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Aesthetic Virtues and the Beauty of the World

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“Man alone has a world; an animal has only an environment”, says Peter Geach. I will try to explain the correctness of this formula for aesthetics, most especially for what has been called “environmental aesthetics”.8 “Environmental aesthetics” is a bad label, I think. The notion that man, unlike other animals, has no environment, but a world, means something for aesthetics, and especially for the aesthetics of nature. I should say that by “nature”, I simply mean what is not artifactual or completely man-made, even if man intervenes in it to regulate or organize, as with a garden. In order to explain Geach's formula and to give my own account of natural aesthetics I will need to make a large detour which I hope will not prove too boring. I begin by making a distinction between two general philosophical perspectives.

There is a well-known distinction between rule-based and virtue-based ethics. The former focuses upon acts and maintains that they are moral or not to the extent that they conform, or fail to conform, to certain rules or principles. The latter focuses upon agents and maintains that morality rests not upon rules, but upon moral qualities. In particular, it rests upon virtues, which are dispositions to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. There are a lot of controversies among moral philosophers as to whether this distinction is as radical as I have indicated. But for the moment it is not important to decide this point. It seems right to think that in rule-based ethics, acts, moral rules, and moral principles are the main concepts, whereas in virtue-based ethics, moral dispositions and emotions, states of character, the flourishing of human beings through the best development of their own nature (what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia), are the main concepts. There is another very important distinction between these two ethical perspectives: rule-based ethics claims that morality is universal, in the sense that it is not dependent on the person who acts and to the conditions of his or her act. Universality means complete independence from anything that would singularize a reason to act or the act itself. The moral person must act as if his or her act is determined by a universal law. In virtue ethics, morality is intimately related to the person who acts, to his or her character and situation. The same act could be morally right or wrong depending on who acts and the conditions in which the act is done. It could even be a question of luck. From the perspective of rule-based ethics such dependency may in itself constitute immorality.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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