Archive for May, 2013

Charlene and I were discussing cosmetic surgery — when it is and isn’t socially acceptable, etc.  We were discussing three scenarios.  In the first, someone falls and chips their front tooth to the point where it is very noticeable and does not look good.  Let’s imagine that, functionally, it’s fine.  In the second scenario, a woman gives birth a few times and ends up with stretch marks and saggy skin.  In the third, someone has a lot of wrinkles from aging.

We decided that in the first scenario, cosmetic surgery would be socially acceptable (and encouraged).  In the other two scenarios, it’s easy to imagine people discouraging them from having cosmetic surgery.

I think there are two key distinctions.


Wrinkles from aging is considered natural.  Skin imperfections after childbirth are considered natural.  People think of natural as good. “People shouldn’t alter who they naturally are,” is how the argument often goes.*

However, accidents are natural too.   If wrinkles show character, why doesn’t a chipped tooth too? The difference seems to be that aging happens to everyone.  Childbirth is something that most women experience.  So these are events that are extremely common and happen to almost everyone.   Accidents that negatively affect your appearance are much lower probability events. If it happens to you, you are viewed as unlucky.  So of course corrective actions should be taken; not doing so would be an injustice.

In-group relative beauty

While in many social circles a person who had a face lift to get rid of wrinkles would be gossiped about in a critical, judgmental way, it is clearly not uniformly low status.  Some of the highest status people (rich celebrities) have cosmetic surgery.

I think it’s useful to think about how this relates to the chipped tooth.  If everyone had a chipped tooth, everyone would benefit if no one had cosmetic surgery to repair it.  That’s because having a chipped tooth wouldn’t lower you in rank relative to your peers, since they all have chipped teeth, and you wouldn’t have to spend the money on it.  However, if very few people have a chipped tooth, it really won’t harm your comparative beauty ranking if those few people get their teeth repaired.

Wrinkles, baldness, saggy skin, etc., are things that everyone experiences as they age.  However, not everyone can afford to do something about it.  So there is plenty of reason to discourage your peers from having cosmetic surgery.   For wealthy celebrities, however, there is just no way for everyone to choose the cooperate strategy, because too much is gained from having it done (and the cost, relative to their income, is minimal).


*as an aside, I don’t subsrcibe to this.  I don’t see plastic surgery as any less natural than anything else that exists.

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The arguments that follow would apply to any action X that I have done on a regular basis, but recently decided that it would be net beneficial to other living things if I reduced how often I did that behavior.  However, I will use a hypothetical example to make the points.

Suppose that I object to factory farming on the grounds that they create a great deal of suffering for non-human animals, such as cows, pigs, and chickens. Suppose also that over the past few years I have eaten meat on about 60% of days.  I decide that, if I greatly reduce the amount I spend on products from factory farms, I will slightly reduce the demand for these products.  I am also aware that, that alone, will really not accomplish much.  So I also plan to try to influence other people into doing the same.

Thus, I have two goals:  (1) reduce how much I spend on factory farm products and (2) influence friends.

It seems to me that (1) and (2) are not orthogonal.  That is the issue I want to explore.

If I eat meat on about 60% of days, that would be about 219 days per year.  Suppose I decide to reduce my daily probability of eating meat to 0.05, which would be about 18 days per year.  I would be reducing my meat eating days by about 200 per year, which seems like quite a large number.   I could call myself a High Probability Vegetarian (meaning that there is a high probability that I will be a vegetarian on a given day).

However, high probability ‘-ians’ can be viewed as hypocrites.  I have noticed this tendency of people to dismiss someone’s argument if they having any behavior that could be interpreted as hypocritical.  “Al Gore warns us about global warming, but he flies in a private jet!”  “You say that consumerism is bad, but you own an iPhone!”  “That politician says they support public schools, but their child goes to private school!”  “You say you are anti-war, but you don’t refuse to pay taxes (which funds the war)!”  “That Republican is against illegal immigration, but he employs undocumented workers!”

Ideally, we could separate the person from the argument.  To the degree that we link them, I think we are searching for excuses to reject their argument.  (this person is making me feel guilty…their arguments are good…but i don’t want to change…oh, look, they’re a hypocrite! yay! i’m off the hook).  This is the logical fallacy known as appealing to hypocrisy.

Perhaps this could be avoided if the person is up front about their personal life.   For example, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to hold the following two positions:  that factoring farming is unethical (in its current form) and that reducing how much I spend on factory farming products will have no impact on the amount that animals suffer.  There are two issues that should be separate.  One is the ethics of the thing.  The other is what are strategies to change the things deemed unethical.  The anti-factoring farming person could say “I think factory farming is bad because of reasons XYZ.  However, I don’t think my personal spending habits have any impact in an economy this large.”   At least by acknowledging your lack of a particular action up front, no one will dismiss you when they catch you not being virtuous enough.

I find this rather unsatisfying, because it sounds as if there is no hope for change.  Is it really necessary to propose a solution to be taken seriously?  It seems to me that if you are passionate about a cause, people expect you to do something about it.  I actually think that that is reasonable, but making a a good argument is doing something about it.  In fact, it very well might have a bigger impact than other actions that would prevent you from being dismissed.  The catch here is that, if good arguments are good actions, but good arguments will be dismissed if you are viewed as a ‘hypocrite,’ then you might have to do things that you think will have no direct impact, in order for your arguments to have the impact that you want them to have.

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