Robin Hanson asks: why are we so unconcerned about inequalities arising from beauty or the lack thereof? The question was inspired by this op-ed, which states: “most champions of the less privileged have never made a practical effort to mitigate the social differences caused by the inequitable distribution of what, nowadays, is a factor with an enormous socioeconomic impact: beauty.”
Which is true. You can’t choose your gender or race, and they are for the most part irrelevant to most jobs, so it’s unfair discrimination to give privileges to people of specific genders or races. But on the other hand, looks — physical attractiveness — is also something you can’t choose, and something that’s irrelevant to most jobs, and something that causes unequal treatment in society, and nobody cares. The op-ed goes on to suggest that national governments should nationalize the beauty industry and implement affirmative action for ugly people, so as to redistribute beauty and/or wealth that is awarded on the basis of beauty. It sounds absurd, but it’s hard to find a formal error in the reasoning. The analogy to gender or ethnicity does seem to hold.
Some say that good looks is too subjective. We can’t base laws or liberation movements on something that is in the eye of the beholder — not the case with race or gender. And it’s true that beauty is subjective and cultural, but it’s also shared. In any given culture, the beauty ideals are pretty uniform. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that everyone’s either average, ugly or beautiful. I think there are very few people in any given culture whom a majority of impartial observers couldn’t place in either of those three categories. Consequently, beauty is something that is 1) in-born, 2) only partially malleable, and 3) the basis of unequal treatment in society.
Perhaps the problem is a lack of rigorous measurements of looks. How do you define an ugly person? If ugly people are granted facelifts paid by the state, who’s supposed to be Judge of Taste? “Yes, you are ugly enough to get a boob job and facelift on the state’s tab. I hereby pronounce you aesthetically disabled, with all the benefits and rights thereof. Next!”
“Objection! Sir, my client, the applicant’s ex-husband, has testified that he has slept with the applicant several times. Surely this counts as evidence against aesthetic disability?” And so on.
Gender is binary, race is polyvalent but easy enough to distinguish most of the time. Some clever folks have come up with a unit for beauty: Helen of Troy is known as “the face that launched a thousand ships”; consequently, one millihelen is the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. Perhaps we can define “aesthetic disability” as, say, less than 0.5 microhelen, just as severe mental disability is defined as “less than 70 IQ”.
Practical issues and humor aside, what’s the reason no one cares about the ugly? Robin Hanson speculates:
One theory is that what we have seen are somewhat random coalitions: the strongest support for reducing certain inequailties come from member groups who are either on the losing end of an inequality, or get signaling benefits by showing sympathy to such groups. But no coalition wants to help groups that are too intrinsically weak, producing disgust and derision instead of sympathy from onlookers. So the ugly, the stupid, or beta males, for example, tend to make unlikely coalition partners.Oct 22, 2009