BEAUTY, they say, is in the eye of the beholder – although it’s probably more accurate to say it’s in the visual cortex of the beholder, but that’s a subject for a future blog. However, beauty performs many other functions. An elegantly stroked cover drive for four in cricket is somehow valued more than the hack over cow corner with the same result. The same is true for all sports. In maths the search always seems to be for the elegant solution to a problem. If it isn’t beautiful then the concern is that there must be something wrong with the solution. And as physicist Brian Greene claims, the universe itself is elegant – or at least it will be if string theory turns out to be correct. In ancient Greek philosophy Plato’s Theory of Forms is beautiful in its sheer simplicity. Beauty is often seen to be good, even if some artists try to undermine that concept, but is it morally good? Well, that’s the claim made by Heather Widdows in her new book Perfect Me.
In this book Widdows argues that the ‘beauty ideal is increasingly presenting itself as and functioning as an ethical ideal for very many people’. There is, she claims, a ‘duty to be beautiful’ and for those who ‘fall under it the beauty ideal provides a value framework against which individuals judge themselves, and others, as being good and bad’. And she continues: “As such, the beauty ideal is functioning for some, as their overarching moral framework, to which they must conform to think well of themselves irrespective of, and in addition to, other metrics by which they judge themselves.”
This heady stuff and she could easily be accused of ignoring the harm that the beauty ideal can do, if were not for the fact that Widdows recognises this problem and confronts it head on. “I do not mean to underplay the extreme harms that attach to a dominant and demanding beauty ideal. The harms to individuals who engage, individuals who do not engage, and to us all are extensive and devastating,” she writes, but adds that ‘to simply tell women not to engage is unrealistic and ineffective, and, as I will argue, profoundly unethical’. However, she adds: “How we look should not be, as increasingly it is, our very selves.”
Widdows makes the point early on in the book that beauty has long been associated with morality and refers to Plato for whom ‘beauty is the only spiritual thing we have by instinct, by nature, and it is love of beauty that sets us on the moral path towards goodness and moral virtue’. In contrast in many traditional stories and fairy tales ugliness and evil are considered to be one and the same – think of the ugly sisters in Cinderella. And the contrast also plays a significant role in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For some, Widdows argues, beauty is the ideal to work towards for and in itself, while for others it may also be a ‘means to other goods, and some may not value beauty at all’.
Widdows spends a considerable amount of time defining what is meant by beauty in the modern context but what it means essentially is that we ‘are good when we have resisted bad food…and eaten healthily’…while ‘not engaging in beauty activity is not merely a prudential failure, an aesthetic failure, or failure to conform to some social norm…but a moral failure’. However, Widdows does not herself ‘endorse beauty as an ethical ideal’ but rather that we ‘should recognise what is happening and part of this is an ethical turn’.
What are we to make of this argument? It may come as a shock to those of us who do not put much stock by beauty that we are not seen as being moral as others who do. But this isn’t really what Widdows is saying. So what is she saying? This is actually quite difficult to determine because although at best this book contains some subtle and nuanced arguments, at worst it can be quite confusing and muddled. But it seems to be that even if the beauty ideal fails as a moral ideal for some, we should at least acknowledge that for others it is. In that context she writes: “While it is the case that beauty matters more, it matters as well as and not instead of all the other qualifications, skills, and achievements necessary for success.” And: “If we carry on regardless, ever more isolated in our quest for the perfect me, the future will be bleak indeed.”
Is beauty really an ethical ideal rather than a delusion? One of the many problems with this assertion is that it only seems to be an ethical ideal for those who are or value beauty and it only them for whom beauty is a an ethical value, which is horribly circular and has no meaningful throughput. Indeed it is this circularity that circles infuriatingly throughout the book. Another major problem is that one cannot help feel that Widdows has simply committed a category error by conflating the sense of feeling good when we seek beauty with actually being good and surely these are not the same at all.
Further, valuing one’s own beauty, or at least seeking it for oneself, is an extraordinarily self-centred, egoistic activity that excludes other-regarding activities captured in the altruistic ideal. As such, for some at least, it doesn’t qualify as a moral ideal at all and those that think it does are merely deluded. However, it should be added that moral egoists might disagree!