Owen Martin: Beauty and Moral Value


To promote welfare requires the definition of entities as either deserving or undeserving of it. Is there some quality of being, then, that determines such a right? Many people believe that it is one’s capacity to feel pleasure or pain. The prevalent logic goes that if an individual cannot feel pain, damage done to it is not directly morally reprehensible.

With this in mind, I ask that we consider the following scenario. In some possible universe, humanity achieves a form of faster-than-light travel and colonizes the stars. Our weapons of mass destruction also progress and we wield the ability to vaporize the outer crusts of terrestrial planets with the push of a button.

Consider, then, the discovery of two planets: the first rather dull, comprising a surface of only lava and some cooled igneous rock, and the second a veritable paradise supporting a vast and dynamic array of plant life, unparalleled by any other ecosystems in the known universe.

Many would consider vaporizing the surface of the first planet a perfectly amoral event; no harm is done to anything alive nothing of significance has really been lost. Yet something changes when we consider the destruction of the second planet. For some reason, the notion of vaporizing an entire planet of rare and complex plant systems is deeply unsettling—though its inhabitants presumably feel no pain and can hardly protest.

Interestingly, many would consider the act of terraforming our first planet into one such as the second a respectable undertaking, daresay a morally good one. Something, surely, is gained from that endeavor. But what could this be? Why should we care?

One explanation for our discomfort is that we find moral value in entities we consider beautiful. The destruction of beauty makes us uncomfortable because its loss displeases us—not because it has some innate right to persist, mind you, but because we find some intrinsic value in its existence and moral significance in its creation and destruction.

This is why the annihilation of a complex but pain-free life-bearing planet sits poorly with our moral instincts. A separate analogy to consider is the destruction of the Mona Lisa; painless, one should hope, but a great many people would lament its loss regardless.

The obvious conclusion—that we ought to consider an entity’s right to wellbeing not exclusively on the basis of its individual characteristics, like ability to feel pain, but also on its attributes relative to other beings, like emotional significance—is not significantly unintuitive but nevertheless remains greatly overlooked during many debates of obligatory morality.