Beauty: Skin-Deep, in the Eye of the Beholder and Valuable?
Guest Contributor

13 March 2005

Posted by Alexander Nehamas

Let me make some dogmatic remarks about beauty and subjectivity.  We can discuss them in more detail on the air tomorrow.

There is such a thing as beauty that is only skin-deep.  It is the beauty of appearance, what we call "looking good."  It has little to do with personality, character, wit or morality, and that is because anything that applies to how things look is not a reliable guide to many of their other qualities. 

The beauty of appearance -- what we can judge, say, by looking at a photograph of a face -- is something that psychologists have been investigating a lot recently.  In general, they show people photographs of faces and ask them to rank them in terms of their beauty.  Since these are digital photographs, it is possible to combine them into composite photographs.  What seems to be the case is (1) the larger the composite photograph (the more features of individual faces it combines) the more people are likely to consider it beautiful and (2) there is remarkable agreement, both within and between different cultures, about which faces are more beautiful than which.

Several hypotheses have been offered to account for these phenomena, and it seems agreed that they have something to do with the likelihood of reproductive success.  The more features a face combines, the more average it is.  Now it is very counterintuitive to say that the average is what strikes us as beautiful (since the people or works of art we find beautiful usually stand out against their background), but it turns out that average members of groups are less likely to be subject to external evolutionary pressures and more likely to be healthy and survive in the long run.  (That may suggest that even beauty that is skin-deep shows something about the nature of the person it characterizes.)

But the fact that there is significant agreement about such judgements (as well as the fact that it is explained in terms of evolutionary success) suggests, in turn, that BEAUTY THAT IS ONLY SKIN-DEEP IS NOT SIMPLY IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER.

Now, not only are these psychological results counterintuitive -- they also contradict another aspect of everyday experience.  Most people in the known universe have, at some time or other, loved someone and most people in the known universe have, at some time or other, been loved by someone, though that is not always, unfortunately, the same person.  But the point is (here I am being very dogmatic) that it is impossible to love someone or something that you do not find beautiful.  And so, since most people in the world are not, by the evolutionary standards above (or even by the standards applicable to supermodels, male and female) beautiful, either most people in the world are deceived all the time or there is more to beauty, so to speak, than meets the eye.

We must be careful here, for the easy way out is to say that there is such a thing as "inner" or "psychological" beauty, to be contrasted with the beauty of appearance.  But that is only easy, and nothing else -- in particular, it is not true.  For even if you love someone on account of their character or wit or whatever, these features will manifest themselves in the appearance of the person in question: you will literally perceive them in their face, their posture, their voice and their behavior.  That is, a person you love will not appear to you as they do to others who don't love them or as they appear to you when you are indifferent to them.

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