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Wednesday, January 1, 1992

Now Beauty Is a Liability

Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

Back in 19741 started editing an interdisciplinary scholarly journal, focused mainly on social and political issues. After the journal got some attention among colleagues in various fields—mostly in my field of philosophy-we began to receive submissions from scholars of a wide array of persuasions.

I recently was reminded of one such submission we had turned down after it had gone through the regular peer review process. What reminded me was a book review in The New York Times of a work in which the author, herself a beautiful woman, discussed how awful it is that men have imposed high standards of good looks on women throughout the ages.

The paper argued that it is morally wrong, indeed unjust, to heed the appearance of a person as one considers asking him or her out for a date. Why is that so, one might ask? The reason is that a person’s natural good looks are not something he or she deserved and thus shouldn’t benefit from. Only if one chooses a date or even a friend on the basis of something good that the individual has done of his or her own free will does it qualify as a morally proper deed.

Now at first blush there is a ring of plausibility to all this. If one is considering rewarding people for something, surely it is important to choose what they have achieved as grounds for the prize. Olympic medals aren’t given for just being tall or healthy. The Nobel Prize isn’t handed out merely for having a high IQ. A person has to accomplish something to deserve accolades. Only on television do folks regularly get prizes as a matter of pure luck.

But when I choose a companion or date, am I handing out rewards? It’s quite self-deluded to look at it that way. Rather, one is choosing a benefit for oneself. One wants the company of someone who is pleasant, appealing, and the like, initially at least. Later, once one comes to know the person better, one hopes for the emergence of those traits of character that do deserve admiration. What the looks of another person offer is akin to what one seeks from a gorgeous sunset, a fine aroma, or a beautiful flower: something esthetical-ly pleasing. And why should that be a liability? Why are we somehow worse for desiring attractive natural features in our companions or dates, not to mention mates?

Certainly one can place too much emphasis on esthetics. Yet, consider that for centuries the bulk of humanity couldn’t even begin to exploit the esthetic aspects of itself—women and men simply got by, struggled for bare survival, and could neither ask for nor offer delightful pleasantries to each other. In our day, when finally millions of us are able to pay some attention to what may be esthetically or otherwise pleasant about us—never mind that these begin with our natural attributes—why would some people denigrate those who accept such gifts? Why should those who can offer them be deemed shallow?

The reason is actually political: no one is supposed to benefit while others are not doing so. Just as the well- to-do are denounced for having more than others—many blame them for enjoying life so long as there is one remaining poor person left in the universe—so with other benefits, especially ones people simply inherited through their genes.

Just think of how much hostility there is toward inherited wealth. Why? Because, for example, it is widely contended that we are all one, and if parts of us aren’t getting enough, the rest of us also should suffer. Much political thinking goes along these lines. Humanity or the country or some other group is picked as a kind of natural team to which all of us belong and the collective welfare of which is something we are all duty-bound to support. If anyone is less well off than some others, that is considered intolerable.

Now if there is one thing that is prized nearly as highly as money, it is good looks or sex appeal. And in this case it is often more plausible to say that the owner of such an attribute has done little to achieve it. It is a native asset, more like inherited than created wealth.

Never mind that most attractive people must do something to keep fit and look well. They are working with an advantage, and heaven deliver us from advantage—it threatens the contemporary ideal of total uniformity among humankind.

Instead of this awful egalitarianism, it makes much better sense to see us all faced with the task of making the most of what we were born with and are given by those around us who choose to give to us. If within these limits we do well, we probably are both fortunate and deserving; if we do badly then we get the opposite mixture. But in neither case does it justify playing Robin Hood with these benefits and liabilities. No one is justified in depriving us of what we find freely bestowed upon us.

And if a person is attractive, and gains by this good fortune, so be it. Those of us who have the chance to be with such people shouldn’t have to give up this little delight in our lives simply to please those surly folks who cannot stand anyone being better off than those less fortunate among us.

Why begrudge the rose its fate of not being an ugly weed? And why begrudge our luck in finding the rose?

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.