Being ‘Appearance-Challenged’ When Looks Matter

Many years ago, an uncle of mine was talking about one of my distant cousins:  about how hard it would be for her to get married, because she was, you know, kind of, how do you say it, “ugly”? He didn’t use the word, of course. He said something like “Her face is a little, you know, kind of…” And then his voice trailed off. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Her looks were a singularity of sorts, a precipice to be approached with care, perhaps alluded to, hinted at, but not addressed. She faced spinsterhood as a punishment; why make matters worse with that kind of explicit reference?

A dozen or so years ago, in the course of a drunken conversation with my girlfriend and her friends, one of them, giggling loudly, said she always felt sorry for “ugly” people and always said a silent prayer when she saw one on New York City’s streets: “Girl, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but thank God it didn’t happen to me.” She was thankful that in life’s sweepstakes, her cards had come out just right. She had been saved, she had dodged the bullet; she could now try to make her way through this world unencumbered by homeliness of the worst kind.

So, pity in the first instance, and in the second too. In both cases, the appearance-challenged were women; in the first case, a particular woman, in the second, a class of women. (Though the initial reference was to “ugly people”, my interlocutor’ s use of “girl” seemed to indicate she had women in mind.)

Both these folks were correct in one cruel sense; we are an appearance-obsessed society. Looks matter. The data confirms it: if you are ‘good-looking’, you get more interviews, better jobs, higher salaries, live longer lives. You get better service in restaurants and stores; you’ll get seats offered to you. (Though there seems to be some evidence that being attractive works better for men than it does for women.) Psychologists have offered a variety of explanations for this bias–some of them, unsurprisingly enough, evolutionary in flavor. You can guess the outlines of those: partner-seeking takes many forms, including hiring at the workplace, or taking better care of your clients.

And so, my uncle saw his niece’s looks as a curse; she would not be able to find a suitable groom; she would be rejected again and again–as indeed, till that stage in point she had been, though I do not know if her looks were ever cited as the reason for why. And then, she would become a source of anxiety for her parents; perhaps even an economic burden. My ‘friend’–I use the scare quotes because I was never very friendly with her–also saw the looks of the folks she pitied as a curse. They wouldn’t be able to hook up; they would not be able to score; they would not be able to enjoy their youth’s appropriate quota of sexual abandon.

Talk of beauty being skin-deep was never going to make much headway against such deeply rooted discomfort.

Note: Needless to say, our society regards obesity as a form of ugliness, which, because it seems like a personal failing is to be castigated in especially severe terms.


A Bad Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage

I would have scarcely believed it possible, but a few short hours after teaching the naturalistic fallacy in my Philosophy of Biology class, I was exposed to an argument–from a professional philosopher–that, roughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon. This resistance then, has nothing to do with religion, God, or the divine sanctification. Rather, it is the scientific thing to do: resist gay marriage because it is against evolutionary demands made on us as a species. This means that active disapproval of homosexuality–societal and legal discrimination for instance–is an expression of a biological instinct and should not be condemned as a moral failing.

The outlines of this argument should be familiar to most folks. It has been made time and again and despite having been spectacularly debunked, it rises again and again, like a zombie, or your favorite refusing-to-die cinematic ghoul.

What this argument attempts–and fails–to do is derive a proposition with normative import from a set of propositions that are purely descriptive. This–as David Hume pointed out a long time ago in his A Treatise of Human Natureis an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to bridge the is-ought gap:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

This fallacy manifests itself in the current situation as follows. There are biological facts about us: We reproduce, we pass on our genes, various reproductive strategies are adopted, some work better than the others (in securing more offspring to whom we can pass on our genes). This much can be ascertained by observation and measurement. But what should  we do on noting these observations? The proponent of the argument noted above, wants to derive the following: Those reproductive strategies that work ‘better’ are ‘good’, and therefore should be encouraged, should be praised. The rest should be condemned. (Marriage, it will be noted, has been admitted as a successful reproductive strategy; this is a matter of empirical assessment and could well turn out to be false.)

But whence ‘better’, whence ‘good’? Why is ‘reproductive success’ a moral good to be sought? What is the source of that valuation and why is it allowed to override other values in the derivation above? Might we be allowed to admit other values in arriving at an alternative conclusion? Like, for instance, a more tolerant society is a ‘better’ society than one that isn’t? But then, we would be opening up a debate–conducted within some broad ethical and moral frameworks–on valuation, which is precisely what our protagonist didn’t want. He merely wanted the straightforward elevation of reproductive success to the preeminent moral value without further debate.

The tireless proponents of the so-called evolutionary arguments against same-sex marriage forget that efforts to read normative judgments off the historical workings out of the evolutionary process have as much difficulty in bridging the is-ought gap as any other species of argument. Calling upon biology here is not the scientifically sophisticated thing to do; it is merely to reveal one’s ignorance of the limitations of evolutionary explanation.