Possibilities of Experience: An Aesthetic Approach to Environmental Ethics and Theology

  • Caleb Gordon

Student thesis: Phd


In this thesis I argue that an aesthetic approach to environmental ethics produces and defines moral relationships which are usually neglected within the field. I reject a common understanding of 'aesthetics' as 'criticism of taste' in favour of its broader definition as 'sensory knowledge'. I thus reframe aesthetics as a mode by which subjects experience and interpret (via) their environments. Because environmental disputes often involve considering possible environmental outcomes, I offer the phrase 'possibilities of experience' to frame a crucial aspect of environmental ethics: the prevention of or access to various environmental experiences. This aesthetic approach is a philosophical framework, and as such has general application; all environmental ethics must begin in environmental interpretation and the valuation of anticipated experiences. This is critically important to understanding the conflicts of value which shape much environmental dispute. My project originates from an interest in defining a 'distinctively Christian' approach to environmental ethics; I argue that such an approach consists in first considering Christian interpretations of experience. The impulse to seek certain sensory environments is familiar to Christian spirituality: a long tradition links sensory experience with relationship to God. One of this study's most pressing theological questions is the extent to which fitting sensory environments are available to those seeking spiritual retreat or formation, as well as the spiritual, moral, physical or mental impacts of everyday sensory environments. In Chapter One I outline the potential contribution of an aesthetic approach to environmental ethics. I differentiate scientific and aesthetic modes of engagement with the world and demonstrate instances where misunderstanding the aesthetic has produced a gap in ethical reasoning. In Chapters Two and Three I examine existing approaches to environmental ethics in terms of their omission or inclusion of aesthetic reference points. In Chapter Two I examine where aesthetic references are omitted or neglected, I probe the surrounding text for clues of latently operant aesthetics - I attempt to locate a particular position or vantage, a subjective origin, which shapes the body of work. In Chapter Three I analyse some examples of explicit engagement with environmental aesthetics and evaluate whether those examples are helpful or perpetuate some of the conceptual norms which limit the supposed applicability of aesthetics to environmental discourses. In Chapter Four I introduce the aesthetic epistemology of David Bentley Hart as a way of framing aesthetic experience as a moral issue for Christian theology. Using Hart's epistemology of faith, I likewise argue that environmental aesthetics frames sensory environments as a moral concern for Christians. This constitutes a distinctively Christian approach to environmental ethics by critiquing sensory environments in terms of a Christian understanding of, and relation to, God. In Chapter Five I frame the theological implications of Hart's aesthetic epistemology by considering the role of ideology in aesthetic experience: I demonstrate how an aesthetic framework evaluates aesthetic claims by assessing both the material and interpretive relationships between individuals and their environments. A Christian will interpret their environment through their Christianity; and likewise, another individual of a different perspective will interpret their environment through that perspective. In Chapters Six and Seven I invoke two real-world examples of environmental dispute and demonstrate how an aesthetic approach reframes the nature of those disputes. I first probe the disagreements about the application of 'Roadless Rules' to Alaska's Tongass National Forest and then examine disputes around the implementation of 'Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods' in urban British communities. In both cases, I emphasise the role of environmental interp
Date of Award31 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Scott (Supervisor) & Scott Midson (Supervisor)

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