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It’s Good to Be Gorgeous: Beauty Confers Moral Worth

New research shows a moral bias favoring beautiful people and things.

Key points

  • People often believe that they judge moral worth based on internal traits, but external characteristics play a key role as well.
  • Animals’ beauty predicts people’s assessment of moral worth and whether the animals deserve compassion, new research suggests.
  • People have a stronger desire to protect beautiful people, animals, and buildings than their uglier counterparts.

Imagine a room crowded with a vast assortment of creatures and objects — baboons, butterflies, Botticelli paintings, and so on. If a tragedy struck and the room needed to be immediately evacuated, how would you choose what to save from amongst the menagerie and masterpieces?

Ricardo Frantz/Unsplash
Source: Ricardo Frantz/Unsplash

Philosophical arguments about the factors that ought to underpin such moral decisions tend to emphasize the relevance of internal psychological capacities. In general, people’s intuitions cohere with those of philosophers; there is a widespread conviction that traits like being able to engage in rational thought and to experience emotions are critical for ascribing moral rights to a particular entity. And yet, there is evidence that moral concern is also driven by much more than assessments of intelligence and sensitivity. Recently, scientists have discovered that beauty is an important determinant of how much somebody or something elicits a sense of moral obligation.

A new paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the beauty of animals predicted the degree to which these animals were ascribed moral rights and were thought to deserve compassion, independently from other traits that are more typically associated with moral standing (such as the ability to suffer, the ability to think rationally, and benevolence). For example, even though peacocks and turkeys are considered to have similar psychological abilities and are neither particularly vulnerable nor particularly dangerous, peacocks are considered to be much more deserving of moral consideration due to being more attractive.

Sean Oulashin/Unsplash
Source: Sean Oulashin/Unsplash

Another new paper by the same team of researchers, in press at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found evidence that people consider good looks to elevate moral standing, even beyond the realm of the animal kingdom. Across six experiments, the researchers uncovered consistent evidence that people have a greater desire to protect and preserve beautiful animals, beautiful people, beautiful landscapes, and even beautiful buildings as compared to their uglier counterparts. This was explained largely by perceptions that beautiful entities and objects are “purer” than less beautiful entities and objects.

Other researchers have independently found similar results. For example, 8- to 12-year-old children evaluate harms more severely when they are directed toward more attractive animals. This convergent evidence that even children show a tendency to morally prioritize beautiful over drab creatures underscores that the "beauty is good" phenomenon is noteworthy and perhaps widespread.

Deb Dowd/Unsplash
Source: Deb Dowd/Unsplash

These recent findings give us reason to step back and more carefully examine whether our intuitions about moral value are ethically defensible. Certainly, perceiving beauty is immensely pleasurable. However, it is hard to adequately defend the maximization of our own pleasure as a convincing reason for using aesthetic appeal as means for deciding which entities to include in our circles of moral concern. Our own delight in seeing a tiger’s majestic stripes or the stunning plumage of a tropical songbird provides a highly tenuous basis for prioritizing these species in conservation efforts, particularly if this comes at the expense of animals that are less visually captivating but more intelligent, more emotionally sensitive, more socially connected, or more of a keystone for ecological flourishing. The problematic nature of this moral bias comes into even clearer focus when considering the possibility of ascribing greater moral weight to attractive people.

In general, beauty may be a troublingly misleading sign of moral worth. Scientific discoveries about when people tend to use aesthetic appeal as a cue to moral standing may help us to reevaluate our moral intuitions and move toward more principled assessments of moral standing.

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