Question: What is the Objectivist view on beauty? Does beauty hold an important fact in judging people?
Answer: What is human beauty to begin with?
People sometimes speak of a beautiful soul or similarly abstract beautiful qualities, but for the moment let us confine ourselves to beauty as a physical characteristic. Beauty in this sense is a physical form and comportment that is appealing to other humans. It is characterized by regularity of features, height, and health. Now that food is cheap and the poor are fat, it is considered beautiful to be rather thin. In the past, when the poor were starving, it was considered beautiful to be plump.
Physical beauty is tied to sexual attraction, since beautiful people are widely considered, other things equal, more attractive mates. And of course, there are sexual differences in standards of beauty, with women being especially praised for grace and men especially praised for strength, for example.
Objectivism is a philosophy of independence. And its independent attitude extends to assessing beauty. We all need to make up our own minds about what really is beautiful.
But, assuming we do approach the issue with our own, independent point of view, how should we judge people with respect to beauty?
We judge people in two basic ways: morally and teleologically.
We can judge people as morally good or evil. This refers to the degree to which people choose to think and act rationally, and consequently to the degree to which they act on the premise of life (as long as they choose to keep living). This is a judgment on how they guide theiractions: what values they choose, and what method they use to obtain those values.
We might rightly judge individuals to be morally good or virtuous to the degree that their beauty is the result of their choices, and to the degree that their efforts to be beautiful are contextually appropriate for them. Perhaps you know the kind of people I mean: they take care of themselves physically and take care to present themselves well in public.
Compare such persons with those who are slovenly and take little care of themselves: the difference in how they look is moral in this case.
However, beauty is a value only when pursued in the broader context of a rational, independent life. It is by no means a fundamental value. Rather, beauty is a value when it comes as an effect or contributor to health. This is often the case: getting in better physical shape almost always makes one more beautiful. It is also a value to the degree it pleases other people one cares about and to the degree it facilitates one’s ability to gain values from other independent, rational people.
To the degree that one’s beauty is tied up in one’s clothing, physical traits, and one’s style and manner, it can be developed. In fact, many people put a lot of attention on making themselves look more beautiful, or wishing they were more beautiful. However, I think developing one’s beauty solely to dazzle others has an element of second-hand living to it; it is shaping basic aspects of oneself to the desires of others. In pursuing beauty, is one’s self-image focused on one’s own goals and needs, or on what society demands?
Rational goals should begin with health, productive work, and friendships and trade relations based on shared values. Only in the context of a life oriented toward these values does attention to societal standards and others’ desires constitute pursuit of one’s own well-being, rather than self-sacrifice.
Still, beauty is not always or even mostly a chosen value to begin with. Physical beauty is in large part a trait one is born with, like a disposition toward height, strength, or intelligence. Beauty also alters with age. Most any person in his late teens or early twenties is likely to be rather beautiful. A person in his sixties is rather likely not to. Like other traits, given one’s physical characteristics, one can make oneself more or less beautiful. But there are limits set by science and prudence. One can’t be morally judged for traits one did not cause and cannot undo. I am bald, but that is not a moral failing.
The second basic way we judge people is teleologically, i.e., in relation to the benefit or harm they might do to us and our values. This isn’t the same as judging them morally because here we are concerned with the total effect certain people might have on our lives, which will be the result not only of what those people do or make of themselves, but also of traits they possess even though they never chose them (such as traits they were born with).
If we are choosing players for a basketball team, height is an important value to us, even if prospective team members didn’t choose their heights. If we are selling luxury cars, we need customers with money—and, within a range, we shouldn’t care whether they made their own wealth or whether they inherited it. Similarly, if we are looking for customer service agents, we would prefer that they be able to create a positive impression on other people—i.e., that they have beauty of person and manner—regardless of how they came to possess this talent. No one should ever have to apologize for ability or talent; nor is beauty a reproach on others who aren’t as well endowed.
So to some degree, when we meet other individuals, we should judge their beauty (or lack of beauty) in two parts. We should judge all of their attributes and abilities teleologically in relation to our purposes. Do they contribute to our personal goals? Beauty will be part of that mix.
It is also true that in judging the abilities of other individuals, we are usually most interested in the well-spring of their ability to provide values, namely their rationality and their rational virtues. But this is a moral judgment. So we can judge others as simply beautiful or not, just as we would note whether they are tall or not. However, insofar as we want to develop a trade relation with them, we may want to know to what degree their beauty is a result of their virtues, or to what extent it exists in spite of their vices.
In sexual relations, Objectivism advocates a unified approach to the mind and body of another person. It is wrong to deprecate beauty in one’s lover, and it is equally wrong to focus on a lover’s physical beauty while ignoring other attributes like character, talents, knowledge, skills, and personality.
Beauty is not an end-in-itself, but is a value in relation to more fundamental goods it represents. It shouldn’t be taken out of context, but like any beneficial or pleasing trait, it should be cultivated and enjoyed as part of an independent, productive life aimed at happiness.