Ugliness and the Judgmental Society

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.”

Some Replies

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.



About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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9 Responses to Ugliness and the Judgmental Society

  1. Mel Bartley says:

    I hope everyone has not forgotten what happened to the ugly duckling??

  2. Thanks Mel! The irony was apparent to me, but the picture was too cute to resist including.

  3. Ben Baumberg says:

    A really interesting post, from a really interesting NYTimes article (and I agree that Anderson is quite unconvincing in places). It partly relates to a whole debate that blew up in the UK in the last few weeks about Hakim’s ‘erotic capital’, which I’ve blogged about before.

    Two questions:

    1. The issue that particularly interests me is whether inequalities in other domains can be transformed into inequalities of beauty. (Beauty – or at least erotic capital – being much more than the luck of genes). Which I think changes the issues at stake.

    2. Presumably the same arguments also apply to personality, given the strong evidence on the importance of non-cognitive skills for labour market success? And if so, then this is where the dividing lines become more difficult – if prosocial personalities are partly a reflection of prior advantage, then luck egalitarianism becomes tricky, if you consider ‘luck’ as having a personality that enables you to make good decisions. (Presumably someone has written about this?)

    • Hi Ben,

      It was great to re-read that post of yours. Erotic capital seems broader and more comprehensive than “ugliness,” which is an extreme deficiency in beauty.

      1. Yes, that seems clearly right. Some people have access to monetary resources that enhance their erotic capital or at least reduce their ugliness — plastic surgery being the example par excellence. I’m not sure whether this has any real normative importance, but it highlights a point that we continually make on this blog: inequality begets more inequality.

      2. That’s a really interesting point. I don’t see on what grounds the luck egalitarian would deprive the shy or antisocial of compensatory resources. A shy personality might be something analogous to an expensive taste, a person does not entirely control whether they acquire it (but arguably once they have it, it’s within their power to nurture the habit or decrease it).


  4. Very interesting post, B. The response you give to Anderson actually mirrors her own view. Here’s p. 96 of her essay from _Measuring Justice_ (Brighouse & Robeyns, eds., 2010):

    You’ll see also that Anderson’s view also provides something of a response to the second objection you entertain, the one partially invoking the proposition that “even if ugliness is a socially constructed category…it emerges out of no particular form of resource imbalance…” Part of Anderson’s view, qua capability approach, is that people can have claims on the state to remedy an injustice that does not stem from a resource imbalance and, more importantly, could never be addressed via resource transfers. Her prime example here is anti-gay attitudes. No one thinks that giving gays more resources to compensate for the discrimination they face will address the real underlying injustice. (Not sure if you’re familiar with it, but Jonathan Wolff has a nice conceptual scheme for enumerating the different modes a state may use to rectify injustice, with resource transfers being just one mode. See this paper for a taste:

    I don’t think you quite address the worry mentioned in the context of my earlier blog post. My suggestion was that if cosmic bad luck _as such_ is the basis of injustice, then we need a good reason to see our obligations–which I take to be discharged through the state–as obligations to _this_ or _that_ set of cosmically unlucky persons. Those who are unlucky (and very much so) outside our borders are often not give the same degree of consideration that we give to compatriots (and I assume your positive proposal [whatever it might be] would preserve at least some of this bias). But your response to the second objection (which at one point invokes Rawls) seems to assume from the start that the state’s attention is properly directed toward members. This may be the right conclusion, but we do need a reason for drawing it. I’m not saying there is no such reason—indeed I think it exists–but I’m just always curious in what others think it is.

  5. Paul,

    That’s scary! I wish I had read that paper before I put forward my critique. Anderson insists that we can compensate for the stigmatizing condition without endorsing the underlying value — I think that’s plausible, but it seems somewhat contrary to her original paper (I still need to read the full paper on capabilities, and so I’ll suspend judgment).

    I also need to give the Wolff paper a proper read. What is your thought here? Is it the case that we can tell a person that suffers a disadvantage in two domains (lack of respect, less money because of ugliness) that we, the state, can only remedy one form of disadvantage (the money), but one is better than none?

    That’s true — I didn’t exactly address your point about why basing claims on resources on cosmic injustices will lead to the problem you suggest. I don’t think that the problem follows, but it’s sort of a side issue, since my own preferred normative conception, and most of the competitors, base claims on some other set of social or economic connections between fellow citizens. Here, maybe I was too quick to dismiss the way in which ugliness emerges out of specific social relations, and therefore why an ugly person in our society has a stronger claim on resources than an ugly person in some other society.

    I’ll provide more thoughts soon, but I wanted to offer a few quick impressions.

  6. Pingback: Saving ‘erotic capital from itself | Inequalities

  7. Pingback: Why erotic capital still matters | Inequalities

  8. Reblogged this on davidnoahperelman and commented:
    This is very true. Being judgemental creates more inequality and also hurts creativity and openness.

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