Friday, September 24, 2010


The human striving for beauty is really quite amazing. I was looking at a household hints book that my wife got, no doubt in part for my edification. Quite a significant percentage of these (40% or so?) have to do with making things look better. The sheer amount of effort that goes into looks is amazing. In fact, just about every non-consummable ready-made good that I can see around me has been made at least in part with a view to looking good, say by choice of color or choice of shape. There is a pretty ugly hard drive enclosure to the right of my laptop. But it is obviously made with a view to looking good—it has a shape and color choice that someone thought to be futuristic or modern or whatever. No doubt, a few cents could have been lopped off the production costs, and some environmental benefits realized, by just having a plain monochromatic box in whatever shade of gray the plastic would be if no dye were added. Even the really, really cheap goods I order directly from China via ebay or DealExtreme tend to have decorative elements. My digital calipers, for instance, have some lines sticking out in the plastic element that seem to be designed for largely aesthetic purposes. The incremental cost per item is very small, no doubt, but the mould must have been a little slightly more expensive to design than a plainer design would have been, and probably a bit more plastic is used per item than necessary for engineering reasons.

So we value beauty greatly. Now unless we take a sceptical line here (and if we do, I doubt we can arrest the scepticism before it takes away all much of our knowledge), we need to say that beauty is indeed valuable, and we have an ability to recognize this value. This should trouble naturalists. It is difficult to see what evolutionary benefit there is in recognizing and pursuing beauty, since beauty does not appear to correlate with survival/reproduction benefits (apples are beautiful, but so are tigers). Of course, one might say that the recognition of beauty is a spandrel. But it is still a great coincidence that this spandrel should have hit on the genuinely valuable property of beauty. Probably, if one has the spandrel view of our recognition of beauty, one has to say that beauty is not an objective good that we observe (and down we go on the slippery slope of scepticism). Moreover, causal theories of reference—which seem to be the best bet of the naturalist—seem to have a difficulty with beauty. For beauty as such does not appear to be a causally efficacious kind of property.


Megan said...

"It is difficult to see what evolutionary benefit there is in recognizing and pursuing beauty, since beauty does not appear to correlate with survival/reproduction benefits (apples are beautiful, but so are tigers)."

Although I'm not a naturalist, myself, could a naturalist not say that a culture's idea of beauty evolves in accordance to what that culture deems worthy of recognition/awareness? For instance, using the example you gave of apples and tigers: could it not be said that we find them both beautiful, because it is beneficial to take notice of both of them? It is beneficial to take notice of apples, because they are filled with nutrients, and food is essential to our survival. Likewise, it is beneficial to take notice of tigers, because tigers are dangerous, and can kill people.

It is obvious that, throughout history, the idea of a beautiful woman has changed drastically. In times of economic hardship, and especially under monarchies, women with fuller figures were considered very beautiful. However, in times of economic prosperity, slimmer women are called beautiful. Could one say that this is an example of the evolution of preferences within societies, which changes according to what is the most needed within society x? In a society under times of economic hardship, would it not be beneficial for women of fuller figures to be more noticed by men, so that the offspring they produced would be stronger, and better equipped to deal with a lack of provisions?

I'm not sure how sound this theory is . . . how would you respond to someone who held these views?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think what I'd say is that this would push one to see beauty as merely subjective. And once we do that, we have the slippery slope into skepticism.

Megan said...

It just seemed to me that this theory would fall under "survival/reproduction beneits." Are there many naturalist theories of beauty which _aren't_ subjective? I would find it difficult to see the kind of value in beauty that a naturalist would find, even if such a thing as beauty did seem objective to them. "Beauty" would mean nothing, as it would be absurd to say it had any intrinsic value. Which, I think, is what you're saying. However, I can't exactly see how this would lead to skepticism. One could take the opinion that certain imperceptible characteristics in objects we find "beautiful" create biological reactions in us which bring us pleasure. A theory which takes this sort of position would be the "Golden Ratio," if you're familiar. For a utilitarian, would this not be enough to grant value (perhaps even great value) to some hidden quality in things we call "beautiful"?

Nightvid said...

"....But it is obviously made with a view to looking good..."

"... For beauty as such does not appear to be a causally efficacious kind of property..."

Why am I the only one that sees a glaring contradiction here?

Nightvid said...

Why do you believe beauty isn't subjective?

Alexander R Pruss said...

If one says beauty is subjective, then the justification of scientific theories runs the danger of being too subjective, since the beauty of theories is a part of the criteria scientists employ, particularly in physics.

Besides, once one starts on the road of subjectivism, I doubt one can stop before arriving at full subjectivism about everything.