual content to aesthetic perception that is relevant to determining the norms of appreciation. Dotted line views reject the idea that the activity of aesthetic appreciation of nature involves intellectual structures. Elliott: because the intellectual structures only apply to art. Budd: because the aesthetic appreciation of nature requires only the deflationary intellectual structure of “nature as nature.” Solid line views are not quietistic in either of these senses, but instead posit that there are intellectual structures involved in theorizing about appreciation of nature.

My goal will be to spell out the alternative views to scientific cognitivism in a later post, while at the same time articulating what I take to be intellectual impasses that are created by not thinking about mind and action in the conversations about nature aesthetics. I have already suggested that there are intellectual impasses between scientific cognitivism, on the one hand, and the Scylla of the non-aesthetic model and the Charybdis of the freedom model, on the other. It seems like we can achieve objectivity through scientific cognitivism, we cannot appreciate nature through the non-aesthetic model, or we can appreciate in an “anything goes” type way through the freedom model.


While I think scientific cognitivism steers us through the conversation like Odysseus steered the ship correctly, I nevertheless think that there’s more to be said about alternative views. Next, I turn to the debate between Berleant’s engagement non-cognitivism and Carlson’s scientific cognitivism.




Budd, Malcolm (2000). “The Aesthetics of Nature” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 286–301.

Budd, Malcolm (2002). The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Carlson, Allen (2000). Aesthetics and the Environment. London, UK: Taylor and Francis

Carlson, Allen (2009). Nature and Landscape. NY, NY: Columbia University Press

Carroll, Noel (1993). “On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 169–187.

Elliott, Robert (1982) “Faking Nature” Inquiry 25: 81-93. In in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 381–389.

McDowell, John (1994). Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Parsons, Glenn (2007). “The Aesthetics of Nature” Philosophy Compass. 2/3 (2007): 358–372

Parsons, Glenn (2008). Aesthetics and Nature. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing

Sellars, W. (1956).  Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind  Ed. Robert Brandom.  (1997). Cambridge, UK:  Harvard University Press.

June 13, 2017
by dow@hendrix.edu

Scientific Cognitivism about the Aesthetics of Nature


Suppose you’re walking down a nature trail. You happen upon an animal on the center of the trail. It’s about one foot tall. Has a white tail. Gray coloring on most of its body. It’s standing upright with its back to you. Looking over its right shoulder like it’s about to flee. It seems to be a squirrel. It bounds away as you walk along the trail. You appreciate its deftness in movement, imagining your body bounding in similar ways. It springs away behind an oak trunk. You pick up your pace and move a little more nimbly. You attend to other aspects of the trail. The sound of a rippling creek bed to your left. Sun rays splash prisms through the tree branches. Suddenly you are struck with the Aha that what seemed like a squirrel was NOT actually a squirrel. It was a cottontail rabbit. You had been wrong about the category of animal you were seeing. As you walk down the trail, you realize that the looking and the listening to the animal had been mistaken in particular ways. You didn’t see the distinctive white tail. You didn’t see the movement as an undulating bounce. But instead as a frantic scurry. You perceived a usually sized rabbit as a chubbier-than-usual squirrel. Have you aesthetically appreciated the rabbit in the proper way?

Those that respond positively that you have appropriately aesthetically appreciated the rabbit do not require the proper category be used in aesthetic appreciation of nature. Those that respond negatively that you have not appropriately engaged in an aesthetic appreciation of the rabbit think that it is necessary to apply the proper category to the natural phenomena. In conversations about environmental aesthetics since the mid-1990s, the latter view that proper categories are necessary— Carlson’s scientific cognitivism (1998, 2000, 2009, 2014)— has been the dominant view. Nature aesthetics has been discussed cross-culturally and cross-linguistically at least as far back as early creation myths and probably further (Torrance 1998). The aesthetics of nature was central to discussions of the romantic experience of nature in the 19th century (Brennan 2003). Specific and detailed descriptions of the natural world was part and parcel of nature writing in America in the late 19th century, for instance, Thoreau, Muir, and Burroughs. Hepburn’s (1966) discussion in “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” in the latter half of the 20th century reanimated nature aesthetics in the analytic tradition. However, a full-blooded reawakening of the discussion did not begin until Carlson’s scientific cognitivism was developed in the 1990s. Since then much of the discussion about environmental aesthetics has involved rigorous engagement with Carlson’s scientific cognitivism.

Carlson describes scientific cognitivism in this quote:

“To appropriately appreciate objects or landscapes in question [natural environments] aesthetically— to appreciate their grace, majesty, elegance, charm, cuteness, delicacy, or “disturbing weirdness” [of a tidal basin]— it is necessary to perceive them in their correct categories. This requires knowing what they are and knowing something about them— in the cases in question [perceiving a rorqual whale, a moose, a tidal basin], something of biology and geology. In general, it requires the knowledge given by the natural sciences.” (Carlson 2000, 90).


Carlson’s cognitivism involves the requirement that perceptions of natural environments be structured by knowledge, beliefs, or categories. For Carlson, cognitivism suggests that changes in concepts and categories produce changes in perceptions. If I see a fuzzy mammal in the woods, the difference between categorizing it as a cottontail rabbit and categorizing it as a squirrel matters to how that animal looks or sounds. For Carlson, scientific implies that scientific knowledge of natural environments— concepts, principles, and frameworks— is required for appropriate appreciation. Folk, everyday, or common sense categories are insufficient (although Carlson does suggest that both commonsense and scientific knowledge are  necessary (1998). I will return in Ch. 3 to this distinction through assessing Sellars’ (1963) distinction between manifest image and scientific image.). Particular knowledge from the natural sciences— physics, chemistry, geology, evolution, ecology, biology in general— are required. Carlson’s scientific cognitivism suggests that aesthetically appreciating a cottontail rabbit requires appreciating it under the correct scientific category of being a cottontail rabbit. To look and listen to what is actually a cotton tail rabbit under the category of a squirrel is not only to make a mistake in knowledge and in category, but in addition to err in one’s aesthetic appreciation of the natural world.

As Parsons (2007) points out, focus on this particular error enables us to see that Carlson’s scientific cognitivism is a normative view about appropriate aesthetic appreciation. Children can and do aesthetically appreciate bugs and flies without knowledge. Nonhuman animals might aesthetically appreciate flowing rivers or patterns made by snakes in desert sand. People that lack any scientific knowledge can and do aesthetically appreciate sunsets and moonrises. The uneducated find flowers, fawns, and fjords to be beautiful even if they mistakenly categorize such natural things. However, Carlson’s view is that aesthetic appreciation that is uninformed, or even less informed, by scientific knowledge is not appropriate appreciation.

According to Carlson, you do not engage in appropriate appreciation without applying the proper categories in perception. What are the arguments for scientific cognitivism? What are the alternative accounts to Carlson’s scientific cognitivism? In this post, I will outline the arguments for and against scientific cognitivism. In particular, I will discuss what I take to be impasses in the discussions concerning the merits of scientific cognitivism. After roughly 25 years of discussion about environmental aesthetics, philosophers are talking about where environmental aesthetics is going (Carlson 2014; Saito 2014). I suggest that environmental aesthetics ought to focus on philosophical questions about mind and action.

I will argue that pivotal questions in philosophy of mind and philosophy of action need to be discussed in conversations about the aesthetics of nature. In particular, more needs to be said about central issues like the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive, the distinction between passive and active, the human-environment distinction, the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, and questions about consciousness and self-consciousness of perceptions.

Later in the project I will outline a distinctive view of enactive aesthetics of nature (EAN) that aims not to be a unique and distinctive view from others in the conceptual landscape, but emerges out of the resolution of the impasses by thinking through issues of mind and action. The account takes the phenomenology of active engagement with the environment as the core of nature appreciation, but avoids Carlson’s objections to engagement theory. The account discusses the importance of non-conscious, non-conceptual flow states as a mode of appreciation of nature, but avoids Carlson’s worries about the appreciator of nature disappearing.

The enactivist account focuses on reconceiving aesthetic appreciation— reconceiving the nature of human perception— through focusing on human evolution and human ecology. As a completion of the motivation of scientific cognitivism, EAN presents a unique and distinctive account in the environmental aesthetics literature. A key question will be how EAN meets five desiderata for an account of the aesthetics of nature (Carlson 2009):

D1. Ziff’s (1979) “Anything Viewed” Desideratum

D2. Budd’s (2002) “As Nature” Desideratum

D3. Berleant’s (1992) “Unified Aesthetics” Desideratum

D4. Hepburn’s (1966) “Serious Beauty” Desideratum

D5. Thompson’s (1995) “Objectivity”  Desideratum

scientific cognitivism

What are Allen Carlson’s arguments for scientific cognitivism about the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments? The first argument proposes that scientific cognitivism gets the disanalogies between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature correct. The second argument proposes that scientific cognitivism gets the analogies between the appreciation of art and the appreciation of nature correct. The third argument proposes that scientific cognitivism enables us to make sense of the objectivity of the aesthetic appreciation of nature in a unique and distinctive way by responding to the “anything goes” attitude and making sense of how aesthetic judgments about nature can be true. The fourth argument proposes that scientific cognitivism best enables us to argue for positive aesthetics that all of nature is beautiful. The fifth argument proposes that scientific cognitivism is best suited for connecting the aesthetics of nature to our ethical obligations to protect the natural world.

the disanalogy argument

The disanalogy argument (Carlson 1998) begins by suggesting that since Hegel’s baleful influence on aesthetics, our focus in aesthetics has been mostly on art objects created by human beings rather than natural environments. One feature of being embedded in a post-Hegelian 20th century framework of aesthetic appreciation is that our thinking in the ivory tower and our looking and listening in the tidal moat around the castle, we inevitably appreciate the natural world through the frames governed by an all-too-human art aesthetics. Despite the fact that we know that natural environments are not works of art, we nevertheless perceive whales and waterfalls through “acts of aspection” (Ziff 1966, 71) that frame what is relevant and what is not to our appreciation. Sometimes we abstract objects out of concrete situations. Other times we take postcard snapshots of environments without frames. One approach is the object approach. Another approach is the landscape approach. Within the object approach, we engage with objects within natural environments on analogy with how we engage with sculptures in museums.


For example, we see Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” and we “actually or imaginatively remove the object from its surroundings and concentrate on its sensuous and possible expressive qualities” (Carlson 1998, 121). We often do the same with shells we collect, or with leaves we place in our field guides, or with petrified bull frogs, or taxidermy mutant cyclops calves. But, Carlson argues that we have not appropriately appreciated natural objects like a rock, if we have removed them from the environments in which such objects exist naturally. The question of decontextualizing things in nature creates the object model dilemma. “Either we remove the object from its environment or we leave it where it is. If we remove the object, the model can answer the questions of what and how to appreciate the rock, but this will result in the appreciation of a limited set of aesthetic qualities. But if we do not remove the object, the Object Model will not be suitable for much of the appreciation that is possible.” (Carlson 1998, 122).

Within the landscape approach, we engage with places within natural environments on analogy with how we appreciate landscape paintings in a gallery, for instance the works of Frederic Church or J. M. W. Turner (For research on the influence of landscape painting on American environmental attitudes, see Hargrove 1979). The landscape model “encourages perceiving and appreciating nature as if it were a landscape painting, an imposing prospect to be viewed from a specific position and distance” (Carlson 1998, 122). To operate with the landscape model is to be guided by the picturesque and the scenic as frameworks for nature appreciation. The natural environment in a walk through an oak hickory forest becomes a series of two dimensional picturesque landscapes or scenic viewpoints. It makes a nature postcard out of a natural environment. It attempts to frame aesthetically that which cannot in principle be framed perceptually. Carlson argues “the natural environment is not a scene, not a representation, not static, and not two dimensional. In short, the model requires appreciating the environment not as what it is and for the qualities it has, but as something it is not and for qualities it does not have” (Carlson 1998, 123).

Carlson offers what he calls the “natural environmental” model in the place of the object model and the landscape model. He argues that the model focuses on what is natural rather than on objects— natural things are not art objects— and the model focuses on what is environmental rather than on landscapes— environments are not scenery. The discussion of the natural environmental model provides a framework for thinking through the pivotal questions of nature aesthetics:

(Q1) What is a natural environment?

(Q2) What is relevant, psychologically speaking, to the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments?

(Q3) How should we appropriately aesthetically appreciate natural environments?

Carlson argues that answering these questions requires structuring our acts of aspection in our perceptual experience of natural environments. Think of acts of aspection as discovered through the Gestalt shift between duck and rabbit in the duck-rabbit drawing that Wittgenstein discussed.

duck-rabbit (72dpi)

So what best enables a person to structure acts of aspection in attentively looking at a cottontail rabbit rest on a trail or carefully listening to a mountain creek flow. Without knowledge, beliefs, and cognitions, Carlson argues we cannot enable such acts of aspection. Scientific categories best structure our acts of aspection because they represent what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in ways that enable us to undo our biases and prejudices towards operating with the object model and the landscape model.

The disanalogy argument is a process of elimination argument. We can appreciate with the object model, the landscape model, or the natural environmental model. The object model and the landscape model use models of aesthetic appreciation that are two closely tied to appreciation of art. However, the natural environmental model enables us to capture the disanalogies between art appreciation and nature appreciation. Therefore, the natural environmental model is to be preferred to the object model and the landscape model. It needs to be objected that merely because the natural environmental model is preferable to the object model and the landscape model, it does not follow that scientific cognitivism is therefore true. It may only be correct relative to the incorrectness of the object model or the landscape model. As Hume (1757, 109) pointed out in the standard of taste, a goal of proper aesthetic judgment involves “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

Following Hume, one question is whether the natural environmental model is necessary to undermine the influence of the biases involved in the aesthetics of art. Carlson seems to assume that because the acquisition of knowledge undermines biases or prejudices that finding out more about common sense and scientific categories is necessary to shift perceptions. However, it may be that appeals to wonder or emotional sensitivity would be sufficient to change aesthetic biases. (Sheila Lintott (2006, 392) argues that the bias of science is a better bias than any other so that whatever one’s aesthetic prejudices “the bias of science is a useful tool in the aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially when forging the way toward an ecofriendly aesthetic”.) For instance, suppose that awe and wonder about the cottontail rabbit’s movement were to sustain perception enough to recognize the shift of attention towards the white tail. It would be curiosity or interest not the proper scientific category that enabled the Gestalt shift.

Another question is whether the NE model is sufficient to undermine the influence of the biases involved in the aesthetics of art. Carlson seems to assume that natural sciences like evolution, ecology, and geology enable a change in perspective away from focus on the object and toward focus on nature, a change in perspective away from focus on the picture and toward focus on the environment. Suppose we are looking and listening to a humpback whale emerge from the ocean near Antarctica. Rather than abstracting away temporally and spatially, we can use scientific knowledge to situate our perceptions appropriately. We might use knowledge of evolution to locate the whale in a different line of descent, which will enable us to experience mammal like movement rather than fish like movement. We might use knowledge of ecology to situate the humpback whale in its proper community, which will enable us to experience the complex role it plays in eating krill, the relations between krill and phytoplankton.

My logical objection is that merely because the natural environmental model performs better than the object model or the landscape model at capturing aesthetic appreciation of nature, it does not follow that that is the best model at capturing the disanalogies in general between art appreciation and nature appreciation. That’s only so if the process of elimination argument has included an exhaustive and exclusive list of views. It may have been in the 90s that only a handful of views were available. Among the views on offer most continued to rely upon art aesthetics. But, I would argue we need to make the process of elimination argument broader to include contemporary work. Carlson’s view is not only dependent upon capturing the disanalogy between art appreciation and nature appreciation, but also upon capturing the proper analogies between art appreciation and nature appreciation.

the analogy argument

Glenn Parsons (2007) provides an analysis of Carlson’s “analogy with art argument” (this argument is comparable to Berleant’s (1992) “Unified Aesthetics” constraint below, namely that we should utilize a unified account of aesthetic appreciation for all possible objects of appreciation)

(Parsons 2007, 361):

“(1) Aesthetic judgements concerning artworks are subject to normative standards.

(2) If accepting a particular view of aesthetic appreciation allows us to offer similar accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of both art and nature, then we have reason to accept that view.

(3) Scientific cognitivism holds that aesthetic judgements concerning nature are subject to normative standards.

(4)  Therefore, we have a reason to accept scientific cognitivism.” (361)

This provides a good general summary of Carlson’s argument for scientific cognitivism. However, the argument could be more particular to the arguments in Carlson’s essays. In particular, the argument above does not capture how pivotal Carlson’s use of Walton’s categories of art is for the analogy argument. Carlson (1994, 225–227) provides an outline of how significant Walton’s view is to scientific cognitivism.

Walton (1970, 534) argues “if we are confronted by a work about whose origins we know absolutely nothing (for example, one lifted from the dust at an as yet unexcavated archaeological site on Mars), we would simply not be in a position to judge it aesthetically. We could not possibly tell by staring at it, no matter how intently and intelligently, whether it is coherent, or serene, or dynamic, for by staring we cannot tell whether it is to be seen as sculpture, a Guernica, or some other exotic or mundane kind of work of art.” Walton argues that only by perceiving works of art in the correct categories are we capable of engaging in appropriate aesthetic appreciation of those works of art.

Carlson argues that something analogous applies to the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Premise 2 of Parson’s summary of Carlson’s argument above is actually more specific, because “offer similar accounts of the aesthetic appreciation of both art and nature” actually means that Carlson endorses the idea that knowledge of categories of nature are necessary for appropriate appreciation. Carlson relies upon Walton’s idea that aesthetic judgments have a two-tiered structure involving the non-aesthetic perceptual properties a work and the aesthetic properties of a work. The aesthetic properties of a work are those that are perceived in the correct categories of art taken from art history, the art world, and art criticism.


Perceiving Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythym #30 requires understanding prior forms of abstract expressionism and action painting, the situation in the art world that led to Pollock’s inclusion in galleries, and the engagement with the painting at the MET since it’s being collected. Carlson summarizes Walton’s argument as being committed to two claims: the psychological claim and the philosophical claim. The psychological claim is that “the aesthetic judgments which seem true or false of a work are a function of the perceived status of its perceptual properties given any category in which that work is perceived” (1981, 56). The philosophical claim is that “the aesthetic judgments that are true or false of a work are a function of the perceived status of its perceptual properties, given that the work is perceived in its correct category or categories” (1981, 56).

Walton’s view about categories of art is thus that in order to properly appreciate a work of art, one must possess knowledge of art history, have an understanding of the artworld context, and a recognition of the basic material properties perceived in the artwork. Walton distinguishes between standard properties, variable properties, and contra-standard properties in order to make the point that when one perceives a work through different kinds of categories, one perceives the work of art differently. A feature of a work of art is a standard property with respect to a category if it is property in virtue of which the work of art belongs to that category, that without that property it would not be included in the category. For example, a standard property of land art is that it involves land as a material. A feature of a work of art is a variable property with respect to a category if the property has nothing to do with a work belonging to that category.


For example, a work of land art may incorporate diverse or varied colors, shapes, and sizes in a way that is irrelevant to inclusion in the category. That the leaves of a Goldsworthy installation are red, orange, or yellow does not matter to its being included as land art, although of course the colors affect the aesthetic properties beyond categorization. A feature of a work of art is a contra-standard property with respect to a category if the absence of the property tends to disqualify it as a member of that category. For example, a steel axle from a Corvette is a contra-standard property for land art.

On analogy with Walton’s view, Carlson view about the categories of nature is that in order to properly appreciate a feature of the natural world, one must possess knowledge of natural history (evolution), knowledge of ecological context (ecology), and be able to categorize basic features of the environment in terms of natural categories (geology). The explanation of why appreciators of nature perceive things inappropriately is that they fail to recognize that there are standard, variable, and contra-standard properties that exist in the natural world. Walton himself thought that the category view only applied to works of art (1970, 530), but that the appreciation of nature was category relative, meaning there was no way to articulate “the normative standards” as Parsons suggests above. Carlson argues that if we come upon a stretch of rippled sand along a beach, we might categorize the expanse as variously as a beach or a sea-bed. The stretch of sand possesses non-aesthetic perceptual properties, namely brown mud with ripples can be seen in different ways depending upon the different categories of beach or sea-bed, which generate different aesthetic judgments. In the latter case of categorizing the stretch of sand as a sea-bed, we have an experience “disturbing weirdness” (1981, 62) because it is contra-standard for us to walk along a sea-bed.

The central question about the analogy argument that Carlson presents is whether aesthetics ought to be governed by Walton’s category theory. Carlson’s analogy argument only succeeds if we presuppose that Walton’s theory of aesthetic judgment is the proper way to achieve the normative standards we’re looking for in assessing aesthetic judgments in general. Suppose a non-cognitive account of aesthetic judgments provides us with normative standards for artwork. For instance, consider an account of art appreciation informed by embodied and embedded forms of empathetic resonance (e.g, Gregory Currie (2011)).


As I look and listen to the scene in Les Miserables when the revolutionaries are singing “Red and Black” being performed, it may be that there are normative standards that attach to how I empathize and sympathize with the emotional expressions in the performance. Those criteria may have little or nothing to do with the category in which the song fits. And, compare and contrast the experience of empathy of endurance or stamina for the pack of wolves in the Arctic finally taking down a caribou for the last time. If this is possible, then the category view is not the only view that can enable Carlson to achieve an analogy between art appreciation and nature appreciation. Apart from disanalogies and analogies, what Carlson’s scientific cognitivism is best known for is its achievement of the objectivity of aesthetic judgments about nature.

the objectivity argument

The third argument that Carlson uses to defend scientific cognitivism is the objectivity argument. Janna Thompson (1995, 255) argues that if we are going to defend the idea that either art or nature possesses intrinsic, i.e., non-instrumental, value, and if those value claims are going to be based on aesthetic values, then the aesthetic value in question must be considered to be objective (cf. Callicott 1994 for a rejection of the idea that objectivity is necessary for nature aesthetics). The link between aesthetic judgment and intrinsic value “fails unless there are objective grounds— grounds that rational, sensitive people can accept— for thinking that something has value. If beauty in nature or in art is merely in the eyes of the beholder, then no general moral obligation arises out of aesthetic judgements, expect the weaker obligation to preserve, if possible, what some individuals happen to value. A judgment of value that is merely personal and subjective gives us no way of arguing that everyone ought to learn to appreciate something, or at least to regard it as worthy of preservation” (Thompson 1995, 255).

We can rephrase Carlson’s argument as well in terms of either an argument against relativism or subjectivism or an argument that captures the seeming objectivity of our aesthetic judgments about nature. It does seem or appear that when we make the judgment that “The symbiotic relationship between the bat and the Saguaro is beautiful” we are making an aesthetic judgment that appears to be something that is universal and necessary, to use Kant’s terminology. We assume in making the claim that all humans will at least be responsive to the aesthetic beauty of symbiosis and that any human that engages with the bat and the Saguaro not only will but must accept that it is beautiful not only that it seems so. Carlson asks what’s the best explanation of the seeming or appearing that our aesthetic judgments are objective?



Carlson argues that the best explanation of our aesthetic judgments seeming or appearing to be objective is that such judgments are based in scientific categories that structure our perceptions. We might ask however whether it is possible for someone to have the perceptual experience of the bat and the Saguaro, but nevertheless have a category relative aesthetic judgment, meaning perceive the bat’s folds and the Saguaro’s folds as being a mere correlation, the Saguaro’s beauty being something worth appreciating while the bat’s being repulsive. Or one might perceive the bat’s folds and the Saguaro’s folds as being the product of human interventions in breeding. Carlson (1981, 65) distinguishes between two categories for the perceptual experiences of the bat/Saguaro relationship, for instance one might categorize the same non-aesthetic perceptual properties as under natural selection or under artificial selection. The aesthetic properties of the relationship will vary dependent upon how one categories the non-aesthetic perceptual properties.

The beauty of the symbiosis between bats and Saguaro is not a product of artificial selection, so given that we can vary the category and differentiate between two distinct sets of aesthetic properties that develop, we might say that the aesthetic experience is correct in the case in which we categorize under natural selection but incorrect in the case in which we categorize under artificial selection. According to Carlson this shows both that we can reject the idea that aesthetic judgments are category relative. It is not the case that anything goes, because there are categories of the natural sciences that structure the observations we make about things we are perceiving. It is not only that the relativist view is incorrect, however. In addition, scientific cognitivism provides a way to make sense of how aesthetic judgments can be objective, because what category bat-Saguaro symbiosis belongs to is correct based upon genuine discoveries of facts in the natural sciences.

An objection to the objectivity argument is presented against scientific cognitivism by Emily Brady (1998, 160–164). Brady argues that the problem is that scientific cognitivism depends upon the idea of scientific categories. On the one hand, scientific categories are concepts of unobservable posits, mechanisms that explain and predict, and worldviews that are cognitive structures. As such, scientific cognitivism—  while it may achieve objectivity— has ceased to be a view about aesthetic appreciation. There is no way to make our way back from the concept of natural selection to an alteration in the perceptual and aesthetic properties of bat-Saguaro symbiosis. On the other hand, if we accept that scientific categories are limited to those that enable us to articulate aesthetic values— for instance, “order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, and resolution” (Carlson 1984, 230)— then the categories that we can rely upon are limited to those that are of scientific value. Brady argues that concepts of aesthetic value far outstrip those of scientific value, so this limitation presents a deep problem for Carlson’s view.

the positive aesthetics argument

The fourth argument in favor of scientific cognitivism suggests that the view that scientific categories are necessary for the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature best supports the idea that all of nature is beautiful. Some environmentalists argue that our care and concern for the natural world can be based in the idea that all of nature is beautiful. At least some of why we lack care for snakes, spiders, and unpicturesque aspects or unscenic features of the natural world is that our perception is structured by incorrect categories. We hear the hiss of non-venomous snakes as a dangerous warning of a harmful fang attack. We see the movement of a harmless spider as a scary warning of an venomous assault on our skin. A dismal swamp is perceived as uninhabitable, bad for breathing, drinking, and eating. Carlson offers scientific cognitivism as the best antidote to negative criticisms about the beauty of the natural world.

Suppose we come upon a piece of wild nature, namely a dismal swamp. Carlson argues that there are four possible routes to seeing how all of nature might overcome our negative criticisms about the natural world. First, we might argue indirectly that because nature appreciation is not aesthetic at all, then there are no negative aesthetic judgments. Second, we might argue that we should not judge wild nature as aesthetically negative, because nature is sublime, i.e., outside our judgment and control. Third, we might argue that because nature is created by a divine agent, who is by definition perfect, there is nothing in nature which possesses negative aesthetic properties. And, fourth, we might argue that the development of the natural sciences has always relied upon positive aesthetic appreciation, that properties of “order, regularity, harmony, balance, tension, and resolution” (1984, 230) are central to the discoveries made in the natural world.

Carlson presents a process of elimination argument suggesting that options 1-3 cannot be used to defend positive aesthetics. I will not survey the arguments against 1-3, but instead outline Carlson’s positive argument. He considers the elected artist thought experiment. Imagine a world in which works of art are not created by artists but instead are discovered. Artists are reconceived to be people that create the categories in which discovered things are made to appear to be masterpieces. The criteria for works of art being correct in this world is that they make objects appear to be masterpieces. In this imagined world, “all works would be essentially aesthetically good and appropriately appreciated as such. Our imagined world would have positive aesthetics concerning art” (1984). Carlson argues that the elected artist thought experiment provides us with a way to develop a positive aesthetics about natural environments. “The idea is that natural objects and landscapes in our world are analogous to works of art in our imagined world, and scientists in our world are analogous to the artists in our imagined world” (1984, 229).

According to Carlson, scientists are the elected artists of the natural world, because aesthetic goodness plays a “criterialogical role in the scientific enterprise” (229). Carlson thinks that beyond this in virtue of categorizing our perceptions in the natural world correctly, our “acts of aspection” of our perceptions are actually made essentially aesthetically good. According to Carlson’s view, then without scientific cognitivism, we could not achieve the idea that all of nature is beautiful. The flipside of this view is that those features of the natural world that we initially judge as being aesthetically negative, for example, snakes and spiders, tornados and tsunamis, are not only actually aesthetically positive, but can be made to seem or appear aesthetically positive. Scientific cognitivism, then, can serve a reorienting role in enabling us to defend the idea that we ought to have care and concern for such creatures and become more accepting of such disasters.

A pivotal objection to Carlson’s positive aesthetics argument is presented by Yuriko Saito (1998). Saito agrees with Carlson about cognitivism— namely that linguistic or conceptual categorization is necessary to structure perception and appreciation— but Saito focuses on common sense or folk categories as being core, in particular she argues that myths, folklore, and narratives are central to nature appreciation. Saito presents a two-fold objection to the positive aesthetics argument. First, she argues that it may be psychologically implausible for humans to positively aesthetically appreciate “natural disasters of massive scale and power, such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, avalanche, tidal wave, volcanic eruption, flood” (1998, 246).


She argues that it’s not possible to achieve the psychological distance in order to appreciate some features of nature positively. Second, she argues that it may be morally impermissible for humans to positively aesthetically appreciate natural disasters. Because such natural disasters inevitably cause widespread pain and suffering for human beings, to aesthetically appreciate them is inappropriate: “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” (249). The relationship between the aesthetic value of nature and the moral value of nature needs to be taken into account.

the ethical argument

The fifth argument for scientific cognitivism is the ethical argument. Carlson suggests that the accepting scientific cognitivism enables us to reject inappropriate models of environmental ethics. “Environmental aesthetics parallels environmental ethics in the latter’s rejection of anthropocentric models for moral assessment of the natural world and the replacement of such models with paradigms drawn from the environmental and natural sciences” (129). Parsons summarizes Carlson’s ethical argument:

“(1) If accepting a particular view of aesthetic appreciation allows us to better fulfil our ethical obligations, then we have reason to accept that view.

(2) If we accept scientific cognitivism, we will be better able to protect wild nature.

(3) We have an ethical obligation to protect wild nature.

(4) Therefore, we have a reason to accept scientific cognitivism” (Parsons 2007, 362).

Yuriko Saito (1998, 156) argues that the maxim that we must appreciate nature on its own terms, a view that is argued by Tuan (1993) and Budd (2002), leads us to a moral criterion for nature appreciation: “I believe that the ultimate rationale for appreciating any object appropriately, that is, on its own terms, is the moral importance of recognizing and sympathetically lending our ears to the story, however unfamiliar to us, told by the other” (1998, 156). The similarities and differences between Carlson’s view and Saito’s view become apparent here. According to Saito, a mere cognitive criterion is insufficient to make the connection expressed in premise 2 above. According to Saito, if we want to appropriately appreciate nature in a way that will enable better protection for nature, then merely making aesthetic judgments that are true is insufficient for making ethical judgments that enable protection. Merely because we accept scientific cognitivism, we have not met the moral dimension of being compelled to sympathetically imagine ourselves into the natural world having care and concern for that world. For example, if I appreciate a snake in my garden as a copperhead, looking carefully at its unique pupils and listening concernfully to its distinctive tail shake, it may still be the case that I am not motivated to have ethical care and concern for the snake. The principle of “the only good snake is a dead snake” might destroy all care and concern.

I will return to each of the five arguments for scientific cognitivism next. A key question will be whether we have adequately articulated central questions, arguments, and assumptions in mind and action in the literature on nature aesthetics. I will argue in another post that several impasses between defenders of scientific cognitivism and alternative views of nature appreciation can be understood in terms of not focusing in more detail on issues in mind and action. Not only is Carlson responsible for the paradigm view of nature aesthetics. But, in addition, he’s responsible for writing most encyclopedia articles, most anthologies, and most introductory summaries about environmental aesthetics. I will follow Carlson’s articulation of the conversation about nature aesthetics by outlining the various positions using this diagram in another post.



Berleant, Arnold (1992). The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Brady, Emily (1998) “Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 56.2: 139–147 in Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson The Aesthetics of Natural Environments. Peterborough: Broadview Press

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June 5, 2017
by dow@hendrix.edu

Environmental Values Taxonomy— Intrinsic/Instrumental


In my last post, I discussed Richard Sylvan’s (1973) article “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?,” in which it is argued that a human chauvinistic framework is not sufficient to capture our care and concern for natural environments, and therefore a new a uniquely/distinctively environmental ethic is necessary. I now focus the next few posts to the classic essay by Clare Palmer’s (1994) “An Overview of Environmental Ethics,” from which I develop a framework for the taxonomy of positions on environmental value. The taxonomy will enable me to outline key concepts, principles, and distinctions in environmental value theory. Rather than summarize Palmer’s article step by step, however, I will instead outline the pivotal questions of my project by thinking through the different distinctions.

My thesis in the first chapter of the project is that aesthetics, mind, and action are central to the various theories of environmental value in a way that we have not recognized or acknowledged. Throughout the project, I will provide a detailed account of aesthetics/mind/action for Leopold’s (1966) Land Ethic, which I will argue defends intrinsic (what Leopold calls ‘inherent’) value, non-anthropocentric focus, holistic scale, and naturalistic origin of the value of nature. However, I want to argue over the next few posts that issues of aesthetics, mind, and action need more attention in environmental value theory in general, before I move on to the particular account of the role of aesthetics in the Land Ethic. Take my comments as sketches for further work in environmental values for others to take up.

The pivotal question of environmental ethics is “How should humans interact with the natural world?” If the general ethical question is “How should I live?” then the environmental ethical question concerns “the ways in which human beings can and should interact with the nonhuman natural world” (Palmer 1994, 15). A pivotal question within environmental ethics is a question about the value of nature. What is the locus of the thing we are valuing? What is the source or origin (the “Genesis”) of the value of the thing we’re valuing?

One confusing issue is that the notion of “environmental” in the context of environmental ethics is taken for granted. We might think of “the environment” in environmental value theory as being divided by an ontological pluralism— physical, chemical, evolutionary, ecological, cultural, linguistic— that admits that these are not exclusive or exhaustive. However, the intuitive notion of ‘environmental’ in environmental ethics refers to the nonhuman natural world. Leopold’s view is that the appropriate locus of value ought to be ecosystems. So, what is the nature of the value of the nonhuman natural world?

I will eventually outline the distinctions and positions in this diagram I’ve constructed (inspired by Clare Palmer’s 1994 essay).


In the diagram, the capital ‘V’ stands for ‘value’ and the lower case ‘e’ stands for ‘environment’ understood as the nonhuman natural world. A pivotal distinction for taxonomizing different accounts of environmental value is the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value. The distinction is usually drawn with respect to the means-ends way of assessing value. Is the nonhuman natural world a means to humans’ ends or can and should we think of features of the nonhuman natural world as being ends-in-themselves? Do plants and animals strive to exist? Do plants and animals deserve respect or reverence? Do plants and animals feel pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering?


For instance, air and water possess instrumental value for human beings. Air and water are means to the ends of survival. (Although remember the point of the Lorax is that it’s absurd to buy and sell air, until it’s not…) We might ask “What’s the value of survival?” But, it seems as if surviving throughout our lives is an end-in-itself. Survival is end in itself rather than as a means to some other end. We could say, therefore, that survival possesses intrinsic value. (Think about how fascinated we seem to be with reality television shows about survival, for instance, Survivor, Survivorman, and Man Vs. Wild, and many more. WTAF with all these survivalist shows? Is this a collective expression of a crisis in our environmental values?) Can the intrinsic/instrumental distinction be extended to the nonhuman natural world? Does the nonhuman natural world possess intrinsic value? Some have argued that on pain of infinite regress there must be intrinsic value, because not everything can have only instrumental value (for instance O’Neill 1992,131).

O’Neill (1992) provides three distinctions that are worth highlighting. O’Neill distinguishes between instrinsic as non-instrumental (Intrinsic value1), instrinsic as non-relational (Intrinsic value2), and instrinsic as non-subjective (Intrinsic value). He then uses these distinctions to argue for two propositions: 1) It’s not the case that if the nonhuman natural world possesses IV­1, then the nonhuman natural world must possess IV2, namely the value of nature might be relational; 2) It’s not the case that if the nonhuman natural world possesses IV1, then the nonhuman natural world must possess IV3, namely the value of nature might be subjective. My focus in this post will be on IV1, namely instrinsic value as non-instrumental value.

A pivotal question in the context of O’Neill’s article that relates to the questions about aesthetics, mind, and action arises in a discussion of McDowell’s (1998) view of the relationship between secondary qualities and evaluative qualities. “Like secondary qualities, evaluative qualities are real qualities of objects. An object’s evaluative properties that it has to produce certain attitudes and reactions in ideal observers in ideal conditions. We might tentatively characterize goodness thus: x is good if and only if x would produce feelings of moral approval in an ideal observer in ideal conditions. Likewise, beauty might be characterized thus: x is beautiful if and only if x would produce feelings of aesthetic delight in ideal observers in ideal conditions” (136). How might further discussion of aesthetics, mind, and action enable us to articulate this position further to clarify the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value?

One way to argue for the intrinsic value of the nonhuman natural world would be through the idea that the value of natural environments can be perceived to be intrinsically valuable or valuable for itself. Can we see, hear, touch, taste, smell the intrinsic value of the nonhuman natural world? G. E. Moore did think that intrinsic value of the good was a basic value that is best understood in terms of a second quality of the action being performed (Moore 1922). I return to this possibility below.

Another way to make sense of the contrast between intrinsic value and instrumental value is to discuss the question of whether environmental economics is sufficient as a framework for capturing the value of nature. Environmental economics had its rise in the 80s (AKA blame Ronald Reagan…) with the work of Constanza, but as Mark Sagoff (2012) has argued, environmental economics cannot capture the intrinsic value of nature and instead “ecological economists drain away the moral power that once sustained environmentalism.” I will return to my pessimism about the possibility of an environmental economics when I discuss the sustainability framework. I think “sustainability” has also drained away the moral power that once inspired environmentalism. For now I’d like to say that if the aesthetic value of the nonhuman natural world is perceived to be priceless, beyond quantification, and independent of the market forces of capitalism, then the possibility of accounting for aesthetic value as a means to an end— for instance, pleasure, happiness, or joy— seems unrealistic, unpragmatic, impractical. Environmentalists should focus on the valuing of the nonhuman natural world in moral terms rather than monetary terms.

An argument, however, for the view that the beauty of the natural world can be perceived as an intrinsic value is outlined by Rolston (2002) in “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Aesthetics” and it’s comparable to the view presented by O’Neill above. Rolston says “When we light up the beauty in nature, if we do it right, often we are seeing something already there” (330). Is the grandeur of a mountain already there? Is the gracefulness of a running deer already there? Is the suspense of the venus fly trap’s impending closing already there? If a tree falls in the forest…

Rolston argues for a view about intrinsic aesthetic value through the idea that our aesthetic capacities cannot be understood independently of aesthetic properties. The argument is a transcendental argument because it starts with an experience via our aesthetic capacities, then asks what makes that experience possible, then argues that posited structure is necessary in order to make that experience possible. “There are two sorts of aesthetic qualities: aesthetic capacities, capacities for experience that are only in beholders, and aesthetic properties, which lie objectively in the nature of things” (330).

Suppose you’re looking over the side of a cliff in the Grand Canyon. You feel a sense of the abyss, of the earth falling out from underneath you, a sense of precarity, that your basic needs will be swept away with even the gentlest breeze. Suppose you look out towards a mountainside as the leaves start to change in fall. You see a spectrum of greens, yellows, and oranges, as a vibrant pattern blending and mixing on the mountainside’s palette. Or listen to the breeze through the trees as a thunderstorm approaches. Or feel the pull of a roaring stream through your fingertips. Rolston argues that experiences like these cannot be understood merely in terms of the aesthetic capacities of perceivers, but we must also consider the aesthetic properties that give rise to them.

I would go further and say that the genealogy of the relationship between the aesthetic capacities and aesthetic properties is deeply important. Human perception evolved and adapted in response to our survival and reproduction during the Pleistocene. Our aesthetic capacities are structured by relationships between features of our environment of evolutionary adaptedness and the constancies that structure our perceptual systems. Human perception also has been taken up in an ecology of basic needs that builds upon our evolutionary ancestry, but is also structured by our agricultural pasts, our joint cooperative pursuits with social groups, our accumulation of cultural forms, etc. Our aesthetic capacities depend importantly upon how we pursue our basic needs. This view needs further development throughout the project, but the basic idea is that an account of intrinsic value that is partly objective can be developed through reflecting upon human evolution and human ecology, by rethinking our model of aesthetic appreciation, through the lens of evolution and ecology. As I will discuss in a critique of Allen Carlson’s (2000) view of the aesthetics of nature, this evolutionary/ecological structuring of human perception is not discussed.

One way that the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value relates to philosophy of mind is asking to what extent a nature aesthetics can involve the perception of mind-independent goals or aims. We can ask whether there are perceptual constancies not merely of edges or shapes or sizes, but also of movement. When we see organisms striving are we perceiving an organism living for itself or is that organisms life something only valuable insofar as it’s valuable for human ends? Look at and listen to hummingbirds hover at a flower. Look at and listen to a whitetail spook and run gracefully through oak hickory forest. One way to think about intrinsic value is through perceiving organisms pursue goals and aims. For instance, if we see and hear a bear swimming to shore after getting tired in the rapids catching a salmon, then we might say he swam to shore as means to the bear’s survival. But, if we see and hear a bear trying to catch its breath in a flood, we seem to perceive its survival as an end in itself. “Why does it want to survive?” is a strange question. Am I merely mentally projecting this idea upon the bear? I will develop this view of the relationship between perceptual capacities and perceptual properties of nonhuman natural environments later in the project.

One way that the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value relates to the philosophy of action has to do with the question of what distinguishes between a mere bodily movement, a purposive action, and an intentional action. (Cf. Frankfurt 1978 for this distinction). A mere bodily movement as something which might have a purpose and might not. A reflex, or a habit, or a basic response to stimuli would not have a purpose necessarily. Some bodily movements are purposive bodily movements. When we need to breathe as the water rises we lift up our heads. When we come upon a stream during a long hike in the wilderness, we drink after filtering. When we need to find shelter from a thunderstorm, we scurry underneath to protect ourselves from lightning or falling branches. Each of these are purposive actions, but they may not be intentional in the sense of being an aim or goal that we can make intelligible for ourselves. However, there is a minimally enactive pursuit in such purposive actions. What usually keeps us from attributing intrinsic value in plants or animals is that we presuppose that plants’ and animals’ movements must be intentional actions. However, that is not necessary insofar as purposive actions can be attributed.

There’s more to be said about the distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value in the context of the aesthetics of nature. In my next post, I will discuss the distinction between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric value.


Carlson, Allen (2000). Aesthetics and the Environment. London, UK: Taylor and Francis

Frankfurt, H. (1978). “The Problem of Action” American Philosophical Quarterly. 15.2: 157–162.

Leopold, Aldo (1666) “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac Ballantine Books.

McDowell, John (1998) “Value and Secondary Qualities” in Mind, Value, and Reality. 131–150.

Moore, G. E. (1922) “The Conception of Intrinsic Value” Philosophical Studies.

O’Neill, John (1992) “The Varieties of Intrinsic Value” in Andrew Light and Holmes

Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 15–37.

Palmer, Clare (1994) “An Overview of Environmental Ethics” In Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 15–37.

Rolston III, Holmes (2002). “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Aesthetics” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott (2008) New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 325–338.

Sagoff, Mark (2012) “The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics” In The Breakthrough. Retrieved Online: https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/the-rise-and-fall-of-ecological-economics

Sylvan, Richard (1973). “Is there a Need for a New, and Environmental, Ethic?” in Proceedings of the World Congress of Philosophy. No. 1 205–210. In Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 16–24.


May 26, 2017
by dow@hendrix.edu

The Last Person Scenario


Imagine that you’re the last person on earth. A pandemic has wiped out all of humanity except you. What are your obligations to the non-human world? What are your duties to animals, planets, and the land? Your first priority would be to survive without other humans of course, so some negative effects on animals and plants will obviously occur. However, would it be wrong to engage in a complete eradication of life on earth? Should you use the world’s remaining weapons to kill the beavers, wolves, and bears? Should you ride on the world’s remaining tractors to mow down all the living plants? Should you burn garbage and release toxins into the air? Should you pour used oil and old chemicals into the lakes and streams?

Most would probably find such behavior to be morally wrong. But why? Can the judgment that destruction of the environment is morally wrong be made through a humanistic ethic? Can our obligations to the natural world (if any) be understood in terms of obligations to other human beings? If the result of the thought experiment is any indication, it seems that a humanistic ethic is not enough. You are the only remaining human being after all. Richard Sylvan’s (1973) classic article “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?” raises this question and uses the last person thought experiment to argue that in order to capture our judgments that we have obligations to the natural world, we need a new, an environmental, ethic which focuses on how our obligations are proprietarily environmental.

Sylvan begins with Aldo Leopold’s (1966) idea that an environmental ethic involves “an ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plans which grow upon it” (1966, 238). (I will return to Leopold’s Land Ethic below.) Sylvan’s starting point is to ask how one could develop a uniquely and distinctively environmental ethic by gesturing at the implicit thought experiment involved in the Robinson Crusoe narrative.

Sylvan suggests correctly that Leopold’s Land Ethic presupposes a different framework for thinking about environmental ethics. We cannot merely extend or modify our humanistic ethics in order to develop a sense of our obligations to nature. But, instead, we must bring about a cultural evolution in our values. As I will discuss below, Leopold’s thinking about environmental ethics requires us to recognize ourselves as embedded socially. Our human nature must be understood through the sciences of human evolution and human ecology and that how we ought to and ought not to relate to land needs to be reconceived in naturalistic terms. Leopold’s moral psychology is deeply naturalistic.

Sylvan suggests that the development of an environmental ethic involves “an extension or modification of the prevailing ethics or that of a development of the principles that are already encompassed or latent within the prevailing ethic” (1973, 17). He considers three prevailing environmental ethical traditions that are extensions or modifications of the human ethic:

1) the despotic position— humans are tyrants that can do what they wish to the non-human world;

2) the stewardship position— humans are custodians or farm managers that make nature productive as resources for human ends;

3) the cooperative position— humans are perfecters of nature that bring out the potentialities of nature not for itself but for human ends.

Each of these are not distinctively environmental since each position is structured by anthropocentric ends.

Sylvan then asks how could we tell the difference between two ethical systems if we wanted to develop a new environmental ethic. If ethical systems S1 and S2 differ in sets of concepts, principles, evaluations, then they are different systems. Sylvan argues that basic human chauvinism— or the anthropocentric attitude that is implicit in the above three positions— is guided by the harm principle: “the liberal philosophy of the Western world holds that one should be able to do what he wishes, providing (1) that he does not harm others and (2) that he is not likely to harm himself irreparably” (1973, 19). Sylvan suggests that we define permissible, obligatory, and wrong in the following ways: “What is permissible holds in some ideal situation, what is obligatory holds in every ideal situation, and what is wrong is excluded in every ideal situation” (1973, 19).

The key question of the article is whether the harm principle can be the basis of an extension or modification which produces a new environmental ethic. I’ve analyzed the argument in the article:


1.)  There is not a need for a new environmental ethic, if basic human chauvinism is sufficient to capture environmental cares and concerns.

2.)  If a human chauvinistic ethic were sufficient, then we could determine which actions towards the environment were permissible, obligatory, and wrong merely by appeal to the harm principle.

3.)  The harm principle is that one should be able to do as one wishes insofar as a.) one does not harm others; and b.) one does not harm oneself irreparably.

4.)  However, the following counterexamples show that we cannot determine which actions towards the environment were permissible, obligatory, and wrong merely by appeal to the harm principle:

—  the last person example: the last person surviving the apocalypse tries to eliminate every living thing on earth. Sylvan argues such actions are prima facie land ethically wrong, but nevertheless cannot be captured by the harm principle.

—  the last people example: the last group of people cannot reproduce and try to eliminate other non-human life on earth. Sylvan argues that such actions of the last people are prima facie land ethically wrong, but that nevertheless cannot be captured by the harm principle. But he considers adding “a further proviso to the basic principle, the effect that (3) that they do not willfully destroy natural resources” (1973, 20). However, the reasons that the last people appeal to are still human reasons.

—  the great entrepreneur example and industrial society examples: a great entrepreneur does not willfully destroy natural resources but instead is an industrialist that uses fossil fuels, engages in monoculture farming, and manufactures for solely human needs, and reuses and recycles as much as the marketing/advertising department requires. The industrial society example is comparable to the extension of the last person to the last people examples, and Sylvan suggests that our society is the great entrepreneur extended to the broader population.

—  vanishing species example: If we consider the blue whale which is on the verge of extinction, then whalers hunting them into extinction is not impermissible based on basic human chauvinism.

Sylvan concludes from each of these examples that “What these people do is to a greater or lesser extent evil, and hence in serious cases morally impermissible” (21), but yet the harm principle does not capture that land ethical wrongness.

Therefore, 5.)  A human chauvinistic ethic is not sufficient (by 2 and 4).

Therefore, 6.)  There is a need for a new environmental ethic (by 1 and 5).

Sylvan concludes that “human interests and preferences are far too parochial to provide a satisfactory basis for deciding on what is environmentally desirable” (23).


Commentary: My focus in my project is to highlight how issues of aesthetics, mind, and action are central to questions about environmental value, especially questions about how the beauty of nature relates to our duties to nature.


First, the argument depends upon a thought experiment in premise 4. The last person thought experiment depends upon intuition and imagination to make sense of the last person’s actions. But, in addition, one central issue about the harm principle is to what extent our ethical obligations are constitutively socially structured. According to Leopold’s account of the land ethic, the question “What should I do?” is structured— because of evolution and development— the question “What should I—an animal structured by sociality through evolution and ecology— do?” The last person has those obligations and duties even if no other humans exist. This will be the focus of research on how the aesthetics of nature needs to be informed by research on human evolution and human ecology. The actual state of human nature should inform how we ought to and ought not to aesthetically appreciate nature.


Second, the argument seems to beg the question in favor of non-anthropocentric values or at least be an argument from definition. The harm principle seems to define anthropocentric values. The intuitions that such actions are land ethically wrong seems to define non-anthropocentric values. However, an anti-environmentalist might simply bite the bullet and disagree with Sylvan’s intuitions that the last person, the last people, the entrepreneur, or the “extinctionists,” are doing something land ethically wrong. In fact, this is usually the default position of instrumentalists about the value of the natural world, namely that the destruction of nature is only wrong insofar as it is misused as a means to the pursuit of human ends.


Third, we might wonder about premise 3 whether or not the harm principle is really too weak to be a viable “super ethic,” (19) as Sylvan suggests. For instance, it might be that further study of Kant, Mill, and Aristotle to name a few, and the resulting ethical systems might generate an environmental ethic which is largely independent or orthogonal to the harm principle.


For instance, Kant’s ethics is focused on the respect for persons as rational beings that exemplify the moral law. It might be that we could extend this respect principle to a respect for nature as exemplifying natural laws of living beings (as Goodpaster and Taylor have done). Mill’s ethics is focused on maximizing happiness for the greatest number. It might be that we could extend this happiness principle to a view about increasing pleasure and reducing pain in sentient organisms (as Singer and Varner have done). Aristotle’s ethics focuses on striving towards excellence relative to our place in nature. It might be that we could extend this eudaimonistic principle to a view about enabling organisms to fulfill natural functions.


Leopold’s Land Ethical principle is “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (1966, 262). Sylvan hardly mentions beauty in the article as a basis for the judgments of environmental value. “On an environmental ethic, the last people have behaved badly; they have simplified and largely destroyed all the natural ecosystems, and with their demise the world will soon be an ugly and largely wrecked place” (1973, 20).


According to Leopold’s account of the land ethic, however, beauty is a central condition for determining how we ought to and ought not to relate to the natural world. On my interpretation of Leopold, the integrity condition has to do with the evolution of the natural world. So, preserving integrity means preserving the tree of nature as such and aiming to increase biodiversity. The resilience condition has to do with the ecology of the natural world. So, preserving resilience means preserving ecosystems that can withstand changes from the outside ensuring that booms and busts of energy within the system do not swing to the extremes. Integrity and resilience are not exclusive of each other of course. More needs to be said about the details of course.


However, the key point that I want to make, however, is that Leopold’s notion of beauty is a central pillar of his view. While a key Leopold interpreter— J. Baird Callicott (1989; 1994; 1999)— especially in the “Land Aesthetic” minimizes the importance of the aesthetics of nature because the aesthetic appreciation of nature is subjective. One question of the project has to do with the structure of environmental value. We can distinguish between ethical judgments, ethical development, and ethical motivation. And, can how can we develop an account of the aesthetic appreciation of nature that is objective. A pivotal question for the intuitions implicit in Sylvan’s argument is whether Sylvan is focusing on judgments, development, or motivation. But, in addition, one question is how Leopold thinks about the aesthetics of nature.


Does Leopold think that we make judgements about the intrinsic, non-anthropocentric, and holistic value of the natural world based on aesthetic judgments? Is that similar or different from the aesthetics of Thoreau, Burroughs, Muir, etc? Does Leopold think that our origins— our evolutionary biology and our developmental psychology— inform what we take to be beautiful? How does the Darwinian background of Leopold’s view inform his view of nature appreciation? Can that provide us with an objective view of nature appreciation? Does Leopold think that the beauty of nature motivates in a way that grasping facts about evolution and ecology do not? What account of motivation is in the background?


Callicott, J. Baird (1989). In Defense of the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press

Callicott, J. Baird (1994). “The Land Aesthetic”

Callicott, J. Baird (1999). Beyond the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press

Leopold, Aldo (1966). “A Taste for Country” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. Eds. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 86–98.

Leopold, Aldo (1666) “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac Ballantine Books.

Sylvan, Richard (1973). “Is there a Need for a New, and Environmental, Ethic?” in Proceedings of the World Congress of Philosophy. No. 1 205–210. In Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (eds.) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 16–24.