Philadelphia Story: Is Appearance a Positional Good?

phanatic.jpgTravel & Leisure magazine recently released a survey concluding that “Philadelphia is home to the least attractive people in the United States.” Defending this cruel and implausible judgment, a survey organizer said “We were asking people to vote on attractiveness, not unattractiveness. Travel & Leisure editors believe there are a lot of attractive people in Philadelphia.”

Can someone rank-order attractiveness, and then plead that any unattractive results are mere byproducts of a contest that should only concentrate on winners? I’ll admit that my last post too easily assumed that appearance-improvement is likely to degenerate into positional competition. But I still think surveys like T&L’s inevitably result in losers as well as winners. And I think one needs to prove the widespreadness of a quite rarified aesthetic theory to convincingly demonstrate the opposite–even outside the confines of a ranking survey.

As I recall from an Alain de Botton book, Plato and Kant had divergent aesthetic theories. (And I hope the philosophers out there forgive me for citing a popularization I read years ago.) Kant suggested that a judgment of beauty had to participate both in the objective and the subjective:

Running through Kant’s various characterizations of judgments of beauty is a basic dichotomy between two apparently opposed sets of features. On the one hand, judgments of beauty are based on feeling, they do not depend on subsuming the object under a concept (in particular, the concept of an end which such an object is supposed to satisfy), and they cannot be proved. This combination of features seems to suggest that judgments of beauty should be assimilated to judgments of the agreeable. On the other hand, however, judgments of beauty are unlike judgments of the agreeable in not involving desire for the object; more importantly and centrally, they make a normative claim to everyone’s agreement. These features seem to suggest that they should be assimilated, instead, to objective cognitive judgments.

By contrast, Plato’s position was far more objective . . .

Plato saw the changing physical world as a poor, decaying copy of a perfect, rational, eternal, and changeless original. The beauty of a flower, or a sunset, a piece of music or a love affair, is an imperfect copy of Beauty Itself. In this world of changing appearances, while you might catch a glimpse of that ravishing perfection, it will always fade. It’s just a pointer to the perfect beauty of the eternal.

So perhaps if we adopt the Platonic theory, everyone can converge to some ideal of appearance, and it cannot be properly considered a positional good. The competitions I worried about in the “dress code” post will fade as people cease trying to distinguish themselves.

I can imagine a few sensible convergence ideals will win out. For example, one commenter on the last post says: “I would trade my right-on-the-median [height] for . . . extra-tall [height] in a heartbeat… women seeking mates prefer taller men so strongly that a median-sized man needs about $87,000/year more income to even be competitive with a 6′-7″ man!” I have to say I doubt that kind of economic extrapolation survives much beyond the 6’4 or so range. I think it much more likely that if some genetic engineering permits precision height manipulation, some average range will become popular, and there won’t be positional competition for height. And perhaps we could even see the old “suit rule” in law firms as an example of such a constructive convergence, if low-cost suits are tolerated.

However, I have a sense the “old Adam” will always seek “ghostlier demarcations,” and the passion for ranking and distinction will survive and supplant many Platonic ideals that emerge. For example, consider pressures on models that seem to be pushing them toward an asymptotically thin state. And in the wider realm of fashion and appearance, it’s easy to imagine dozens of directions for positional competition and distinction. So that’s one reason to fear those dynamics more in the realm of dress than in other appearance-related arenas. The raison d’etre of a fashion industry is to keep people from converging on some Platonic norm of appearance. As a positional good, its “value is mostly, if not exclusively, a function of [its] ranking in desirability in comparison to substitutes.”

Photo Credit: Numb3r.

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