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Is There Something Unethical About Beauty?

Why is physical beauty so important? And is it actually an aberration?

“What is beauty, after all, but an aberration.” Many years ago—somewhere—I ran across this provocative quotation. Although recently I’ve tried (and failed) to locate its source, I’ve thought about it numerous times since first encountering it.

Now I’d ask you to consider this viewpoint. If you were to set your sights, say, on a shopping mall, a fast-food restaurant (vs. a swanky one), an amusement park, or just out on the street, what percentage of the people around you would you label “truly beautiful”? That is, individuals sufficiently attractive for a modeling agency rep to hurriedly intercept them with a contract. Five percent? 10 percent? maybe 15? I’d argue for around five percent myself. But my standards might be more exacting than yours. Anyway, the key point here is that any number we’re likely come up with would be far below fifty percent. In short, the people we identify as beautiful represent such a small minority—such a marked deviation from the mean—that we might rightfully regard them as “aberrations.”

Obviously, such people are overrepresented in movies and TV, so that we might begin to entertain the illusion that they depict something much closer to the norm than actually the case. And should we compare ourselves to these “model few,” we might even develop a bit of a complex about our own, rather more ordinary looks.

So just why are considerations of physical attractiveness important? Simply because beautiful people, merely through happenstance—or the “luck of the draw”—have all sorts of built-in advantages that most of us can never lay claim to.

As a qualification here, I should add that in addressing human beauty I’m referring more to facial appearance than to overall physical attractiveness. For faces are typically what our eyes most center on when we’re “sizing up” others. And not only do we make decisions on their looks primarily based on facial features, we also tend to see this façade as reflective of their personality, even their identity—intimating that their outward appearance impels us to make broad judgments about who they are. And assuming that they pass our initial “face test” with flying colors, these judgments will probably be emphatically positive.

To begin with, beautiful people command more of our attention than others. Studies have shown that even babies respond more favorably to faces routinely agreed to be more attractive than average. And in general it appears that just gazing at what our brain neurologically registers as beautiful triggers our reward and pleasure centers. Moreover, such positive activation doesn’t appear to be anything we consciously control. Rather than volitional, it’s simply hard-wired in us.

Additionally, research has repeatedly demonstrated that although certain physical aspects of beauty may be culturally influenced, there’s yet a high degree of cross-cultural accord (both with adults and children) as to what’s seen as beautiful. These findings provide compelling evidence that these aesthetic perceptions are “encoded” by what’s common in our biology—that finally our biases are determined by factors both out of awareness and universal. (Among the many sources for this conclusion, see “The Neural Response to Facial Attractiveness,” by Anjan Chatterjee et al., Neuropsychology, 2009.)

Above all else, facial symmetry has been shown to be the key determinant in our estimating what’s beautiful in humans. But my main interest here isn’t to detail the different physical attributes researchers have associated with attractiveness so much as to (1) describe the particular benefits of being perceived as beautiful, and (2) examine the ethical justification—or fairness—of an individual’s being granted such advantages simply because they exited the womb fortuitously “awarded” with such a comely appearance.

So what, precisely, are the perks of being viewed as exceptionally attractive?

Chatterjee and his research team enumerate the many beneficial effects of beauty, citing a variety of academic studies on the subject, which collectively show that very attractive people:

  • Are more likely to be chosen as mates;
  • Are viewed, as children, to be more honest, intelligent, and pleasant—and also assumed to have greater leadership potential;
  • Are presumed, as adults, to have desirable social traits—such as strength, on the one hand, and sensitivity, on the other (and talk about the “halo effect!”);
  • Are judged, as politicians, professors, counselors, etc. to be more competent;
  • Receive preferential treatment in hiring decisions;
  • Earn higher salaries; and
  • Receive milder punishments for transgressions. (And consider whether this often-replicated finding is not an inexcusable perversion of justice—supposed to be blind in such matters.)

Weighing all this evidence, Chatterjee et al. are obliged to conclude: “A person’s attractiveness influences social interactions in ways that extend far beyond domains in which attractiveness per se [e.g., modeling] is directly relevant.” Or, to put it somewhat differently, facial beauty—as it’s automatically, or genetically, “computed” in our heads—steers us toward a favorable cognitive bias independent of a particular person’s educational or social history, past performance, or character.

Other investigators have reported that beautiful people, besides getting special consideration from teachers, employers, and the legal system, are more popular generally (see Elizabeth Landau, "Beholding Beauty: How It's Been Studied," CNN, 03/03/12). On the contrary, those viewed as having below-average looks are reportedly hit with a “plainness penalty,” which leads to “fines” in various areas. For instance, the less becoming earn nine percent less an hour (see, e.g., Dan Eden, “What Exactly Is 'Beauty,'” Viewzone, 2011).

It would appear then that remarkably attractive people not only impress us as more successful but, by dint of their pulchritude, are more likely to be successful. Certainly, no “vicious cycle” for them (!). But we might well question how warranted—from any sort of rational, humanistic perspective—such beauty-driven advantages ought to be appraised.

Undoubtedly, the various rewards that emanate purely from being deemed beautiful are unearned—and so undeserved. Whether we speak of beauty as a gift of nature or, as I suggested at the outset, a downright aberration, there’s no denying that—gratuitous or not—it’s an extremely valuable asset. Its benefits are widespread, and offer those fortunate few an influence, edge, or leverage that the large majority of us must work hard at if we’re to achieve at all. If such advantages come “naturally” to the beautiful, if they’re pretty much “bestowed” upon them at birth, it’s all the more ironic that this extrinsic beauty is, at bottom, really quite unnatural.

So finally, we’re obliged to see both the practical power of beauty and its random distribution as unjust. There’s something profoundly inequitable—if not unethical—about it. It seems that we humans have evolved in such a way that we really can’t help but discriminate in favor of those that strike us (if not “stun” us) by their attractiveness. But how humane, how fair, is it to be bound by a bias having so little to do with a person’s intrinsic worth? For that matter, how understanding or kindhearted is it to disadvantage those who were born with a marked physical defect or deformity? For their aberrant appearance, too, represents a substantial deviation from the norm. Sadly, these individuals are just as likely to be frowned upon, ignored, or discriminated against as those “favored” with facial superiority are to be celebrated—and regardless of the quality of their nature or deeds.

Ultimately, what matters—or should matter—is a person’s character. In a word, how virtuous are they? Are their values commendable? Do they strive to become their personal best (rather than resting on their comely laurels)? Are they altruistic, concerned with the rights and well-being of everyone? Do they treat others with caring, respect, kindness, and concern? Are they loving, thoughtful, honest, and generous in action as well as words?

Facial beauty may be a wonderful asset to possess. And frankly, for the rest of us, having such people to look at can be quite pleasing. (For better or worse, our brains would have it no other way!) But hopefully, the short-lived sensory pleasure of gazing at the stunning will never beguile us into forgetting about what’s really essential in measuring a person’s fundamental worth.

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© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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