In defense of the beauty bias.

From a review by Lindsay Beyerstein of Deborah Rhode’s The Beauty Bias:

It should go without saying that discrimination on the basis of appearance is unjust, especially when it comes to features individuals have little or no control over.

Should it really “go without saying”?

Why is discrimination on the basis of appearance more unjust than discrimination on the basis of, say, personality or intelligence?

In the opening paragraph of her review, Beyerstein concedes that discrimination may be permitted in situations where “looks are directly relevant to…job performance”. I assume she’s referring to jobs like modelling, or acting, or stripping.

But if it’s true that people are more comfortable around attractive people, wouldn’t appearance always be relevant to job performance?

When building a workforce, it’s considered normal to screen out employees based on an intuitive sense that their personality will be a poor fit in the office. If a boss can reject me because I’m too shy, or too brassy, or too socially awkward, isn’t it just as logical to reject me because my misshapen nose will make my co-workers uncomfortable?

Perhaps Beyerstein would say that I can change my personality, but not my misshapen nose. I would say just the opposite. It’s much easier for an ugly person to get a nose job than it is for a shy person to get a personality overhaul.

What about intelligence? Once again, I don’t see how discrimination against the dumb is less unjust than discrimination against the ugly. Beyerstein points out that,

Obese women earn 12% less than their thinner counterparts with comparable qualifications. Obese women are more likely to live in poverty, even after controlling for other factors.

I’m pretty sure if you subbed in the word “dumb” where “obese” appears in the preceding paragraph, it would be equally true. In fact I’d venture that low intelligence is an even greater predictor of poverty than obesity. Why is it fair that dumb people are allowed to languish in menial jobs while smart people enjoy scholarships and high-paying careers?

Intelligence is not evenly distributed. Some people are born with a great deal of it. Most of us have to make do with a little. Sure, I can compensate by hard work and study, but no matter how earnestly I plow through A Brief History Of Time, I’m never going to be Stephen Hawking.

How, then, can a meritocracy based solely on intellectual capacity be just? Why should I earn half the salary of my smarter friends, solely because of an accident of birth?

If I were a dumb, good-looking person, I would resent the attempts of smart people like Lindsay Beyerstein (Master of Philosophy, Tufts University) and Deborah Rhode (Doctor of Law, Yale University) to take away the one competitive advantage I’ve got.

M.

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