Resolved: Beauty is Not in the Eye of the Beholder

When discussing the arts, I’ve long deferred to the concept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. After all, it’s fairly obvious that people have different conceptions about what is most beautiful, whether it’s in the other sex, buildings, paintings, flowers, or anything else. Yet, I must admit, the full implications of this idea have always troubled me, because it’s fairly clear, based on wide consensus, that we must have some innate, objective standard of beauty. A simple poll would reveal that a huge majority of people find Bar Rafaeli prettier than Tilda Swinton, Roses more beautiful than dandelions, the Taj Mahal more pleasing than their local Walmart, etc. So while we might have different opinions about which thing is most beautiful, it seems there is little disagreement when it comes to comparing something that is beautiful to something that isn’t.

I posit that a better statement is: Among beautiful things, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I might not agree with other men as to who the hottest Victoria’s Secret model is, but I think nearly all of us would agree that any of them is much prettier than Roseann Bar. Similarly, someone might prefer daffodils or orchids to roses, but hardly anyone is tearing up their flower garden to plant brambles.

Hence, I think we should retire the old saying. We all mostly agree on whether something is beautiful or ugly. We just disagree about which beautiful thing we like best.

I strongly believe that beauty has both subjective and objective factors; it’s not all one or the other.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is sometimes used to mean, simply, “tastes differ,” which is obviously true.

And it is sometimes used to refer to the people we consider beautiful for reasons that go beyond their appearance. When you look at your lover or child or mother, you see beauty in them that someone who doesn’t know them would not see.

Beauty is in the eye of the culture. It isn’t innate, it is taught.

To the extent that you line yourself up with your culture, you will agree with others in that culture on matters of beauty. Everyone is different though, and our differences show themselves at the margins. We might agree that Scarlett Johansson is beautiful (although we may not), but it is much more likely that we will disagree on the beauty of that girl behind the counter at the gas station.

There is nothing objective about beauty. We simply tend to align ourselves with the subjective views of our society.

I’d have to go with Thudlow on this - people gain and lose beauty as they manifest themselves to you. Beautiful is as beautiful does.

There are still objective views of beauty but they are tempered by your experience of the person. You can agree that someone meets a standard of beauty but you don’t kind them attractive. Or you enjoy someone so much that you could say they aren’t objectively the most beautiful but you find them that way.

Is this the face that won for her the man
Whose amazed and clumsy fingers put that ring upon her hand?
No need to search that mirror for the years.
The menace in their message shouts across the blur of tears.

So this is beauty’s finish, like Rodin’s “Belle Heaulmiere”,
The pretty maiden trapped inside the ranch wife’s toil and care
.Then she shakes off the bitter web she wove,

And thinks ahead to Friday, 'cause Friday will be fine!
She’ll look up in that weathered face that loves hers, line for line,
To see that maiden shining in his eyes.

The posts above have mentioned human beauty – how pleasing we find other people’s appearance.
But I think for this kind of beauty the cultural component is overstated. Our preferences in this respect are basically innate. There are certain indicators of health and fertility that we instinctively find appealing.

Often objectors would argue that in certain cultures fat people are more attractive yadda yadda. But the fact of the matter is, there’s remarkable similarity across cultures for something supposedly arbitrary. Where’s that culture that prefers acne over unblemished skin?

Not every culture deals with acne, but perhaps could we compare ritual scarring with unblemished skin?

AFAIK every culture that’s ever existed has preferred unblemished skin. Even if a counter-example can be found it wouldn’t detract from the point that there’s a great deal of agreement between cultures on this particular asthetic. Why?

We could, but it would be misleading I think. Ritual scarring is a socially significant change made to someone’s appearance. It’s more like pips on a soldier or a genuine hell’s angel shirt than like acne.
The difference is obvious if you consider whether any cultures have found non-ritual scars attractive.

(Of course, someone may say: “Hey! Some girls find scars attractive”. But again, it’s as a status thing, like the ritual scars: it’s implying that the guy in question is a fighter, which can be attractive.
If said guy were to say he got his scar from getting hit in the face by a frisbee thrown by a little girl, I’m sure it would affect the appeal of this particular physical feature. Also, if the scar were too large, or in certain places on the face, it wouldn’t matter how he obtained it – it would be unattractive).

Beauty in the opposite sex is often tied up with perceived fertility or success. If only rich people had acne, it might become a sign of beauty, much as being over weight has been considered beautiful in societies with limited access to high fat foods.

Think about tans. In a society where poor people work in the fields all day and rich people stay indoors, pale skin is considered attractive and you get white face make up to accentuate it. In a society where being indoors is associated with drudgery, and lying in the sun is associated with leisure, tans are considered attractive and you have tan in can.


Any tape measurer can tell you the dimensions of a table you like. In some ways, then, it is easy to say that inches are a measure of aesthetics. Does this make table preferences objective?

Market price is an aggregate expression of value. It fails, alas, to tell us whether any individual would buy something.

The existence of relative measures, or inter-subjective measures, goes nowhere to establishing that subjective value fails to dominate.

I await the milliHelen before dismissing my skepticism.

I don’t understand your point. Are you saying that the type of beauty we see in loved ones is objective or subjective, or if has parts of each which parts are which?

I think that this mixes physical beauty, which is mainly what my post was aimed at, and personal beauty, which is what we see in our loved ones. Presumably, most men (save a lucky few) would admit that their wife/significant other is not the most physcially stunning woman that they have ever seen (provided their wife/significant other isn’t standing right there :p). However, they also see her personal beauty which goes into their over-all evaluation of her.

I’m talking about physical beauty only here. Like I said, most people would agree that a rose is prettier than some weed. The weed may have some other characteristics that endears it to us over the rose, but that doesn’t really go to the physical beauty of the rose. Rather it is another factor that we weigh against the physcial beauty.

At one time not too long ago there was one thing that was exactly one meter long in all the universe. It was the standard metre in Paris. This, of course, is not usually taken to ascribe some remarkable property to it.

Unless a remarkable amount of disparate people all seemed to innately agree that there was something remarkable about it. Then we might ask ourselves if there wasn’t something objective about it that all led us to the same conclusion.
That doesn’t mean that thing has an extrodinary characteristic. We all might experience something as beautiful for no better reason than evolution conditioned us to believe that bright shiny colors and symetry equals health. Thus, the only thing special about those things is the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive them. But that isn’t really what I’m arguing about.

My argument is that we all might differ as to which beautiful thing is most beautiful. But nearly everyone seems to easily and uniformly differentiate between beautiful and ugly.

I rather like spiders. Other people think they’re horrible, they generate horror.

But there’s no way to get away from the cultural significance of a rose. They’re hard to grow and highly prized and are symbolic of love and luxury. Personally I prefer phlox, which are considered a weed. When I was a kid and didn’t know that, phlox was what I collected as a bouquet for my mom.

I don’t think it’s always possible to separate “personal” beauty and physical beauty. My wife had a roommate in college that boys would fall over themselves to talk to her. I thought she was pretty at first too. Then she opened her mouth.

She is one of the most abrasive, racist, ignorant person I have ever met. From that moment on I couldn’t see her as anything other than the horrible person she was.

It was like your rose or tulip smelled like raw sewage. And was infested with aphids and other nasties. You could think it was beautiful until you got closer look. And your weed might be more beautiful than you thought if you take a second look (even if you don’t compare it to the shitty rose).

Even to the extent that this is true, it doesn’t show that beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder; it just shows that the eyes of most human beholders are fairly similar. But what about those few exceptions? The architect La Courbusier, for instance, argued vehemently that grain silos were more beautiful than cathedrals. Most people would disagree with him on that, but that’s the way he saw it. Even if most people can agree that cathedrals are prettier than silos, La Courbusier differed on that point. And as soon as you acknowledge that he differed, you’re acknowledging that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Or consider a beholder which is even more different than that. A mallard wouldn’t care for Bar Rafaeli nor Tilda Swinton, but would choose a mate based (in part) on the mallard standard of beauty. One mallard might find a preference between a pair of other mallards that, to human eyes, aren’t even distinguishable. If there’s one duck that all of the other ducks seem to be chasing after come mate-choosing time, is that duck beautiful? Then why don’t humans think so?

Because to explain the use of the words “beautiful” and “ugly” we have, shall we say, canonical samples, like roses, statues, murals, and movie stars.

ETA: We will all agree on what is “green,” but this has no bearing on phenomenal content or preference.

Yes, I know. The example of tanned versus pale skin attractiveness is often used. I don’t claim that there’s no cultural component. What I’m saying is that it’s mostly innate.
I’m saying the counter-examples are around the periphery of a process that’s basically the same across all cultures at all time.

I’ve already given the acne example, and your response (that if acne was associated with wealth, it might be perceived as attractive), was probably the best, but doesn’t really affect my point, since I already conceded that ritual scarring might be attractive because of its social significance. No culture will ever find acne attractive in itself the way they find unblemished skin intrinsically attractive.

I don’t understand why people are so hesitant to acknowledge an innate component. Most people now accept that sexuality is innate (that we don’t, for the most part, choose to be gay/straight) but somehow what we find attractive is a hollywood / fashion industry conspiracy.
I call BS.

The question isn’t whether there’s an innate component; the question is innate to whom. If person A finds person B beautiful, then that reflects something inherent to A (being attracted to people who look like B), not something inherent to B (absolute beauty).