Beauty: A Conversation
Bryn Mawr College
April 11, 2005

On Beauty and Being Just

The beauty that will save us is, above all, not pretty...
Beauty does not exist without justice. Such beauty is false, a facade.

Ivone Gebara

...what makes....playing fields fair is precisely a dividing up,
an equal parsing out, of the unsightly means of force.

Elaine Scarry

"Winged Man, in Idealistic Clothing, Playing a Lute,"
from Drawings by Albrecht Durer

You found Scarry's (and, to a lesser degree, Gebara's) arguments

Rachel: I found "On Beauty and Being Fair" a little unrealistic.... Don't we thrive on diversity? ....My "social empathy" is jumpstarted by asymmetry and injustice, not "beautiful things"....Isn't the very beauty standard of our society built on the fact that only a select few are able to attain it?...If beauty is...ever changing, then isn't a justice motivated or guided by beauty going to likewise change and shift...?

Amy: I had to question how her notions of distributional beauty would really make the world a more just place....she was being so optimistic...I couldn't help but think of the current ...disregard of the world's natural beauty/ natural environment...

Alanna: "dreaming" is right....Gebara seemed to have forgotten to mention how exactly we should go about achieving beauty and justice in a world where injustice is the norm....where people don't all share the same ideals....people in general need to re-think their own not see beauty as power, self-worth, manipulation, etc.

eebs: i also thought that her thinking was a little unrealistic to apply to the 'world of profit' we live in....beautiful people...portray themselves as more... fragile...beautiful people use their gift to get ahead....a result of luck at birth...everyone else can praise the other types of luck at birth...

Alice S: I found this view of beauty, well, beautiful...I do think it is a bit idealistic....This made me think of some of our conversations in class about unattainable standards of beauty. If we did not have a standard, we would not have the motivation to fight for something better.

Meera: By being critical, "ugly", judgemental and attached we lose the progress to defining justice....if most of us find something beautiful we tend to examine it and cherish it more closely and thereby can save it or save ourselves.

Muska: I thought the whole concept of beauty was based on a spectrum. Defining something as beautiful required defining all the things that were not considered beautiful. In fact, it seemed as if the concept of "beauty" benefits from a system of injustice. The only way one thing can be categorized as "beautiful" is if there is something else categorized as "ugly."

Catie: The fear in judging human beauty comes from the idea that those perceived as ugly...are disadvantaged....another big question addressed here is the ethics of beauty. The fairness and unfairness of different ways of judging beauty.

Mo : I found Scarry's almost too methodical...argument...seemed so based on the perfect fitting of pieces in a puzzle: symmetry, proportion, equality and lateral disregard....I think the beauty and justice are both too complex and morphing to be pinned down so precisely.

Katy : I was frustrated by this week's readings.... which said virtually nothing on what we must do and how we must use beauty as a tool for eradicating injustice.

Lauren: Plenty of hideous acts have been performed in the name of justice....

So, let's see if we can do a little better than that...?

From University of Oklahoma College of Law

Why was Justice (Traditionally Portrayed as Being) Blind?

A common representation of Justice is a blind-folded woman holding a set of scales....To the ancient Greeks she was known as Themis....Classical representations of Themis did not show her blindfolded (because of her talent for prophecy, she had no need to be blinded) nor was she holding a sword (because she represented common consent, not coercion)....The Roman goddess of justice...was often portrayed as evenly balancing both scales and a sword and wearing a blindfold. She was sometimes portrayed holding the fasces (a bundle of rods around an ax symbolizing judicial authority) in one hand and a flame in the other (symbolizing truth). --From University of Washington School of Law

Elaine Scarry has a very different idea--
justice based on increased visual perception.

(Perhaps well illustrated by Salvador Dali's ""Goddess of Justice"?)

From Hamilton-Selway Fine Art

Scarry's central argument: actually assists us in the work of addressing requiring of us constant perceptual acuity...Noticing beauty increases the possibility that it will be carefully handled....The structure of beauty appears to have a two-part scaffolding: first, one's attention is involuntarily given to the beautiful person or thing; then, this quality of heightened attention is voluntarily extended out....beautiful things...serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness ....

Scarry's argument is grounded in a classical ideal of beauty:

Aristotle's statement that justice was a perfect had something to do with equality in all assists us in getting to justice...analogically, by what they share: balance and the weighing of both sides...beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprodcity, to the sense of a "symmetry of everyone's relation to one another."

(A little background on the literary context:
the decades-old turn against aesthetics, and towards politics--
and Scarry's attempt to bring the two into a new synthesis by claiming that

political complaints against beauty are...incoherent...
it instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries....

What I want to invite us all to play with today is an alternative to "blind justice,"
but also an alternative to Scarry's "perceptual, classical, idealist symmetical balanced justice..."

I think we're on the verge of an ethics of beauty based on care,
and that with the help of two feminist theorists (Patricia Williams and Carol Gilligan),
the second law (thanks, Flora!), and--this is key--an open system...
we might get (close to getting) there.
Let's see if we can....

Beginning with Patricia Williams,

Seeing a Color-blind Future

Williams argues that we can only make a "beautiful, just" world
by seeing the differences (asymmetries?) within it and among ourselves.
We have already identified some tools for doing so (great work!)

Brittany : When Scarry says "justice," she means our twentieth-century, equal-rights, humans-deserve-humanity form of justice....far back into history, "justice" becomes an eye for an eye....And technically that's what the term implies: a sort of universal equilibrium. A world governed solely by justice would strictly abide by the (usually scientific) principle that "every action has an equal and opposite reaction"....personally I think mercy is *more* beautiful.... Justice, in its purest form...'s absolute---the scales are balanced perfectly.....

Flora: Screw Symmetry-- Maybe it's my inner physicist talking, but the whole concept is just scary. A perfectly symmetric world would be perfectly balanced between all would be horrible....I'm going to try to explain a qualitative concept in quanitative terms....Many people are familiar with the concept of conservation of one system there is only a finite amount of energy....Say there's only a finite amount of beauty in the entire this symmetrical argument, everytime you do/have/see something good, you're taking that goodness away from someone else, because therešs only a finite amount....there's nothing beautiful about it, unless the goal is to try to distribute everything evenly....The world would have none of Scarry's "wake-up calls" because all beauty would be equal in all things....where's the excitement? Where's the beauty?...

Sharon: Flora showed how undesirable a symmetry requirement of beauty can be when the symmetry inherent in the first law of thermodynamics, the conservation of energy, is applied to beauty. I thought of another fundamental physical principle, the second law of thermodynamics: The total entropy of the universe increases. This law in contrast is asymmmetrical. It's not hard to find the promise in applying it to beauty: Universal beauty increases. And that is not unlike what both authors write about, how appreciating and caring for beauty in one place can make it more likely for beauty to be seen and cared for elsewhere.

Kat: I'm very intrigued by the Flora/Sharon conversations about effectively inserting beauty into the laws of thermodynamics...they provide such a nice model of (yet another) dichotomy: that of beauty being fixed in amount (beauty=symmetry=justice=equality) versus that of beauty being unbounded (Beauty somwhere means more beauty elsewhere). Muska seems to be in the same camp as Flora, stating "the concept of 'beauty' benefits from a system of injustice. The only way one thing can be categorized as 'beautiful' is if there is something else categorized as 'ugly.' " So, maybe there is a way out of this after all?

Tanya : I loved Dr. B's argument that the universe is becoming increasingly beautiful because of increasing entropy is describe as too much of an extreme and has caused it to be regarded as a troublemaker leading to injustices....I admire her attempt to stand up as beauty's attorney, defending it to the point of making it a victim...but I still think its crimes are pretty severe and I'd vote guilty.

Let's see: guilty or not guilty?
Can we replace the "beauty of equilibrium and justice"
with the "beauty of asymmetry and mercy"?
And might the second law give us a hand up?

From Ernst Mayer, What Evolution Is, as discussed in The Story of Evolution:
"It is sometimes claimed that evolution, by producing order, is in conflict with the "law of entropy" of physics, according to which evolutionary change should produce an increase of disorder. Actually, there is no conflict, because the law of entropy is valid only for closed systems, whereas the evolution of a species of organisms takes place in an open system in which organisms can reduce entropy at the expense of the environment and the sun supplies a continuing source of energy."

The Essential Link Between (with apologies...)
the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Beauty and Justice

From Information Update: Searching for the Third Law:

Your assignment (should you choose to accept it):
divide into groups of four to create a universe
(or, less ambitiously, to design a social system)
in which we all come out ahead.
With both justice (mercy?) and beauty in it....

Make sure, to start, that beauty is distributed unequally
(from Scarry: the surfaces of the world are aesthetically uneven....)

Some additional problems/tools:
Kohlberg's ethics of justice, vs. Gilligan's ethics of care
(idealist, abstract, top-down, procedural, vs.
pragmatic, concrete, bottom-up, process-oriented)

Mal: How is me loving my mother, which is a beautiful experience, going to help me be more just.
(i.e. how will "lateral regard" help us to attend to those we don't care for?
Cf. Gebara: Justice is concerned...about the one...whom I do not love spontaneously....)

Liz: one portion that I did find to my taste was this concept of finding a group of people who were unaware of their own identities...because they were blank slates/neutered/veiled, they were willing to accept beauty in as many ways as possible, even if there was a chance that they would never get to experience this beauty....
(i.e.: can you use Rawl's infamous "veil of ignorance" to design a new society?
In which no one knows what their distribution is going to be...?)

Reporting back...?

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undego a radial decentering. Beauty...requires us "to give up our imaginary position as the center".... beautiful things act like small tears on the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster occasion for "unselfing" what is popularly called beauty...all the space formerly in the service of protecting, guarding, advancing the now free to be in the service of something has ceased to be the one's own story and has become what in a folktale is called the "lateral figure" or "donor figure"....Radical decentering....our own adjacency is pleasure-bearing....a state of delight in [our] own lateralness....

Elaine Scarry

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