Thursday 5 June 2014

Beauty and Imperfect Cognitions

We are posting this on behalf of Professor Heather Widdows (University of Birmingham) who recently gave a talk on beauty as a topic in philosophy and ethics at the Hay Festival.

Heather Widdows
I'm John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics in the department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. My current work is on ideals of perfection and beauty and I'm in the progress of writing Perfect Me! (under contract with Princeton University Press). In this book I’m exploring contemporary ideals of beauty and all the gory details which attach to messy, smelly, hairy, saggy and ever-changing human bodies from the perspective of moral philosophy.

In Perfect Me! I consider three key ways in which the (moral) ideal of beauty functions. First, as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’) – a value judgement – that this type of beauty is worth having – a moral claim; second, as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’) – a judgement about what perfect in this context is; and third, as a command which a woman (or a man) feels she or he should obey (‘you should be perfect’) – so a moral imperative – directed towards this perfect ideal, which implies that beauty is some ‘good’ to be striven for.

This work is only tangentially relevant to imperfect cognitions and the work of the Epistemic Innocence project, however there are potentially some areas of overlap. One area is about decision-making and the assumptions about what fully informed means when it comes to engaging in beauty practices and procedures. My work is in its early stages but one of the arguments I make is about the power of the ‘imagined self’ and its strength in the dominant beauty ideal and the language which surrounds beauty. The language of the beauty discourse is morally coloured – literally saturated with value. It constantly suggests the importance of striving for your better/more perfect self; phrases such as ‘your best self’ or ‘the best you can be’ or ‘it’s still you, but the best version of you’. It assumes that this matters – ‘you’re worth it’, ‘you owe it to yourself’; and conversely that failure to strive for that more perfect you, that better self, makes you culpable and blameworthy – you ‘let yourself go’ and presumably ‘you’re not worth it’.

In this ideal beauty, happiness and success begin to merge, and ‘rewards’ are associated with attaining the ideal (rewards such as better jobs, better relationships and, in general, more happiness). One of the claims I make (and I’m missing out lots of the steps here) is about the power of the ‘imagined self’. That the self is becoming not only identified with the body (an old claim), but that the self is becoming further dislocated and identified with the imagined body – the body that I will have – once I have lost the weight I need to; firmed my thighs in the way I should; sorted out my hair and erased my wrinkles. The power of this ideal is such that it brings into question the validity of consent in the context of beauty. This is for a large number of reasons but to name just two which might have some relevance to imperfect cognitions.

(1) The power of the imagined self over decision-making makes claims of being fully informed questionable. For example, being fully informed requires knowing and being able to assess the risks and benefits. However, arguably those who engage in at least some kinds of beauty practices do so not only despite the risks, but often ignoring or playing down the risks. This claim is not that information is not given – it is – but rather about how it is understood. I suggest that the power of the imagined self – the end point of the ideal – is so powerful it distorts the risks and therefore makes them harder to assess.

(2) The whole language surrounding beauty is individual (about the best you) and yet these beauty values are largely shared (in the book there are arguments about the homogenising nature of the current beauty ideal). Given this, to claim that consent is just a matter of separate individual choices is deeply problematic. You can’t choose your own beauty ideal; you can only choose to conform to it, to embody it or to reject it.

My research will be funded by a Major Leverhulme Fellowship and a larger discussion of the work was given at the Hay Festival this year.

1 comment:

  1. Our readers may be interested in Heather's Birmingham Perspective: Women are "One of us"


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