While on holiday in Crete, myself and my friends Michael and Daniel began to

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While on holiday in Crete, myself and my friends Michael and Daniel began to admire the sparse mountainous landscape. We all agreed that it was aesthetically pleasing, but we all had different opinions concerning the degree of its aesthetic beauty. Michael suggested that the landscape was inferior to a forested mountain-range covered in thick pine forests. Daniel argued that Michael was incorrect because the Cretan landscape had a sparse beauty which was very appealing. He compared the heavily forested landscape of Michael's comparison to a ring with an enormous gaudy diamond, while the Cretan landscape had the minimalist, simplistic beauty of a ring with a smaller but more precious gem. I argued that Michael was mistaken in making this comparison to begin with. The Cretan landscape should not be compared to a landscape from a more temperate region of the world, because they were fundamentally different types of landscape. It is possible to compare the work of a oil-paints artist with those of another oil-paints artist, but not to the work of a pencil artist. Similarly it would be possible to compare the aesthetics of a forested mountain-range in Canadian to a similarly forested landscape in Europe, but the Canadian landscape could not be compared to a desert landscape, such as that of North Africa. Can a philosopher make sense of this discussion?

Great case! I think that some of the best current thinking by a philosopher on these matters is being done by Allen Carlson and I believe he would side with you. Carlson identifies different models for natural aesthetics --one can, for example, single out a rock or tree of small formation of objects for appreciation. But he thinks the more important natural aesthetic should be grounded in ecology--it is perhaps more important both because it is truer to seeing the objects themselves (they are, after all, in artistic terms naturally in situ) and more dangerous if you get things wrong. So, Carlson and some other philosophers think that our environmentally destructive behavior is sometimes based on bad aesthetics or a failure to appreciate the beauty of the natural world as when one (for example) destroys a rich wetland to build a golf course that is (let us imagine) not really needed. So, he (and I) would say it would be unfair (as well as perhaps completely absurd) to criticise a forested mountain range for being a bad desert. One should, instead, see the forested area qua forested area and then judge accordingly (what is the condition of biodiversity? is it an old growth forest? what is the condition of the wildlife? is it an overall healthy ecosystem?) One of Carson's better known essays is wildly anthologized and is called "Appreciation and the Natural Environment."

There is an amusing sub-title of a recent environmental ethics book that captures the current awareness or thesis that aesthetics can be important to our environmental practices: From Beauty To Duty.

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