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Appearance, Discrimination, and Disadvantage

Appearance, Discrimination, and Disadvantage is a 3 year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, starting in September 2019.


Project Summary

We can be advantaged or disadvantaged in various ways by our appearance. When making job appointments selectors may, consciously or not, give preference to candidates with particular physical characteristics, for example, men who are tall or women who are slim. In their personal lives people may find specific looks attractive in a way that affects what relationships they form. Each of these involves discrimination on the basis of appearance with potentially serious ramifications for how well people's lives go. Indeed there is a large literature in Economics concerning the ways in which beauty "pays". But appearance discrimination has received surprisingly little attention in the burgeoning literature on the ethics of discrimination. The issue of when it is unjust, and why, is relatively uncharted territory. There are two key questions here: When is discrimination on the basis of appearance unjust? Even when discrimination on the basis of appearance is just can it generate unjust outcomes that ought to be addressed?

Appearance discrimination might seem unobjectionable in three kinds of case. First, when the discrimination is based on features of appearance that are qualifications for a job that is being filled, for example, when fashion models are selected on the basis of their looks. Second, when the discrimination is based on features of appearance that a candidate has chosen to adopt, such as tattoos or hairstyles, towards which customers, clients, or co-workers react unfavourably. Third, when the discrimination occurs in our personal lives, for example, in the choice of life-partners. But each of these forms of discrimination is potentially problematic, for each may express and reinforce sexist norms governing how we should look, or involve racially-biased ideals of attractiveness, or damage our interest in self-expression.

Indeed appearance discrimination is of great importance for understanding sexual and racial discrimination. Appearance norms, that is, norms governing how we should look, are often gender-specific and the material and psychological costs that women bear in trying to conform to them - and the costs they have to bear if they refuse to do so - are often much greater for them than for men. Furthermore, the ideas of attractiveness that provide content to appearance norms may be 'racialised', with lighter skin regarded as more appealing than darker skin, and hairstyles that are suited to the natural properties of the hair prevalent in particular racial groups regarded as unkempt. This makes the issue of when the possession of an appearance norm that others find attractive can be a legitimate qualification for a job especially important because counting it may exacerbate already existing forms of unjust disadvantage. This issue has often surfaced in public debate in connection with appearance codes for employees, for example, codes that require women to wear high-heeled shoes, or that prohibit dreadlocks, hair braids, and visible piercings or tattoos. Debate about these codes has tended to generate more heat than light. What is needed to illuminate them is a theory of when appearance discrimination is morally permissible, for this will have implications for when appearance codes can legitimately be imposed as a condition of employment.

The ethics of appearance discrimination also raises difficult questions for the legal system. Should appearance discrimination be made illegal? Even if various forms of discrimination on the basis of appearance are wrong or unjust, it does not follow automatically that we should legislate against them. There does seem to be a strong case for limited forms of legislation, especially when appearance discrimination aggravates existing forms of unjust discrimination, such as racial discrimination or sexual discrimination. But the case for more extensive regulation of appearance discrimination seems less compelling and it may be better to try to cultivate an ethos that involves a mixture of self-regulation backed by public disapproval, rather than to introduce a legal apparatus that aims to restrict it. In order to assess worries about using legislation to protect against appearance discrimination, we can learn from how it is dealt with by different legal systems.

Discrimination on the basis of visual appearance may also take place in our personal lives, for example, when choosing friends or life-partners. It is often supposed that this kind of discrimination lies beyond the scope of judgements of justice: it cannot be just or unjust. But this is not obviously true. To the extent that it is based on objectionable beliefs about moral inferiority, or involves treating people as if they were morally inferior, then it may be condemnable on grounds of justice. Still, it might be thought that there is nothing objectionable about discrimination in the choice of life-partners when it simply reflects a person's feelings of attraction. Even here, though, there may be scope for judgements of justice or injustice, even if they are best directed at social norms, structures, and processes rather than at individuals. Suppose, for example, that a person is not attracted to those of a particular race because he or she has internalised racially-biased norms concerning what is attractive.

At the back of these issues is the general question of whether the very same criteria we use for judging the permissibility of discrimination in selection decisions for jobs also apply when it comes to judging the permissibility of discrimination in our personal lives. Are there any good reasons for thinking that different criteria should apply? Does the particular importance of freedom of association in our personal lives make a difference to the judgements we should make about the discrimination that occurs there? Are there grounds for arguing that in our personal lives a personal prerogative applies that permits us to discriminate when the costs to us of not doing so would be sufficiently great? That may be the case, for example, when people have racialised preferences for lovers and life-partners, and would find it hard to realise the goods involved in personal or sexual relationships unless they discriminate against those from a particular racial group.

Even when discrimination on the basis of appearance is unobjectionable from a moral point of view, it will often make some people worse off than others through no fault of their own. It is here that luck egalitarians and social-relational egalitarians might seem to part company in their judgements about whether the distribution of goods which emerges from unobjectionable forms of appearance discrimination is unjust or not. Luck egalitarians seem committed to regarding a state of affairs as unjust when some are worse off in it than others through no fault of their own, with the consequence that they must object to inequalities that are a product of features of appearance that are not under a person's control. In contrast, social-relational egalitarians maintain that what matters is that people should regard and treat each other as equals. So it seems that they should have no objection to inequalities that emerge as a result of differences in appearance, so long as that condition is satisfied.

Social-relational egalitarians and luck egalitarians may not be as far apart on these issues as it initially seems, however. Even social-relational egalitarians must regard it as a matter of concern from the point of view of justice when the choices that people make about relationships and life-partners undermines the social standing of those who are adversely affected. Perhaps cases in which this happens are rare, but they may nevertheless occur. Suppose, for example, that a person suffers from a bad facial deformity. Other people recoil from him and as a result it is hard for him to make friends or to find a life-partner. In that case, he may be subject to domination, in that his social isolation may make him vulnerable to the arbitrary exercise of power by others.

Furthermore, even luck egalitarians may have reasons for resisting the idea that the distribution of goods such as friendship, love, and mutual sexual enjoyment come within the purview of justice. Even though these goods have deep effects on people's flourishing, they are not such that they can be distributed directly by institutions or through law or policy. Luck egalitarians may insist that theorising about justice should be subject to a feasibility constraint. This would rule out as inadequate any principle of distributive justice that it would be impossible to institutionalise because we lack the power or knowledge required to distribute the goods that it governs.

Some goods cannot be brought under the control of institutions because of the contingent fact that we lack the power or knowledge required to do so, whereas other goods cannot be brought under the control of institutions because of their very nature. Friendship, love, and mutual sexual enjoyment are in the second category: they cannot be distributed by institutions because they depend on appropriate feelings that cannot be commanded. However, this leaves open the possibility that various "surrogate goods" such as social contact and sexual pleasure might nevertheless be distributed through institutions and policy, and it would seem that luck egalitarians must regard these as falling within the purview of justice. Does this provide a reductio ad absurdum of luck egalitarianism, or is it better understood as an invitation to think more deeply about the kinds of deprivation that may be suffered by those regarded as unattractive, and the kinds of institutions and public policy that are needed to address them?