Monday, April 20, 2009

Natural Beauty and Human Control

David P. has gotten me thinking about whether achieving the ideal of total human control over nature would undermine the distinctive aesthetic value of natural beauty. The rough idea is that when we consider our experience of natural beauty, part of the aesthetic value seems to derive from the awe-inspiring sense of "otherness" -- something that would be missing in a man-made replica of the environment, for example.

Admittedly, "total human control" does not imply "totally man-made": we might freely choose to establish boundaries for untouched wilderness reserves, for example. We could possess the freedom to remake nature however we please, without necessarily exercising this power in every location. So, is there any further worry? So long as we hold sufficient wilderness areas 'in reserve', would anything be lost by our achieving the capacity to remake nature as we please?

I wonder whether the environmentalist might at this point co-opt Pettit's theory of freedom as non-domination, claiming that actual non-interference -- where nature takes its course but only "by our leave" -- is insufficient; on this view, it must further be the case that we couldn't interfere even if we wanted to. Typically, non-domination is achieved through political institutions that ensure non-interference. There's a sense in which this still leaves one at the mercy of the 'system' as a whole, but it is presumably less whimsical than individual humans, and so - perhaps - reliable enough. In any case, is there any sense in which the abstract "domination" of nature by our political system would undermine our aesthetic experiences of natural beauty? It seems not.

For example: if, after a marvelous forest walk, I'm told that the forest is only preserved by the government's leave, this will not undermine my recent aesthetic experience (unlike, say, telling me that it is all fake). Indeed, appreciation of the aesthetic value may move me to ensure that the old forest continues to be preserved. (The comparison to a clear case of undermined aesthetic value is striking: I would not likewise be moved by the need to maintain the paintwork on the "forest" facade!) So human 'domination' of nature, in this very broad sense, seems quite compatible with the aesthetic value of untouched natural beauty.

So far I've considered objective conditions that might undermine the distinctive aesthetic value of natural beauty. The only one that looks to be genuinely problematic is the condition of inauthenticity, or human interference in the actual production of a landscape. Yet this is no problem for the ideal of human control, because the capacity for control is compatible with exercising restraint.

One might instead appeal to subjective conditions. That is, one might claim that, in dominating nature, people would (likely?) come to have certain attitudes that would interfere with their ability to appreciate the distinctive value of natural beauty. The beauty would still "be there" (in a sense), dormant, but we would all be blind to it. I take the rough idea to be that dominating nature would lead to our conceiving of it as a mere means to be reshaped and "used" for our purposes, and such crass instrumentalism is incompatible with aesthetic appreciation (or at least the distinctive kind of appreciation that we associate with natural beauty).

But how plausible is the former claim? Why would the objective condition of having control entail any particular subjective attitudes, such as crass instrumentalism? This may seem odd in the abstract, but consider a concrete case. When I imagine someone looking at a waterfall and thinking, "I could waggle my fingers and reshape it this way or that," it does seem plausible that the salience of their power could interfere with their appreciation of the waterfall as a natural object 'outside' of themselves. So I'd say the worry here is that having power often leads to consideration (however idle) of its exercise, and that is no longer to think of the natural object as properly untouched and 'other'.

While granting that this is a potential problem, it looks to me as though it should be avoidable. There are presumably techniques that could make the fact of one's capacity for control less salient, and hence less likely to interfere with aesthetic appreciation. Further (recalling my earlier discussion of non-domination), things may be set up so that no individual person actually has this sort of control in any case. Then, at least insofar as one experiences the natural scenery in one's role as a private citizen (as opposed to a member of a collective deliberating about whether to interfere this way or that), the object will be in the relevant sense 'untouchable', or beyond one's control, in such a way as to facilitate the aesthetic experience of 'otherness'.

Does that sound right? Or are there reasons to think that expanding human control would necessarily undermine aesthetic appreciation of nature?


  1. ...if, after a marvelous forest walk, I'm told that the forest is only preserved by the government's leave, this will not undermine my recent aesthetic experience (unlike, say, telling me that it is all fake). Landscape painting and photography could perhaps be seen as manipulating nature (what I mean is, they are highly synthetic imitations of nature - near re-creations), but retaining its beauty (perhaps even adding to it). Its 'fakeness' (or 'syntheticness' might be better) does not detract from its value. You would want to preserve a beautiful landscape painting or photo. What *can* make a 'fake' less valuable is not so much to do with what you actually see, but more to do purely with the fact that it is a forgery - we see it as an affront.

    The only [conditon] that looks to be genuinely problematic is the condition of inauthenticity, or human interference in the actual production of a landscape.Perhaps it isn't that something 'natural' was tainted by the influence of people, but that something beautiful was tainted by the influence of a person who has no right to interfere. This goes for works of art as well as natural objects of beauty (upon learning of someone other than the original artist trying to improve a painting, we would pretty much immediately think its value was undermined). For the most part, anyway. There is hip-hop music (interfering with artistic creations) and bonsai trees (interfering with nature), if you want to call these beautiful (I think they're something like beautiful).

    In short, we might say that it is people interfering with beautiful things where they shouldn't which undermines aesthetic value. The beautiful thing's being 'natural' is probably not relevant.

  2. I don't hold human control of the natural world as an ideal, which is to say that I don't regard human control as being the realisation of a perfection, in this case, of the natural world. The applications of the idea that comes to mind are the controls in a vehicle and environmental controls, from air conditioning to a clean room, although you seem to have in mind the living world, our efforts to exclude the weather and dust from our living spaces need not exclude them from consideration. In those cases human control can be, and generally is, regarded as being the realisation of a perfection.

  3. Whenever we talk about beauty, we need to define the meaning of natural. From aesthetic point of view, the line between natural and non-natural is not very clear since human beings are natural ourselves in a good sense. The comaprison between natural and non-natural could be demonstrated very well by comparing an abstract art work with a painting of, say, a forest. Which is more natural? Something metaphysically deep in logic or something apparent?

  4. One reason for thinking that expanding human control would necessarily undermine aesthetic appreciation of nature would be if it's constitutive of something's being beautiful to some degree that it strike us as uncharacterizable to that degree.

    Something like that seems plausible at least in some cases - Michelangelo's Pieta strikes me as very beautiful, and part of the reason seems to be that I feel like any characterization I could think of for it would feel inadequate. There's always some further, important aspect of it that would seem left out.

    The strongest sort of human control seems to be the sort where the thing in question can come out just as some human intended - and that seems to imply that there's some psychologically-possible characterization of the object that's truly adequate. Since that would imply that the thing is adequately characterizable, then if necessary unscharacterizability is a constituent of beauty, this would explain why the thought that something is under human control might undermine our sense of its beauty.

    That's a thought, anyway.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)