Do We have Ethical and Aesthetic Obligations to Respect Landscapes?, by Isis Brook

Traditionally we have thought of ethical obligations as placing constraints on our behaviour towards other humans and, later, sentient animals. With the rise of environmental ethics these obligations were re-examined and in some cases broadened to include living entities and/or communities such as ecosystems or species. However, that broadening – when focused on the intrinsic value of entities and systems – did not include what were perceived as cultural constructs: buildings, planned environments, and landscapes. If we were seen as having obligations of any kind regarding such things it was due to their importance to humans or other entities with intrinsic value. A core feeling in environmental ethics was that it was time for human preferences and desires to take a backseat; thus, the built or designed environment, even cultural landscapes, were not regarded as important except in regard to their impact on ecosystems or, for example, biodiversity potential. The fact that protection of wilderness was at the foreground of environmental thinking meant that cultural landscapes, if considered at all, tended to be thought of as defiled or degraded regions that only the uninformed would mistake for the real thing.

The idea of aesthetic obligations is unusual and, if it has any purchase at all (beyond a Wildean extravagance), would generally be seen as resting on ethical obligations to respect the aesthetic preferences of other humans. And yet an aesthetic response to something that is out of place or inappropriate as somehow ‘wrong’ is not, at base, a feeling that it is wrong because others would similarly be upset by it or deprived of a pleasing view; rather, it is a feeling that it is ‘wrong for this place’ per se. We feel the landscape has been treated disrespectfully; that it has been wronged regardless of other human preferences or perceptions. By the same token, developments or changes to a landscape that feel ‘right’ can feel ‘right for the place’ not just right in a second-order way, that is, in a way that is dependent on other appreciators of the place. Of course one would hope that there is a commonly felt sense of rightness, but it would be shared because it is ‘right for the place’ not because it was in accord with individual preferences that just happen to be similar.

This paper will examine these different axiological approaches to the question of respect for cultural landscapes and ask whether the moral or aesthetic – or a merging of the two – can be used to defend the thesis that landscapes should be respected in their own right, that is, regardless of, or at least prior to, concerns about human preferences. One route to this seemingly impossible task is Fox’s theory of responsive cohesion. Another is Goethean phenomenology. Both can be used to place the human being in a role of service to the landscape itself and thus use our moral/aesthetic sensibilities to make judgements for the good of the landscape.

Isis Brook, Writtle College, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Brook, I. (2012) Do We have Ethical and Aesthetic Obligations to Respect Landscapes?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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