Popular neuroscience suggests that affect underlies ethical decision. Though not all of the contemporary brain-obsessed arguments are compelling, traditional psychology, at least since William James, has forwarded similar hypotheses. Scholars of rhetoric also recognize the force of the pathos appeal, and have done so for thousands of years. If our emotional responses impact our ethical decisions and aesthetic response is also related to the emotions, then ethics and aesthetics may be more closely related than contemporary scholars in the liberal arts and sciences have generally assumed or asserted.
But what do we assume about the basic nature of the relationship between aesthetic response and affect? Do we merely love the beautiful, or do we find beauty in that which we love? For example, do we become attached to a natural place, because it is picturesque or because we associate it with meaningful events and other attachments? Or, if such responses are “inherited,” either because they are instinctual or culturally conditioned, do ethical and aesthetic values co-emerge?
Related to these questions are the backward and forward looking problems of environmental degradation and generational amnesia. On one hand environmental degradation suggests that we may become less attached to wild places in the future as they are diminished and or degraded. On the other hand, generational amnesia suggests that our aesthetic standards may also be degraded. In a twenty-first century urban environment, for example, a small, roof-top garden may have more value (affective and aesthetic), by sheer contrast with its surroundings, than a large vegetable or flower garden in a more traditional, rural environment. Still, as we become increasingly overwhelmed with technology, it may also be that our appreciation for place and natural beauty is diminishing overall, as our early memories and attachments are less likely to be formed out of doors. And this trend may be contrary to an ethical imperative of caring for more places and more creatures. But what if an ethic of inclusiveness included caring about, even loving the ugly?
Institute for Nature and Culture co-founder and theorist of restoration ecology, Bill Jordan has raised the issue of restoring species that pose a threat to human interests, even a threat to human life—rattle snakes, for example (Making Nature Whole, 5). Jordan’s approach contrasts significantly with the idea of restoring “natural capital.” Is the latter approach truly ethical if it primarily serves human interests? Can we be sure that we even understand our own interests—that we can predict the future in this sense? Could a more inclusive ethical approach address this problem? And how would such an ethic relate to aesthetics?
The concepts of generational amnesia and degraded environmental brought to my mind the example of the L. A. River. The river (qua river) ceased to exist when it was replaced with a massive concrete channel built in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Angelinos literally forgot the river because it disappeared, almost without a trace. Instead water flowed into and out of “the wash.” The mostly dry, concrete channel became an icon of the apocalypse, in Hollywood films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Escape from LA (1996), and indeed complex ecosystems, as worlds, were destroyed by this massive human intervention. But somehow the river was not completely forgotten.
In the late 1990’s a group of visionary citizens conceived of the absurd notion of restoring the river in a hybrid fashion. From these early initiatives emerged the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. What I found most remarkable about this plan, when I examined it, were the rich renderings (future simulations) of the river as an ecosystem, a place for recreation, and a cultural venue—a place in which to form attachments. In the past few years the restoration has achieved gradual but marked success with Angelinos now actually kayaking in certain areas.
So how did such an ugly place become the object of attention and care? Did citizens become interested in the “river” because they saw a potential for beauty, or did it become beautiful because it received care and attention? I’m not sure these are answerable or even meaningful alternatives. What may be meaningful, though, is the implication that ethical decision and action require us to look beyond surface features to the spirit of a place—the spirit of a creature. The potential for beauty may be in everything we behold, as a function of our care and attention.
Image Reference: Los Angels River Revitalization Master Plan: Chapter 2, page 4