Human Landscapes, Virtue and Beauty, by David E. Cooper

By ‘human landscapes’, is meant parks, gardens, farmland and other landscapes that patently bear the impress of human intervention, including building. Many questions concerning the relation of ethical to aesthetic considerations about human landscapes can be raised. For example, is ‘aesthetic pollution’ of an environment also a moral offence? The question addressed in this paper is how, if at all, ethical considerations are relevant to aesthetic appreciation of human landscapes. In the first half of the paper, I reject the familiar view that the moral provenance and/or effects of a landscape affect its aesthetic qualities. (Eg. A seemingly beautiful verdant park is not beautiful if the water it requires causes serious environmental damage). I argue that the mere knowledge that a landscape has certain causal connections of a morally significant kind cannot alter a genuinely aesthetic judgement – though it may prompt a person to suspend aesthetic attention. For the moral aspects of a place to affect an aesthetic judgement they must, as it were, show up or figure in the experience of the place. This leads into the second half of the paper, which defends the ‘virtue-centric’ claim that an aesthetically admired landscape is experienced as having virtues – or, more precisely, as having features which, when possessed by human beings, are virtues. (Eg. In some cultures, to find a parkland graceful, noble and constrained is to admire it aesthetically). Put oversimply, a human landscape is beautiful when it exemplifies virtue. I proceed, after defending the claim against certain objections, to argue that a main merit of the virtue-centric approach is its considerable explanatory power. It explains why the beauty of human landscapes, and much else, matters a great deal to people. (It matters because virtue (and vice) matter). It also explains, much more plausibly than the ‘eye of the beholder’ account of beauty, the significant differences between cultures in the appreciation of landscapes. It renders these differences interesting by grounding them in different moral perspectives. (Eg. Differences in 17th C. Japanese and Italian tastes in gardens surely reflect differences in the kinds of virtues prominent in the moral thinking of the respective societies). The paper ends with the proposal that there is such an intimacy between moral and aesthetic sensibilities that the sharp distinction made between them in modern times is artificial, and registers an abstraction in effect from the conception of the good life articulated by the thinkers of ancient Greece and China.

David E. Cooper, Durham University, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Cooper, D. (2012) Human Landscapes, Virtue and Beauty, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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