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Voorkant Tietje-Cresap 'Is lookism unjust - The ethics of aesthetics and public policy implications' Louis TIETJE / Steven CRESAP
Is lookism unjust? - The ethics of aesthetics and public policy implications
Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 19, no 2 (Spring 2005), 31-50

"Lookism is prejudice toward people because of their appearance. It has been receiving increasing attention, and it is becoming an important equal-opportunity issue. People we find attractive are given preferential treatment and people we find unattractive are denied opportunities."(31)

"In our society aesthetic capital, like other kinds of capital, is unequally distributed. Lookism is like racism, classism, sexism, ageism and the other –isms in that it can create what may be unjust barriers to equal opportunity in the workplace and education. Lookism is not only an ethical issue. It has taken on, and not for the first time, what can only be called world-historical significance. With apologies to Postman (1986) and Debord (1995), we do appear to be amusing ourselves to death in the society of the spectacle. New visual media and technologies, infotainment, virtual reality, corporate image-projection, video games, internet voyeurism and many other developments all in their own ways reinforce the importance of appearances in things and attractiveness in persons."(32)

"We will review the tradition of ethical thinking about aestheticism in general and lookism in particular, evaluate the current debate between social constructionists and evolutionary essentialists, and clarify positions on the justice or injustice of lookism and their policy implications."(32)

"Keep in mind that the disadvantages of unattractiveness are only part of the story; the advantages of attractiveness have to be recognized as well. Let’s imagine an aesthetic continuum. Maximum unattractiveness, also known as “ugliness,” would be the negative pole. On the opposite, positive pole would be maximum attractiveness, also known as “beauty” (for women and, sometimes, boys and certain men), or “handsomeness” (for men and certain women). Being judged to be at the negative pole is an aesthetic variant of what Goffman (1985) calls stigma: an immediately recognizable abnormal trait that works subliminally to turn others away and thus break social claims. Being judged to be at the positive pole is aesthetic charisma, understood both in Weber’s political sense as a trait that is perceived to be a divine gift and in the sense that it is used in the entertainment industry as an equivalent of “star quality.” Like stigma, charisma is also both evident and obtrusive. It is abnormal in the sense of exceptional and immediately recognizable, and it too works subliminally, only in this case to attract others and thus to create social claims."(33)

"Shouldn’t we expect the constructionist camp to show more sensitivity to the ethical implications of judging by appearances? Surprisingly, this does not turn out to be so. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, rights advocate and feminist, has little to say about lookism’s impact on women, who have commonly been thought to suffer from it most."(36)

"Prima facie, lookism may be difficult to see as a prejudice because judging people on the basis of how they look is in many areas of life an indisputable good. After all, much depends on our ability to make valid aesthetic judgments. The most obvious case is sexual attraction. As in nature, so in culture, romance, friendship, familial affiliation, imagination, art and major sectors of the economy are unthinkable without judging by appearances. When and where lookism is triggered—that is, its economic sector or social context—determines whether it might result in unjust discrimination. What is ordinarily and unobjectionably exclusionary in a romantic situation, for example, might be unjust at work or at school, where lookism can be construed to pervert a natural impulse. What is otherwise normal may become abnormal."(37)

"If an unjust behavior is more natural than nurtured, or in other words “essential,” it is more difficult to discern as unjust and therefore more difficult to change. By contrast, if an unjust behavior is more nurtured than natural, in other words “constructed,” it is easier to discern as unjust and therefore easier to change."(38)

"Lookism is pre-ideological. It is primarily an aesthetic experience, an immediate attraction or repulsion at the physical presence of others. We judge people on the basis of their attractiveness within seconds of meeting them. In the literature we find that the lookist response, insofar as we can isolate it, is a fragrant psychic stew of instantaneous recognition, perceptual distortion, physiological automatism, erotic gratification and/or disgust, and wish fulfillment, among other elements. It is, in short, irrational, but in a perhaps more disturbing way than the over-generalized theories and shoddy argumentation behind the more ideological –isms."(38-39)

"There is, indeed, increasing recognition among social scientists that lookism may be the product of that specific variant of biological determinism we call evolution. The argument is that beauty is a bio- logical adaptation.(...)

The understanding of beauty as a biological adaptation is a recent development.(...)

One reason for the historical predominance of the model is that it provided a way by means of cultural relativism to discredit “claims that races, ethnic groups, classes, women and so on were innately inferior” (Etcoff 1999, p. 21) By contrast, social scientists are now increasingly open to the view that culture is in part driven by evolutionary impulses: genetically programmed strategies of self-preservation and species-perpetuation. This new view represents a significant departure from the standard social science model. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, lookism would seem to be a requirement, if only to ensure reproductive success. The instantaneousness of the lookist response could be due to our need to quickly size up others as friend or enemy, threat or opportunity."(39)

"Social scientists have been accumulating evidence for beauty prejudice or discrimination, even for good purposes, but they are unable or unwilling to pass judgment on the justice or injustice of lookism. Matters of justice cannot be adjudicated empirically. We need a moral argument that lookism is unjust and that some kind of policy intervention is justified. John Rawls provided such an argument over thirty years ago in his 1971 liberal classic, A Theory of Justice, although he did not specifically deal with the issue of lookism."(40)

"In Rawls’s (1971, p. 303) theory, all social primary goods should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would benefit the least advantaged. Rawls includes the exception in order to compensate those who were not fortunate in the “natural lottery.” The exception is one part of Rawls’s (1971, p. 302) famous “difference principle.” Although natural assets or social circumstances are not deserved, they should not necessarily be eliminated. The difference principle provides Rawls (1971, p. 102) with a way to justify inequalities, but only if the inequalities compensate the less fortunate by increasing their advantages."(41)

"If beautiful people receive more and better opportunities and greater financial rewards and they improve the welfare of the less beautiful (and even ugly), for example, through increases in productivity, then a beauty premium can not be considered unjust. The difference principle justifies a premium. Beauty discrimination is unlike discrimination based on race and gender, which can never benefit those who are discriminated against. If, however, beauty discrimination does not benefit the less beautiful, it is unjust and subject to the same moral and legal sanctions as discrimination based on race and gender."(41-42)

"Discrimination against the ugly may be unjust but impossible or too costly to redress through policy. And logically, even though natural assets are not deserved, it does not follow that people who lack these assets should be compensated by those who possess them."(42)

"What are the policy implications of the libertarian theory of justice? The implications are straightforward. Since desert and beauty are in the eye of the beholder, individuals are free to reward others as they choose. They are free to associate with whomever they want, and, as employers, they are free to hire, fire, promote, demote, or pay employees as they choose. The familiar employment-at-will doctrine is based on a libertarian assumption. Employers may fire and employees may quit “at will.” There need be no reason or cause, morally right or wrong, only individual choice. Individuals have no right to a job and no right to keep a job even if they fulfill the job requirements. Employment is strictly an employer’s choice."(44)

"Most libertarians do not approve of the limitation on employment discrimination based on protected classifications. The reason should be obvious. Discrimination is not unjust, in any area of life including employment, if the decision to discriminate is not directly coerced. The real injustice lies with the antidiscrimination laws, which coerce individual choices. Lookism is no exception. Beauty prejudice and discrimination that are in the eye—and at the hand— of the beholder are just. They are just not only in romance and marriage but also in employment."(45)

"Despite the reservations of philosophers, desert remains a popular standard of justice. Although not usually acknowledged, it is a traditional, conservative standard. The focus is on some feature or features of the person who receives the benefit (reward or prize), not the bestower of the benefit or the benefit itself. The concept of desert seems to have several bases: effort, achievement, performance, productivity, and contribution. Merit, which involves excellence and virtue, is a closely related concept. Effort, regardless of philosophical justification, is probably the most familiar basis."(45)

"As noted, one of the problems with desert is that it is difficult to ascribe credit for actions that are influenced by heredity and environment. As we have seen, this is an important problem that Rawls tried to address by arguing that our natural assets and initial social circumstances are morally arbitrary. Libertarians maintain that these assets and circumstances are morally irrelevant. Conservatives do not see the moral necessity of separating choices and actions for which we are responsible from the influences of heredity and environment for which we are not. (...) The significant factors for both kinds of conservatives are our efforts and what we have made of ourselves out of the assets and circumstances we have been given by God, chance, heredity or environment, not the assets and initial social circumstances themselves."(46)

"Jobs should be analyzed to determine the traits, knowledge, and skills a person should possess to fulfill them. These traits and required knowledge and skills should be codified in a job description which is the only just basis of hiring. Employees should not be hired on the basis of traits that are irrelevant to a job. Hence, gender, race, nationality, age, and handicap are usually not relevant. Handicap is perhaps the most ambiguous. Beauty should be no exception, unless it can be shown that beauty is related to achievement, performance, productivity, or contribution—one or more of the bases of desert. Decisions about promotion and remuneration should also be similarly deserved."(47)

"It also means that we should not enlist the coercive power of the state to try to eradicate beauty discrimination. The state is likely to fail because of the difficulty in conclusively identifying beauty discrimination, and state intervention is not justified on moral grounds. Laissez-nous faire, laissez-nous passer, until it can be shown that beauty discrimination is unjust."(48)

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