Not so superficial: Rethinking cosmetic enhancements

Waves to George

A few weeks ago at the Center for Inquiry’s Transforming Humanity Conference, bioethicist Patrick Hopkins warned about the potential for cosmetic enhancements to take precedence over more meaningful morphological and cognitive modifications. Referring to this kind of human form as the “barbie body,” Hopkins dismissed cosmetic enhancements as being merely surface level and superficial. These sorts of enhancements, argued Hopkins, were more about attaining a sexual ideal than escaping limitations of the human body. For those individuals overly concerned with aesthetic enhancements, said Hopkins, they have interpreted their bodies as objects that can be whipped into shape to conform to the mind’s ideal so that they can feel a certain way about themselves. Hopkins called this a “shallow” human approach.

…So hopkins is basicly an inconsiderate, ivory tower bastard…

I took Hopkins to task on this position during the Q&A portion of his session. Specifically, I argued that cosmetic and aesthetic enhancements are no more or less legitimate than another sorts of modifications, including cognitive enhancements.

First, superficiality is in the eye of the beholder. As an example, our society fetishizes intelligence, which in turn legitimizes the collective desire for smarter people. While I realize that this sentiment is not universally shared, particularly the part about actually going about cognitive enhancements, we tend to celebrate those among us who have higher than average intelligence—and not necessarily for all the right reasons. The one-upmanship of intelligence and academic success can be just as superficial or pernicious as any beauty contest; the vanity of “I’m smarter than you” is no different than “I’m prettier than you.”

Moreover, our society has, particularly over the past century, de-legitimized the concept of human beauty. We are told that looks don’t matter–that what counts is on the inside. While we still celebrate beauty in the form of celebrity-worship, we are constantly reminded that at our own level beauty is only skin deep and that the overt quest to be more beautiful is misguided and shallow—hence the stigma against everything from fitness competitors through to plastic surgery.

There was once a time when beauty was celebrated for beauty’s sake. Dostoyevsky noted that “Beauty will save the world.” While he was likely referring to works of art and other achievements of humanity, this sentiment can be applied to any effort in which a person seeks to create aesthetic or functional beauty—including the desire to improve, if not perfect, one’s outward physical appearance. In the same way that we appreciate a pretty melody, we also appreciate a pretty face; these are, at the root, psychological experiences that we value—subjective experiences that we actively work to refine and bring about.

Today, only a very few of us openly advocate for more physical beauty in the world—and often at considerable risk. Back in 2003, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, caused an academic stir when he suggested that genetic engineering should be used to make all women beautiful. “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty,” he said, “I think it would be great.” Watson is not alone, of course, as other thinkers, including futurist Natasha Vita-More, have suggested that we use our biotechnologies to reshape our bodies, including for the purposes of cosmetic enhancement.

Secondly, in addition to the more philosophical or aesthetic arguments in favour of legitimizing cosmetic enhancement, a strong case can be made that it also serves as a functional enhancement as well. Drawing from posthuman theory—the idea that the line separating the body from its environment is becoming increasingly blurred—it is clear that our outward appearance has a profound impact on our daily lives, including our ability to succeed and thrive in certain contexts.

Beauty, like intelligence, confers certain advantages in competitive spaces. Quite obviously, attractive people will be more successful in attracting other beautiful people. That’s just the way it is. And if this is the extent to why a person desires to be more attractive, than so be it.

But beauty extends much further than mate selection. Certain jobs, for example, require specific physical attributes. Some employers are looking for smart people, others attractive people. For those who desire jobs in which their physical appearance is of the utmost importance, they should be allowed access to those tools that will help them achieve their goals—whether they be seeking a job as a model or as a salesperson.

Further, beauty has a deeper impact than just helping a person feel better about themselves or in getting a job. Attractive people have a profound impact on the psychologies of those around them. Recent studies have shown, for example, that the presence of pretty women cause men to make riskier decisions. If this isn’t an advantage, I don’t know what is; this ‘power over people’ is in no way qualitatively different than any other kind of cognitive or morphological attribute, and should thus be considered en par with any other kind of human capacity in terms of its ability to be augmented.

Lastly, a world in which everyone is “beautiful” could be a potentially wonderful thing (I use scare quotes because there could never really be such a thing given the subjective and cultural nature of physical beauty). I still believe there would be considerable variation in human appearance, but it would give everyone the opportunity to operate on a more level playing field. Ubiquitous access to safe and effective cosmetic enhancements would essentially eliminate the beauty gap—a gap that is currently created by the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery. People who are “naturally” beautiful are in no way entitled to a monopoly.

And no matter how hard we try at convincing unattractive people that their looks don’t matter, the brutal truth is that most of these people feel inadequate or unfulfilled in certain ways. This is potentially yet another way for us to eliminate individual suffering—the elimination of the unactualized physical self.

Consequently, in a world where everyone is beautiful, we will simultaneously be able to enjoy it and move past it so that we can get on with some of the more important and meaningful aspects of life and existence.