Ethics Train Wreck Warning: Affirmative Action for the Hideous

You won't need that portrait any more, Dorian...the Americans with Disabilities Act has you covered!

It is rare that an ethics train wreck of culture-wide proportions can be prevented with a firm, “Shut up, and go away!” This appears to be one of those times, however, and if anyone is reluctant, I hereby volunteer for the job.

Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas, is shilling for his book, “Beauty Pays,” in which he proves the unremarkable fact that being attractive is an advantage in society , and being unattractive is an impediment. He recently hit the op-ed pages of the New York Times, writing, among other things, this:

“Why this disparate treatment of looks in so many areas of life? It’s a matter of simple prejudice. Most of us, regardless of our professed attitudes, prefer as customers to buy from better-looking salespeople, as jurors to listen to better-looking attorneys, as voters to be led by better-looking politicians, as students to learn from better-looking professors. This is not a matter of evil employers’ refusing to hire the ugly: in our roles as workers, customers and potential lovers we are all responsible for these effects.”

“How could we remedy this injustice?”

Whoa! There it is, the magic words that open the door for ham-handed social architects to do what they always to do, try to remedy the results of natural human proclivities and preferences with laws. Hamermesh goes on to seriously propose what could be called affirmative action for really ugly people, those who are handicapped, the worst of the worst, by their hideousness, as well as legal remedies when people feel those with superior looks were unlawfully favored for jobs and promotions. He also wants ugliness covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I would really like to see a study on people who think like this, for they have brought far more misery on the U.S. through the decades than all discrimination against the ugly. Such academics, these mushy-brained wastes of higher education, should be discriminated against, perhaps by laws requiring us to laugh loudly at everything they say or write.

It is not injustice that being beautiful is advantageous, but biology. Like so many other biases, the preference for the beautiful has ancient genetic causes, but appearance is only one characteristic out of dozens that every one of us brings to personal and professional relationships, along with intelligence, wisdom, endurance, height, charm, charisma, athletic ability, talent, strength and more. All of these confer advantages, and the absence of any of them is disadvantageous, perhaps due to the biases of others, but not necessarily. All of them are also, to varying extents, variable by their owners.

There are many professions where attractiveness is a legitimate job requirement, including the obvious ones, show business and modeling. The average actress in Hollywood is far, far more attractive in every way than the people you or I see walking on the streets, even the better looking ones. For these people, good looks may be their best asset, indeed, the only area in which they can stand out from the crowd. They may not be very bright, or agile, or eloquent, but they make our hearts skip a beat because they are so drop-dead gorgeous. Hamermesh thinks this is unjust.

Others of us carry ugliness that we have bestowed on ourselves, Dorian Gray-style. Our faces can show bad habits and lack of discipline, scars may be the results of a violent nature; shifty eyes betray dishonesty; deep wrinkles our difficulty in coping with life. Or in ugliness can also linger character and intelligence. Hamermesh proposes reducing the complex factor of looks to an easily litigated “scale.”

Utter nonsense, and dangerous nonsense too, The lack of physical beauty takes one of the many assets available to us off the table, so if we are wise and diligent, we develop others. Abe Lincoln was a troll, but he was smart, and made himself smarter. If your face is frightening, you can grow a beard and build up your body. You can learn to use language, or train your voice; you can master a talent. Or, and you knew this was coming, you can learn to be very, very good. Character is largely within our own control, and good character is valuable, attractive,rare, and a job asset.

Of course, in his next book, Hamermesh will argue for affirmative action for compulsive liars and the incorrigibly rude.

I’m not going to list all of the ways a “lookism” prohibition with a special quota for pug-uglies in the workplace would encourage abuse, litigation, and chaos—three minutes of thought will allow you to do  that yourself. My personal favorite unintended consequence would be the mildly unattractive who mutilate themselves to gain a competitive advantage, say, by tattooing a picture of a naked Joy Behar on their faces. The exercise is tempting and fun, but I’ll leave it to you. I will stay within my chosen realm to note that this isn’t the job of the law, but of ethics. We all need to be aware of our own irrational biases, and when we realize that we are unreasonably favoring the attractive or being unfair to the ugly—and it is our obligation to learn how to recognize our biases and minimize their unjust effects—stop it, and do the right thing. The laws proposed by the professor and his kith, however, would warp the natural path of life, in which each of us takes what we are born with, and strives to make our total package of assets as great as possible, and to maximize their power with hard work, diligence, determination, and character.

Deficits in looks, perceived or real, have helped create great and successful Americans as diverse as John Adams, Herman Kahn, Sarah Caldwell, Judith Anderson, Barbra Streisand, Lincoln, Don Mossi, George Washington, Robert Reich and Woody Allen, as well as many more non-celebrities in every field and industry. Our weaknesses motivate us to find our strengths, or if we have none, to invent or develop them.  Hamermesh and his many political allies, who foolishly believe that not treating every human as an indistinguishable clone is cruel and intolerable, would condemn the ugly to permanent victimhood, dependent on the state for their success and happiness.

That is not a proper role of government, nor is it the way to motivate each of us to make of our life what we can. Clarence Darrow, the great American trial lawyer and progressive reformer who was no great looker himself, had a favorite poem that described his philosophy of life that he quoted often, notably in his own defense when he was being tried for bribing a jury in 1912. (He was guilty, by the way, but he got off…he had a great lawyer.) I think of it often, and it is relevant here. It is called “Whist,” by a lawyer, statesman, poet, civil war veteran and card player named Eugene Fitch Ware.

I think I’ll send it to Prof. Hamermesh. Nah, he won’t understand.


Hour after hour the cards were fairly shuffled
     And fairly dealt, but still I got no hand;
The morning came, and with a mind unruffled
     I only said, “I do not understand.”

Life is a game of whist. From unseen sources
     The cards are shuffled and the hands are dealt;
Blind are our efforts to control the forces
     That, though unseen, are no less strongly felt.

I do not like the way the cards are shuffled,
     But yet I like the game and want to play;
And through the long, long night will I, unruffled,
     Play what I get until the break of day.

[Thanks to reader Elizabeth for the tip]

5 thoughts on “Ethics Train Wreck Warning: Affirmative Action for the Hideous

  1. I discovered long ago what hammermesh wrote about. I was a DOD executive and worked closely with an Air Force general who was about 5’3, out-of-proportion nose, weaselly eyes, and a rasping voice. He was brilliant. When he moved on he was replaced by a general with movie star looks. Nice, and half as smart.

    Thus my “Ugly General” theory: when faced with a choice , always go for the ugly general (or salesman, or manager) because he (or she) had to be extra good to overcome the disadvantage and get to his current position.

  2. That’s right. I also learned long ago that the less attractive job candidates often had other terrific qualities…that they might never have developed if they could succeed on ugliness alone.

  3. Jack,
    Allow me to raise another obvious point .. beautiful to WHOM exactly (eye of the beholder and all that)? I may not be most people’s idea of a shower fantasy, but even I’ve been lucky enough to find a woman or two willing to overlook my grotesque features from time to time.

    Also, not to blow a hole in Bob’s theory, but I’m also terrible at everything.


  4. I agree with Ethics Bob and celestialsquare.

    Can you just imagine a whole new bureaucracy developed, complete with “attractiveness committees” and “ugliness quotients?”

    But along celestialsquare’s comment: Does anyone remember the great “Twilight Zone” episode that focused on a beautiful woman and handsome man in the hospital, waiting for surgery to correct their “defects,” and consoling each other about being so hideous? Very touching, if confusing. The whole thing was shot in shadows, and after each character was wheeled into the O.R, the doctors and nurses were finally shown on camera. They all had pig faces!!! A great metaphor on how culture defines beauty.

    Throughout history, and today, different cultures have defined beauty in different ways… And gee whiz! As a nation of immigrants how are we to define a “standard” of beauty and ugliness? How would traditional differences in looks by race and ethnicity come into play? (Hitler found one way, didn’t he? Hammermesh just takes the opposite tack.) Since we can defy anyone to “calculate” beauty, so we can also defy someone to come up with an ugliness calculation (with nothing related to race, ethnicity or to socioeconomic status of course (no money for dentist=bad teeth, e.g., bad diet means bad skin, lack of iodine means goiters, etc.): Nope, too judgmental. Can’t balance the budget, but we can surely produce legislation and an agency to “protect” the unattractive… that is, if we can DEFINE the unattractive.

    And by the way, shouldn’t we also pay special attention to the uglier of the other animals on the planet? Could a family get a tax break for adopting a really, really ugly dog and saving him from euthanasia at the pound? Monuments to hyenas or vultures?

    All of the above is obvious. Just amusing myself.

    The only real question is: how in hell do morons like Hammermesh get publishers, or press coverage, or anyone to take them seriously? The ongoing hunt for the “disadvantaged” has reached truly ridiculous proportions, and the proposals to “even the playing field” even worse.

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