Aporia: Is Physical Beauty Itself a Value?

by Jason Stotts

I often get asked, because I advocate that sexual attraction is a response to values, whether physical beauty is a value.  The intention of the question is, of course, to see if I think that physical beauty is a sufficient value to justify sexual activity.  I’ve always thought this was an interesting question and I think it’s time we analyzed it in depth—although I’m not sure I have an answer to this yet.  So, as with my other aporia, consider this an open question.

Let us start by looking at the question of whether physical beauty is a value.  I think it is generally agreed that physical beauty is at least some kind of value.  In Attic Greek culture, for example, the human form was held up as one of the ideals of beauty: as one of the most beautiful objects in existence and I think this is right.  Unfortunately, here as in many places, the mystic nonsense of the christians corrupted this pure idea and held that the body was shameful and base, that it was a platonic prison of the soul which had to be ignored as much as possible in order for the soul to reach some special place after death.  This hatred of the physical body has manifested in strange ways, such as the idea that natural functions such as breast-feeding are sexual (since in breast-feeding a breast is used and breasts are always sexual?).  The Greeks did not think that beautiful bodies were always being sexual.  Indeed, the early Olympic games were played in the nude and one of the great values that the spectators derived was from the sight of the beautiful and strong bodies moving well and exerting themselves.

For a rational person, physical beauty is at least some kind of value.  Furthermore, it seems to be a value in a similar way that art is a value.  While art is a metaphysical recreation of reality according to the artist’s value judgments, that is the artist portrays the world according to how he sees it and what he thinks is important, a physically beautiful person can resonate with a person’s sense of life and value judgments as well.  That is, if a person values human life, living well, and human virtue, then he will respond positively to a beautiful person.  Now whether or not this is justified is a different question, but it is the case that we see beautiful people as instances of what humans could look like, of humans that are living well in the sense of maintaining their bodies well and presenting themselves well, and who are living well in the moral sense and succeeding at life.  It is psychologically true that we see beautiful people as good and think of ugly people as evil.  This idea was well known in Greek culture and they thought that the face was a window to the soul: that one’s moral character reflected out and either made one more or less beautiful.  As an interesting aside, this idea also plays a prominent role in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, where Dorian’s evil actions are reflected only on the painting of him and since his face and body remain beautiful and youthful, people think that he is therefore good.  Whether or not we are justified in inducing a person’s moral character from their physical appearance, and likely we are usually not justified in this, it remains a fact that we naturally do this.

An interesting line of inquiry might be whether beauty is naturally pleasant and whether we project our moral framework onto it in order to see it as even more attractive and pleasant, since we are attracted to what we think is good and find it pleasant.  I imagine this is the case, as I have argued elsewhere that our moral judgments can override the value of physical beauty and that if we know a physically beautiful person who is a moral monster, that we cannot help but to see their beauty as tainted and them as less beautiful than they would be if their character were better.  Furthermore, that is we know them to be immoral, that we cannot see them as sexually attractive (except for, perhaps, in some abstract way, but that we cannot respond to them sexually).

When we meet a person who is a cognitive blank to us, where we know nothing of them or their character, we can still judge them aesthetically as beautiful or not.  However, I think in order to do this, I think we have to project our moral framework onto them and project a good character.  I think we naturally want to think of beauty as good and since we already respond to it at a primitive level, we want to have a fuller response, so we flesh out their persona with our own judgments in order to have a full response to them.  We want them to be the kind of person that we would be very attracted to and want to know and so we project our framework onto them so that we see them as robustly good.  On the other hand, it could be simply that we see beauty as a natural good and therefore as embodying our values (which we think are good), and therefore we think that since beauty is a good that it must be conjoined by moral good, since we think that the beauty is caused from within.

I want to return to an earlier point and ask whether beauty is some sort of natural good.  I want to say that yet, it is.  Much in the same way seeing the beauty of a sunset or an artwork is a great value, I think human beauty is also a value.  We need, as a psychological fact, to see beauty in life.  It is a reaffirmation of the beauty of existence and of the good in the world.  It is an encouragement to keep fighting against evil and of the black blanket of destruction it brings.  Beauty brings us joy and motivation: it is like spiritual fuel.  Human beauty is, to me at least, one of the highest kinds of beauty as I value humanity.

Several obvious questions arise: what is the connection between aesthetic judgments of beauty and moral judgments of beauty?  Is there such a thing as a moral judgment of beauty or can moral judgements only augment or detract from beauty?  I think it is the latter.  There are some people who are so ugly that even an exemplary soul would not make me think they were attractive: I might respect them for their character, but they would not become attractive if they were physically ugly enough.  So, it’s not the case that there is a moral judgment of beauty.  There is an aesthetic judgment of beauty and a moral judgment overlay that greatly influences our response to the physical characteristics.  I actually don’t think that one can maintain a judgement of aesthetic beauty in the face of knowledge of a bad immorality and a bad character.

Beauty is, then, a value, but only when combined with a good character: beauty is not a self-justifying value.  However, beauty is an important value and it should not be minimized.

I think it’s also important to consider that sexual attraction is not the same as physical beauty: you might judge someone as physically beautiful, but not sexually attractive.  If we are happily partnered and monogamous, and therefore not looking for new partners, we’re much more likely to experience a person’s physical beauty without having a sexual response to it.  This, though, raises another question: does our judgment of beauty necessarily contain a sexual judgment?  Is saying that you think a person is beautiful connected to you saying you would have sex with a person?  Is it the same thing?  I’m not sure.  I think that they can be different, that one can make an aesthetic judgment of beauty without necessarily implying the further sexual step.

One final, and very important, question that we still need to address: what ultimately justifies sexual activity?  Is beauty a sufficient reason to have sex with a person?  I think, given the foregoing, that the answer is a very qualified yes.  If the beautiful person is also a good person, if you’re not treating sex lightly, and if it’s not harming other values in your life, then I think it’s perfectly moral to have sex with a person because they are beautiful.  On the other hand, if you ignore and evade a person’s bad character in order to justify having sex with them, then it is immoral.

This is all I have to say on the topic right now.  I welcome feedback on this aporia and I will write another essay at some point in the future with my more considered opinion.  I hope that this has at least raised some interesting questions for you.

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