There’s an ugly truth: being attractive pays well, and being unnatractive is a major penalty in the job market. Those with physical appearances rated in the bottom earn on average $230,000 less over the lifetime than those with rated good looks. Daniel Hamermesh poses this question in the NY Times last week:
Why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?
In particular, physical appearance could be designated as a protected category in the federal law like race, sex, or disability status. Hamermesh argues that people that are discriminated against because of their looks could thus sue employers. And, as he points out, several states already have laws barring discrimination on the basis of physical appearance. (From here on, I’ll follow Hamermesh by referring to the group of people that could make such a claim as “ugly,” although this is a problematic term)
Hamermesh briefly runs through some practical difficulties with such a regime: it’s difficult to define who counts as ugly for the purposes of the law, those people that are discriminated against are unlikely to want to step forward because of the stigma, and waging a defense on behalf of the ugly is likely to be economically and politically costly and could thus undermine the causes of other deserving groups.
I Didn’t Ask to Look Like This
Let’s grant that these problems could be resolved. Should we in principle compensate the ugly?
This connects to a well-worn debate in political philosophy. Luck egalitarians believe that fairness requires that we compensate those that are badly off through no fault of their own, and not those that are badly off because of their voluntary actions. On the luck egalitarian thesis, we should compensate the ugly for the unfair hand that the universe has dealt them. After all, nobody asked to be born with certain physical traits, and many people wish that they did not have those traits. Completely compensating for this disadvantage might require extensive remediation beyond simply offering the opportunity to sue for blatant discrimination. Perhaps very badly looking people should receive extra government welfare equal to the amount that they would have received if they had a normal appearance.
The Judgmental Society
Two related responses come to mind:
In her now classic essay against luck egalitarianism, Elizabeth Anderson argues that luck egalitarianism is predicated upon a flawed understanding of equality. By basing claims for resources on assessments of inferiority, luck egalitarianism expresses “contemptuous pity” for certain disadvantaged groups in society. In Anderson’s thought experiment, the luck egalitarian state would express its compensatory impulse by sending ugly people a letter telling them that they are entitled to a check because of some personal defect that is not valued by society. But this is clearly degrading. Anderson says, “to require citizens to display evidence of personal inferiority in order to get aid from the state is to reduce them to groveling for support.” Not only is it humiliating, it also implies that the state is entangling itself in very personal judgments of social status and value.
Second, basing claims for social resources solely on the presence of cosmic bad luck – like being born with unfavorable features – might commit the state to a far larger role in redistribution than most egalitarians would accept. Many people think that the government should only provide compensation in cases in which unequal shares result from specific institutions or social relations in a society. Arguably, even if ugliness is a socially constructed category, and one that leaves some people worse off, it emerges out of no particular form of resource imbalance or failure to protect the vulnerable (leaving aside ugliness stemming from injuries). When the state gets involved in compensating the ugly it opens itself up to other claimants that have been dealt a bad hand by the universe. Moreover, if cosmic injustice (rather than unfair economic institutions) is all that is required it’s hard to see why one society can shut out claimants from other societies. In a previous blog post Paul Kelleher made what I take to be a related point, “once we make cosmic unfairness the primary scourge to be addressed by a just government, there is no reason to restrict a given society’s scope of concern to the members of that society.”
I think it is possible to answer both of these objections. In response to Anderson, one might argue that when society singles out a class of individuals as requiring compensation they do not need to pass judgment on who is actually inferior. Not all people would want to step forward to receive compensation on the basis of their looks, but those that do receive compensation might be told “we wish that people in our society did not discriminate against you, but we recognize that without rectifying this discrimination you will be even worse off.”
In response to the second objection one can argue that ugliness is not that different than lacking a particular talent. Most egalitarians are inclined to take some measures to correct for imbalances in talents. For example, on the Rawlsian conception of justice, we correct for these imbalances through a Difference Principle that organizes social resources to the maximal benefit of the worst off (a group that surely includes the untalented). This kind of arrangement would arguably not go as far as allowing the ugly to sue for discrimination (particularly if employers can show that good looks are necessary to be competitive in a certain job). Nevertheless, by classifying physical appearance as a form of talent, we recognize that the benefits that flow from possessing those attributes are morally arbitrary. Nobody deserves to look good, and nobody deserves to look bad. We should organize our social institutions in a way that provides as much social assistance as we can within the constraints of fair institutions to those that ended up with the set of talents that are not rewarded by our society.
My own thought on this issue is a bit mixed. It is important that society recognize the ways in which morally arbitrary preferences and standards end up causing pain and disadvantage to certain groups, but money seems like a very imperfect remedy. What many people want is respect, and providing monetary compensation falls far short of social respect. It is also important that we offer people that are discriminated against a remedy through the legal system, but for all the reasons Hamermesh cites, this system is likely to be unwieldy and unpopular. Like beauty, some concept of ugliness will always be with us. But our society that is hyper-focused on looks may end up serving very few people, and cause much unnecessary heartache for the majority that feels like they can never measure up.