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3.2.3 Aesthetic and other values of nature

We have said that some less strict anthropocentrics concede that at least an aesthetic (or contemplative) argument for protecting nature could be added to the instrumental view of nature; they base the need to conserve and cultivate nature on nature’s sensual attractions for us, the pleasure we take, for instance, in breathing fresh mountain air.

Beyond a narrow instrumentalistic perspective you can recognise nature’s aesthetic and contemplative values. Such values resemble intrinsic values of nature, because they seem to be values of nature in itself, but nevertheless they are attributed by humans: they come into the world only through human beings and their aesthetic or contemplative practice. And hold in mind that aesthetic or contemplative values have another quality as moral or ethical values! For many people the term ‘contemplative value’ means not only that nature is an aesthetic resource for us, but also that nature is absolutely beautiful and sublime! Here the anthropocentric position goes over to an epistemic and ontological position (although not in a moral sense), examining the problem how we can recognise nature in a metyphysical way.

However, someone can deny this ontological implication and argue that there is no independent aesthetic quality of nature in itself; that an aesthetic or contemplative value of nature only exists if a human being values nature’s beauty and sublimity. You can consider for yourself whether you think nature has genuine aesthetic worth or not. You might conduct common thought experiment and ask: Would the last human being on earth commit a wrong if he or she destroyed nature? If it is wrong for the last person to destroy the whole planet, then non-humans must have value, perhaps even moral value in themselves!

Consider whether it is really a contradiction in itself to say that nature’s aesthetic value is an ‘aesthetic intrinsic value for us’. Could there be aesthetic aspects of nature in itself (in an objective meaning), only recognisable for us, but in a manner that we are not free to decide what we regard as aesthetically attractive in nature, because certain qualities of nature have to be estimated as aesthetic by anthropological reasons (basing on the general human constitution)?

In finding it intrinsically valuable to contemplate something, we respond to qualities which inhere in it, its enormous size or power (giant redwood trees, waterfalls) or its structural complexity (bizarre rock formations), or its freedom from marks of instrumental human activity (the sea, the desert, the sky)‘ (Krebs 1999: 46).

It may be that our given practice of aesthetic perception is a prerequisite to experience the beauty and sublimity of nature, but this special relationship between us and nature is a fundamental (ontological and anthropological) trait both of ourselves and the non-human natural world. Indeed, it is necessary to have aesthetic consciousness to experience nature as beauty, but nevertheless nature is beautiful in itself, and we possess an innate disposition to feel nature’s beauty! These are complex philosophical questions that are not easy to answer, and this will give us a good occasion to discuss the problem of the intrinsic values of nature in a more general perspective.

If one does decide that nature has an intrinsic aesthetic value, this does not mean that a moral intrinsic value can also be ascribed to nature. From an anthropocentric perspective moral intrinsic values are internal to our moral culture (and never external). Therefore, on the one hand, an anthropocentric philosopher may accept aesthetic and contemplative values as intrinsic values of nature, but, on the other hand, he can deny that moral values of nature are intrinsic values of nature: for him moral values are always human-related values of using and enjoying natural resources or phenomena. But he may concede that the contemplation of nature is valuable for a good human life. In this sense (and only in this sense) in an anthropocentric view the aesthetic value of nature (what may be an intrinsic value) contributes to the morality of humankind, insofar as life as a good life is of moral importance. So, aesthetic (intrinsic) values of nature contribute in an indirect manner to ethics, although aesthetic values in themselves are not genuine moral values. This is indeed a very intricate consideration, but a typical example of philosophical reasoning.

The point is that the anthropocentric position is not principally against emotions or feelings; it doesn’t refer only to material interests in nature. Anthropocentric thinkers can share with non-anthropocentric ethicists the special positive feelings towards the natural environment in which human beings have lived for long periods of their lives, because these places provide feelings of familiarity and security. These are feelings of ‘homeland’. The homeland usually contributes to the identity of those who live there. Understanding yourself in terms of a native landscape is a common form of expressing individuality (see Krebs 1999: 55). A feeling of alienation and mourning will arise in many people who return to places where they have lived in former times, and see, for example, that the trees in front of their childhood home have vanished, that the whole natural environment has changed radically. Anthropocentric philosophers can agree with the idea that nature should be conserved if it is part of the home of humans. So the anthropocentric view is compatible with a certain idealism and even romanticism (towards ‘homeland’).

An anthropocentric-oriented person can also have empathy and compassion towards sentient animals, although denying that sentient animals have any moral intrinsic value in themselves. The desire to avoid pain and unhappiness for all living beings is not unusual in an anthropocentric. To have compassion for living beings that can feel pain and distress doesn’t need a special ethical justification, because for most people this is self-evident. Even without moral respect for nature one can love nature and hold it in high esteem. The anthropocentric view is not the same as a cold and heartless view of nature. Anthropocentrics can appreciate, in principle, all natural phenomena and their integrity, although they are not disposed to attribute to nature any moral intrinsic value.

Only if the anthropocentric position is restricted to a purely instrumental view of nature is it then associated with a cruel and strict materialistic view. ‘Only someone who damages or destroys nature without good reasons, someone who leaves an empty Coca Cola can lying around in a field, or who steps on a beetle or a flower, which could easily have been avoided, vandalizes nature.’ In contrast ‘When workers on a construction site fell trees to make space for a new building, they obviously do not do anything which corrupts their character. They do not vandalize nature’ (Krebs 1999: 58).

Intelligent and prudent anthropocentrics will never destroy the natural environment just to protect the natural base of their own live, but also for the reasons of protecting their own positive (aesthetic and empathic) feelings towards an intact nature. So, ultimately, the behaviour of an anthropocentric will not differ from that of a moderate non-anthropocentric who concedes nature a moral intrinsic value.

Only in comparison to a more fundamental non-anthropocentric ethicist will the anthropocentric ethicist act differently, for example, killing a cockroach in the kitchen, something a radical non-anthropocentric would never do. For an anthropocentric ethicist a cockroach may have an ecological value (value in the sense of ‘function’), in so far as nature is a complex interconnected system (what humans need for their healthy life), but not a moral value in itself. From the anthropocentric’s perspective there is no reason not to kill an individual cockroach; no moral respect will hinder him or her from extinguishing this single animal. This marks a clear difference between a moderate anthropocentric view and a radical non-anthropocentric view of nature. Nevertheless, as we have seen, there are different possibilities of arguing for ‘values of nature’ in an anthropocentric manner—not only in an instrumental or materialistic way. On the other hand, there are good reasons to claim that anthropocentric ethics is too narrow-minded because it is too human-centred, and that not only humans belong to the moral universe.