Dance 10, Looks 3 – Inequality of Talent and Looks
The question of what (if anything) to do about inequality is usually restricted to wealth. However, inequality of talent and inequality of good looks actually share many of the same attributes that make us concerned about inequality of wealth. Yet the question of what (if anything) to do about those inequalities seems to get significantly different answers than answers for the case of wealth.
One of the reasons people have an urge to redistribute wealth is because it is assumed that, to one degree or another, one’s wealth or lack of wealth may be a morally neutral fact. That is, someone’s wealth may not be entirely a reward for the moral virtue of diligent work. A person may have had rich parents and inherited a grand estate. Another may have had rich parents and thus got to go to a great school that permitted her to get a high-paying job. (More controversially, many see, say, the financial industry as rewarding virtueless work – work that is at best morally neutral and possibly morally negative – and thus demand recompense from those who earn money that way.) So someone’s wealth is partly a matter of luck, that is, not attributable to his practice of any virtue, or failure to practice a virtue. Therefore, those who believe in redistribution of wealth see it as a matter of fairness. People should be compensated for their bad luck regarding wealth, and be taxed for their good luck.
Like wealth, one’s degree of talent and looks are also at least partially a matter of luck. Like wealth, talent and looks further or hinder our interests.
Someone can take significant measures to make himself more attractive, but he has inherited certain facial features, tendencies to obesity and acne, etc. To paraphrase Cathleen Schine, no one deserves to have been born with strawberry blond hair and no one deserves not to have been born with strawberry blond hair. The fact remains that some people are born with strawberry blond hair, and others are not. And those with strawberry blond hair get more rewards.
Even if you are suspicious, as I am, that there are innate differences in sheer abilities, one’s motivation or interest in developing a talent is probably partially inherited. So is temperament, which may affect someone’s ability to persevere with the development of a talent. A person is also not morally responsible for her early childhood education nor early opportunities to practice a talent. Some parents encourage diligence while others do not. So, some significant part of our talents are the result of luck.
Interestingly, although most would agree that talent is partially inherited and the opportunity to develop talents are afforded to some children more than others, we see talent as more constitutive of a person’s identity than looks. Indeed, looks are supposed to be entirely not constitutive of a person’s identity. Someone who accords much weight to looks in her evaluation of a person is considered superficial. Why should that be? Presumably because looks are distributed with partial moral neutrality. No one earned good looks. But so too are talents. And for a guy to say he loves his girlfriend because she is so smart would never incur the opprobrium that he would get from some quarters if he said that he loves his girlfriend because she is so hot.
However, while there are some calls for redistribution or recompense due to inequality of talent (e.g., “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”), there are absolutely zero calls of which I’m aware for redistribution of looks, or compensating the ugly. How one would do this would be, I suppose, a bit more difficult than redistributing wealth. It could be done. Plastic surgery or physical trainers for those who would benefit, financial recompense for those who are beyond such help. People argue for strong public education in poorer areas so that we aim toward equality of opportunity to develop talents. It is a matter of some public concern that wealthy children have access to better education that might develop their talents, and poor children who might be just as ambitious and willing to work do not have that access. But the idea of using public funds to give plastic surgery or financial compensation to the ugly is utterly ridiculous. I note here with interest that women stand to gain or lose more in virtue of their looks than men.
Indeed, plastic surgery is not covered even by private insurance, much less public funds. Presumably this is because one does not need good looks to live. On the other hand, public funds and private insurance pay for the correction of learning disabilities. One can live, however, with a learning disability. A learning disability and ugliness might each prevent the promotion of one’s interests as far as they will go. Neither will make anyone sick or die. We compensate for the correction of one and not the other. This is a little odd, when you stop to think about it, given the general societal view that looks are not constitutive of the self. You’d think we’d be more likely to pay for the correction of someone’s good looks. Something that is not consitutive of you is hurting your interests!
We collectively have an interest as a society in creating more talented people than we do in creating more good-looking people. So maybe that explains the difference. But the interest of the greater good does not require equality of opportunity to develop talent. All we need are some talented people. Maybe distributing opportunity equally will actually inhibit the development of some talent. Besides, compensation for lack of talent is considered a matter of fairness, not a matter of maximization of wealth or happiness. We talk about creating equality of educational opportunity, at least partly, as an end in itself. If we were to find that our society was somewhat more productive if we did not shuttle money to poorer schools, would that lead to wide calls to decrease funding to schools in poorer areas?
So I am left wondering this. Redistribution of wealth is supposed to compensate for the morally neutral aspect of the acquisition of wealth. Why is redistribution or compensation for lack of talent considered significantly more leftist or drastic than wealth? And why is compensation for ugliness considered absolutely insane? What am I missing here? This post is not meant as a reductio arguing that redistributing wealth is silly. This is a genuine question. I would love to hear some thoughts in the comments.