A Philosopher's Blog

Appearance & Discrimination

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on June 10, 2010
Hooters Bikini Contest. Annual bikini contest ...
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Dahlia Lithwick wrote an interesting essay in the June 14th issue of Newsweek about the law and beauty bias. This got me thinking about the issues she raised.

It is reasonable well established that attractive people generally have an advantage over people who are less attractive. It is also reasonable well established that some businesses discriminate against people who fail to meet up with their standards of attractiveness. For example, Hooters famously fired a waitress for being too heavy.

Currently, there is little legal protection against discrimination based on appearance. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether there should be such protection.

On one hand, it could argued that there is no need for such laws. First, such laws could be seen as intuitively absurd. A law against not liking ugly people? How absurd!  Of course, this might simply be an appeal to ridicule: the mere fact that something can be laughed at or seems silly is hardly prove that it is.

Second, there is the reasonable concern that such laws would set a legal precedent for even more laws that would lead to either real legal harms or at least to a degree of absurdity that would be undesirable. For example, what if laws were passed to prevent “discrimination” against people for being foolish. Of course, this could be seen as a slippery slope argument. Unless, of course, reasons can be given showing that these negative results would follow.

Third, there is also the reasonable concern that people are naturally biased in favor of attractive people and also biased against people they regard as unattractive.  This can be seen as being analogous to the fact that people tend to be biased in favor of people who are pleasant, friendly or entertaining while they tend to biased against people who are unpleasant, unfriendly or boring.  It would seem absurd to pass laws that attempt to compensate for the bias people have in favor of such people. If the analogy holds between looks and personality, then it would seem absurd to pass laws against discriminating based on appearance.

Despite these points, there is a rather significant reason to favor such a law. This reason has nothing to do with unattractiveness but rather to do with the notion of relevance. From a moral standpoint, to fire or otherwise mistreat a person in a professional context (for the law to cover personal relationships would be rather absurd) based on appearance would seem to be unacceptable. To use a specific example, if a Hooters Girl is doing her job as a waitress to fire her because she weighs “too much” would be unjust. After all, as long as she is physically able to perform her job, then her weight would not be relevant.

One possible reply to this is that there are certain jobs in which attractiveness would be a relevant factor. To use an obvious example, super models are supposed to be beautiful and it would be rather odd for someone of average or less appearance to argue that they are a victim of discrimination if they were not chosen to be a supermodel. To use an analogy, if a job required a great deal of physical strength or a high degree of intelligence or creativity it would hardly be discrimination if people who lacked those attributes were not hired for such jobs.

That, it might be said, can be seen as a crucial part of the matter. If appearance is a legitimate asset and actually part of certain jobs, then to hire (or not hire) people based on appearance would not be discriminatory in these cases.

Of course, there is the concern  that there should not be jobs that are based on physical appearance. Such jobs, it might be argued, are inherently discriminatory and also serve to create various problems. Feminists, for example, often present such arguments. However, it could also be argued that there should not be jobs based on other natural assets such as wit, humor, intelligence or creativity. After all, if valuing beauty is somehow wrong, then it would seem that valuing these other qualities would also be wrong.

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6 Responses

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  1. freddiek said, on June 10, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Should a wholesale distinction be made between the assets or liabilities we are born with and those we work to achieve or labor to overcome?

    What role if any should the government play in attacking the problem?

    If you are among those who feel the government should abstain, we should immediately repeal the 15th, 19th, and probably the 14th amendments and let the problem resolve itself in confusion, discrimination, and civil strife.

    If you feel the government has a role, the Dr’s essay is the beginning of a mapping of the underbelly of a huge iceberg that we’ll be contending with for years to come.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 11, 2010 at 5:15 pm

      The state should be in the role of ensuring that discrimination does not take place in the public arena (employment, housing, etc.). This is a matter of justice-that citizens should not be denied an equality of opportunity. Of course, the qualities that are relevant can be debated. For example, if a person is a jerk, then she might have a harder time getting certain jobs. But would she be discriminated against unjustly? What is needed, I suppose, is a theory of relevance.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on June 10, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Is it OK for employers be biased against lazy people?

    And who knew icebergs had underbellies? Presumably they are hard underbellies in contrast to soft ones.

    • freddiek said, on June 10, 2010 at 7:29 pm

      TJ: 🙂 Hell. Some people on here didn’t realize there were laws governing yard sales, right? To put your mind at ease:

      “2 : the underside of a body or mass”
      From Merriam-Webster’s Online dictionary.

      or def #1 from audioenglish.net
      “• UNDERBELLY (noun)
      1. lower side”

      “2. the lower surface of an object; underside: the underbelly of an airplane.”
      from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary at dictionary.infoplease.com

      But it’s all relative. Break off a chunk of the berg and place it in the sun–it won’t be hard for long.
      And I hear even whole cities have sordid underbellies!

      Answer to your first question: Bias ‘for’ lazy or incompetent workers occurs frequently when the lazy employee is the employer’s relative or good buddy. There’s even an “n” word for it. And a “c” word. No federal laws against cronyism; in fact people inside the Beltway seem to thrive on it.

      Employers should be forewarned, however, that matters become much more complicated when the lazy person is beautiful. There are laws against sexual harassment.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 11, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      Interestingly, when I was in a sensitivity training class one of the “teachers” was listing off attributes that could not be discriminated against. Another professor said that many of those attributes just seemed to be qualities of being a poor student (inability to pay attention, inability to do work in a timely manner, poor time management skills, and so on). At one point she even asked if “being lazy” was a disability that could not be discriminated against. It was an interesting exchange.

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