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The Contender
Con (against)
14 Points

Beauty is Objective

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 7/4/2011 Category: Society
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 2,897 times Debate No: 17400
Debate Rounds (5)
Comments (2)
Votes (4)




This debate will focus on the two contentions I make below, centering on the question of whether or not beauty can be described as an objective quality. My opponents first round should consist of their acceptance of the debate, followed by a very brief outline of thier perspective. Subsequent to that, rounds 2, 3, and 4 should consist of a dialogue: I will present a case for each of my three contentions in round 2, my opponent will respond, I will respond to his response and so on. Round five should consist of final conclusions.

A clarification of terms:

By beauty, I am referring solely to the physical attractiveness of human beings as appreciated by other human beings. Other interpretations are welcome, particularly if they are used to make salient points, but it should be understood that this is not, at its core, a debate about beauty as an abstraction (even if it may turn out to be just that!)

By objective, I am not referring to a Platonic or otherwise metaphysically incorruptible standard in relation to which people can either be right or wrong. What I'm talking about is a shared perception of beauty which, by virtue of its being shared and therefore not pure subjective opinion, can be described as objective.

Mt two main contentions:

1. There is in operation in our society (Western) an objective standard of physical beauty. With some maneuverability, all people stand somewhere along a continuum of physical beauty, and can rightly (in the sense of correctly, not morally) be described as 'more' or 'less' physically attractive.
2. In the majority of cases, people choose their partners in accordance with where they place themselves and their partners on this continuum. While there will be some variation in the accuracy with which people place themselves and others (for instance, good-looking people with low self-esteem), there are enough people with reasonably accurate perceptions for the general trend to what one would expect in a world with an objective standard of beauty.

I look forward to being argued out of this view, as the one thing I'm sure we can all agree on is that we would all be better off were I incorrect!


Interesting argument, I won't keep you waiting. Since I'm taking the agnostic stance, you should already know that the BoP is clearly on you (just clarifying since my last opponent had a MAJOR issue with this.) I suppose you'll be stating your case in the second round, and I look forward to an insightful discussion on a philosophically engaging topic.


not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.
Debate Round No. 1


Firstly, thanks to Bieber (if I can call you that!) for accepting this, my first debate on the site.

I'll begin with a hypothetical piece of research to illustrate my second contention, hopefully using it as a foundation for the somewhat more abstract first contention. To clarify, this is not a piece of research which I, nor to my knowledge anyone else has done; the aim here is present a scenario and what I think its outcomes would be. My opponent is of course free to disagree with both the predicted outcome and my analysis of what that outcome would suggest.

Photographs are taken of 1000 couples. For the sake of ease when sorting through, all of the couples are heterosexual. Care is taken to choose couples randomly; the people choosing the couples to photograph are not given any information about the experiment, and will therefore be unbiased. Each partner in the couple is photographed seperately, with one close-up of the face and one full body shot. The photographs are separated into male and female piles, throughly shuffled then placed into two large plastic wallets, each containing 500 photos (one wallet for men, one wallet for women).

Both wallets are then given to a neutral third party. Obviously, this third party has no idea which man is coupled with which woman. The third party is then given the instruction to rate every person, male and female, out of 10 for attractiveness, writing the number in the bottom corner of each photograph. After this has been done, the people who origonally took the photographs come back in and sort the couples into the correct pairings.

I put it to my opponent that there are two possible outcomes to this experiment, one which would suggest that beauty is subjective, the other that it is objective. The outcome which would suggest the former would be that there is little or no correlation between the numerical value for attractiveness assigned by the third party, and the partners that people have chosen in real life i.e. there are plenty of 10's with 3's, 2's with 7's, 9's with 1's and, of course, 5's with 5's and 6's with 6's. If this were the outcome, we would rightly infer that the third party's evaluations of each person's attractiveness was subjective.

If, however, there was significant correlation, a very different picture emerges. Let us say, for instance, that in 90 percent of cases, couple match up within 1 'attractiveness point' of one another in either direction e.g. 5's with 6's, 5's and 7's, 9's with 8's, 9's and 10's etc. This would be a far more difficult outcome to decode. We might be tempted to say that the results are largely coincidental, but what if the experiment were repeated ten times over, with different couples and different third parties with the same results? At some point, we would have to recognize a greater stucture at work. I put it to my opponent that the following conclusions should be drawn from this second outcome, which, for the record, I regard as the far more likely of the two.

1. There is a standard of beauty that the vast majority of people share.

2. That the couples corellated with the third party's evaluations of their attractivenesses shows that not only that he is subject to this standard, but also that the majority are the couple are 'plugged in' as it were.

3. Where there are exceptions to this correlation, the rule is proved further. It would be absurd of me to say that all people follow the standard religeously, but to say that most people do to some significant degree seems obvious.

4. People instinctively, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say empirically, place both themselves and others along a continuum of attractiveness that is largely shared. Moreover, couplings tend to adhere to that hierarchy, rooted in kind of evolutionary-capitalist logic of supply and demand. Average-looking people, aware of their position, will tend towards other average looking people, and even when they aspire to be with persons higher up the scale, those higher up the scale correct for this by denying them access.

I'll leave it that for now and let my opponent respond to this hypothetical and my conclusions. Of course, I've only just stratched the surface here, not to mention having largely avoided contention one for the time being, so I look forward to seeing what new directions my opponent takes us in :)


Technically, I could be a stickler and demand that Pro give sources to his statements, but I won't and I'll accept some of the more general comments he makes, but by no means his whole argument. For the record, you can call me either "Bieber" or "Con" although "Con" is the standard term, although I would certainly accept Bieber. Welcome to DDO, and may it be the first of many good debates.

Since I'm taking the agnostic position, I believe my role in this debate is to "poke holes" in Pro's case and see where the discussion goes. We can first start by analyzing Pro's case, which essentially boiled down to a hypothetical example that showed that there are shared standards of beauty within a society.

Lets just reiterate the definition of "objective" in more common terms. For something to be objective, there must be right and wrong answers regardless of cultural or historical differences. Math, for example, is objective. In this case, Pro's main contention is that there is a large degree of uniformity in how individuals judge "beauty." I have a few objections to raise to that point:

1. Different Cultures, Different Standards

To prove that beauty is objective is to strongly imply that it is cross-culturally binding. While a given culture may have a general consensus about "beauty," these conceptions can often vary drastically. For example, being overweight in certain - often poorer cultures, such as Ghana - can be seen as something that is generally a cultural positive [1]. This could partly be explained by the cultural connotations attached to the the quality of being overweight, perhaps affluence or health. If your hypothetical experiment were to be conducted in a different culture with a different conception of beauty, it should come as no surprise that answers would vary. Given that objectivity replies a "right" and a "wrong" in terms of physical beauty, Pro needs to demonstrate that particular cultures are "wrong" in regard to what they perceive as beautiful. Obviously the fact that people have varying opinions does not act as direct proof against something being objective. The question that I'm posing to you here is how do you decide which cultural standards to adopt?

2. Majority opinion does not imply objective truth.

A corollary to my last point, people over history have held radically different views on a wide range of issues. Standards of beauty have shifted enormously across cultures. All a consensus opinion does is tell us the state of affairs at the time. It does not follow from the fact that most people label person X a 7-9 that those who labeled him a 10, 6, 5... are "wrong." According to a recent Gall Up poll, only 40% of Americans believe in evolution, yet no reasonable person would doubt the objectivity of evolution based on an appeal to majority opinion [2].

Those were my two main contentions with this line of thought. I look forward to a response and continuing the debate in future exchanges.

Debate Round No. 2


While more than willing to continue with the debate, a particularly busy weekend has left with without enough time to put together a full round's worth of debate. If my opponent would like to continue, would he mind simply posting in the affirmative to finish off this round, then allow me to continue the debate in the next one?


Sure, arguments extended.
Debate Round No. 3


Thanks to my opponent for some incisive comments, I'll do my best to address the challenges offered. Apologies in advance for the lack of referencing!

I'll begin with a summary of an argument made in Sam Harris's most recent book, The Moral Landscape, about the objectivity of well-being. The central point of Harris's book is that science can help us determine moral values. In order to demonstrate this, Harris responds in advance to the criticism that while something verifiable by evidence, such as evolution, should rightly be described as objectively true, human well-being is by its very nature a subjective and culturally contingent experience/phenomenon, and cannot, therefore, be treated the same. Harris's rebuttal to this involves an analogy with health, which I summarize as:

1. Health, like well-being, is an undefined term, and can be considered culturally contingent. Other cultures may consider certain physical states signs of good health, whilst we would disagree. It would be tempting, therefore, to call health subjective.
2. This in no way detracts from the fact that the distinction between a dead person and an alive person is about as clear a distinction as we can make.
3. Those who define good health as a dysfunctional body, constant pain and short lifespan are not engaging in an intelligible discussion, or at least not a discussion that uses any common or useful terms.

Now, to apply this analogy directly to the idea of beauty would be problematic, but there are some parallels:

1. Beauty, like health, is an undefined term. It is clearly culturally contingent, as my opponent pointed out. It is indeed tempting, within these parameters, to call beauty subjective.
2. This in no way detracts from the fact that there may be a person in this world to whom nobody is attracted. There may also be a person considered at least partially attractive by everyone (Consider, perhaps, a woman who is overweight but with a face considered attractive in the west; such a person would be thought of as at least partially attractive to both westerners and cultures such as the ones my opponent referenced earlier). That these two scenarios are unlikely does not mean that they are impossible. If true, what could it possibly mean to say that the two cannot be differentiated between in terms of beauty? Beauty is a word that we use to describe an aesthetic opinion, just as health is a word we use to describe an opinion about what is preferable in terms of our physical condition. But these are the terms of the discussion. We would be objectively correct, as objectively correct as it is possible to be, in calling a 30 stone person unhealthy. Would we be wrong (could we, in fact, be considered anything other than right) to call the person considered beautiful by everyone on the planet beautiful?
3. Those who describe a high degree of beauty as repulsiveness or terminal ill-health are not engaging in an intelligible discussion, or are doing so using terms that are essentially unrelated.

There are, of course, schools of art which value problematic, disturbing, or otherwise aesthetically displeasing images above those considered traditionally beautiful, but I would reiterate that my argument is for the objectivity of beauty in terms of human attractiveness to other humans. An unattractive person considered beautiful from an artistic standpoint is only able to be considered as such because of a lack of beauty in the sense that I define it for the purposes of this debate.

I look forward to my opponent's response to these points.


I recently finished The Moral Landscape, and found it fascinating. However, it should be pointed out that no where in the book does Harris mention aesthetic values.

As for the list of points about beauty, I feel I set a bad precedent by accepting the hypothetical scenario put forth in the first argument. While I can accept that one is valid, the idea that there is someone in the world who no one considers attractive is beyond the limits of what I can accept. There are over 6 billion of us, and people's tastes in beauty are extremely diverse. The fattest woman to give birth, Donna Simpson (now 700 lbs, working way to 1000 lbs.), has a considerable male following that pays for some of her meals and access to cameras which record her eating [1].

Moreover, I can't accept the second hypothetical of a person who everyone on the planet considers beautiful. The world population currently hovers at around 6.7 billion, and the statistical probability of even a few of us labeling this Adonis or Aphrodite as "not my type" or "she's okay" is astronomical to the point of near certainty. What you need to do here is set forth an objective criteria for beauty instead of relying on a hypothetical consensus opinion. Harris in The Moral Landscape outlines an objective guide to morality based on the well-being of conscious beings, but still leaves considerable room for moral disagreements that he is fully aware may never be solved [2].

When considering the notion of an objective standard of beauty, one is generally inclined to feel that objective standards are discovered rather than invented. Harris claims his moral code is discovered, as do theistic moral codes predicated on a belief in God and his commandments. The reasons for this are apparent as "invented" standards are inevitably subject to cultural influences and are a "product of the time." In terms of beauty, these facts require discovering some sort of objective standard to which beauty can be judged, and in doing so weighs several factors (if we're talking personal beauty these might be body type, height, weight, facial structure, etc.) "appropriately" and comes to a final judgment that affords it the status of "objective."

In conclusion, I would just like to reiterate what I had said earlier; namely, these hypothetical examples about "universally" beautiful or ugly people cannot and do not exist until proven otherwise. Note that when someone responds "she is beautiful in terms of traditional standards, but she is not my type" there is nothing objectively wrong with that person's opinion. Subjectively, we can easily judge person A as highly attractive and person B as not so, but attempts to universalize judgments of personal beauty (as this is what the conversation has focused on) will inevitably become appeals to majority opinion and suffer from a general lack of information (i.e. the hypotheticals) in an attempt to universalize.

I look forward to Pro's response and concluding arguments in the next round.

[2] Harris, The Moral Landscape 2010.
Debate Round No. 4


Debate round 5

I'll begin my concluding argument with a last ditch defense of the hypothetical. The 'beautiful' person in my scenario was not someone who everybody on the planet considered truly beautiful; it was a person to whom everybody on the planet was at least partially attracted. I admit that it would be incredibly unlikely or any one person to be considered truly beautiful by all people, but a person for whom everybody shared some level of attraction seems realistic. I think that if such a person existed, and I imagine they do, it would be empirically negligent of us to refuse the conclusion that he or she possessed some quality intrinsic to their appearance that caused a particularly high degree of aesthetic or sexual response in observers.

For me, the question would no longer be 'Is this person beautiful?'; beauty is an aesthetic category, and as such should be measured by aesthetic response. When the response is positive, even minimally so, across the board, we must conclude that the object responded to fulfills the criteria for possessing that quality.

The question we would have to ask at that point would be: 'Why is this person beautiful?'. A positive aesthetic or sexual response is not arbitrary. There will always be a complete and theoretically discoverable set of reasons for that response. It may be, for instance, that that person carries a particularly high number of signs of evolutionary 'capital' i.e. the external signifiers of good genes/survivability/health. Alternatively, it could be that such a person fulfilled enough of the world's many and varied cultural criteria for beauty to be considered (again, I must stress, at least partially) attractive by persons from every culture. For example, a large nose may be considered a symbol of female attractiveness in one culture, perhaps on historical or religious grounds. A large nose is not considered particularly attractive by most men in the UK, but large breasts are. A woman with both a large nose and large breasts would therefore be considered at least partially attractive by both cultures, regardless of how disparate those culture's tastes, in a larger sense, may be. Again, it may seem as though this hypothetical stretches the boundaries of believability, but consider the scope for facial and body manipulation in the future, when plastic surgery and even cybernetic technologies have reached the heights of science-fiction. I would be truly amazed if it were not possible, given the possibility of designing person's appearance down to the smallest detail, to create a body that was not, at least partially, attractive to everybody.

Now, while I don't want to dodge my opponent's challenge to deliver an objective standard of beauty as a foundation for my claims, I feel it necessary to take another leaf from Harris's book. While Harris does argue for the objective value of well-being, he does not present a firm, unarguable foundation for what well-being is. Rather, he posits that well-being consists of something like the absence of suffering, and indeed the presence of happiness, in the experiences of conscious creatures. Of course, the experiences of conscious creatures are subjective, but the brain states that cause those experiences are not. Building on this point about the material reality of experience, Harris argues that science can help us decide what a morally good action is because science is well placed to describe the various brain states that arise as the results of our actions.

What I'm arguing is that, just as we can come, through scientific endeavor, to understand the complexities of the brain states than coincide with happiness and suffering, so too, through empirical study, can we come to understand the qualities and attributes that human beings find beautiful, and why. As our knowledge of these relationships grows, we come ever closer to a complete conception of what a beautiful thing must be, in order to provoke these responses. 'Koinophilia', an evolutionary theory that describes why sexual creatures, when choosing a mate, are more likely to choose inividuals with a large number of 'average' or 'common' features, due to those features having proven their evolutionary value, is an example (if true) of an instance in which the empirical observation of an objective reality brings us closer to that understanding. [1]

To conclude then, the prevailing myth that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' does not ring true. To come at the problem of personal judgment from a different angle, perhaps beauty should be regarded entirely apart from opinion, as a truly objective substance. To take this hypothesis to its end-point, when the mechanics of sexual selection are truly well understood, it should be possible to say that a man who describes a particular woman, a woman which study tells us is particularly gifted in terms of sexual suitability, as ugly, is in fact wrong. That differences of opinion exist is only enough to conclude that individual observers' apprehension of reality is inconsistent.

Thanks to Con for giving me a really enjoyable first debate on the site, one in which I must admit to having played devil's advocate. The more contentious the subject matter, the more interesting the debate!



I'll first address a few of my opponent's points and finish up with a recap of my own and a little more.

P1: Partial Attractiveness

Earlier in the debate the concept of a "scale" of beauty was brought up, and while I dismiss these ratings as subjective judgments, Pro believes there is something deeper. As to Pro's point about whether the world could be "partially" attracted to a given person, I believe this point essentially becomes meaningless because even rating someone as a 4 out of a 10 indicates "partial attraction" as would a 2 or 3. Even a 1 doesn't preclude the possibility of partial attraction if going by a 1-10 scale.

Secondly, Pro tries to frame beauty in a universal context, but these attempts unfortunately fall flat when faced with cultural realities and the vast number of ways that individuals have construed aesthetics values through a cultural framework. Pro briefly elicits the idea of evolutionary traits as a potential objective framework, but the idea of quickly dropped in favor of the "partial" attractiveness argument. In response to Pro's large nose/large breasts argument, what if I introduce a third culture that values small breasts and a small nose? Clearly in that culture the large breasted, large nosed woman would be out of luck. What Pro must do here, to account for the cultural discrepancies in beauty, is to be able to make value judgments about how one culture's standards are objective better than another in terms of aesthetics. Instead of going this difficult (but necessary) route for proving objectivity, Pro relies on this "partial attractive" argument that logically becomes meaningless given the degrees of the term.

P2: Brain States/Further Appeal to Evolution

Note how Harris actually lays down a broad, but concrete framework for determining whether action X is ethical. That standard is well-being, and while Harris moves from there, Pro has yet to establish a starting point beyond majority appeal. We must know more than simply that a group of individuals think about aesthetics values to lay down an objective beauty standard, even if these judgments can be corroborated in the brain. Even if we conducted an fMRI on the entire world at t1 and somehow learned, through an immense amount of time an effort, which people were found most and least attractive this says nothing about whether these standards would remain constant if tested later at t2.

Pro has hinted at an evolutionary objective standard, but unfortunately since this is the last round it's not clear if he has thrown down the gauntlet and claimed evolutionary traits as objective. It would be a little peculiar for Pro to claim this, and yet not follow evolutionary ethics (I'm pretty certain he does not as Harris does not.) I'm not sure whether I should address this since I'm not even sure Pro is making the argument that evolution objectively determines our beauty standards. Nonetheless, evolutionary theory implies that women prefer taller men, particularly men taller than themselves [1]. In this sense, would it be sensible to even expect a universal standard for say, a 5'7 male? A 5'2 female might find the man's height perfectly acceptable and given him an 8 of 10 while the same man might immediately be excluded as a potential mate by a 6'0 female. This standard would appear objective only to the individual and fail at universalization, which is a necessary component at an all encompassing objective standard.


In conclusion, I thank Pro for the insightful debate on a philosophically pressing topic. While I feel I answered all of his arguments sufficiently, I am well aware that there may be those who disagree. My role in this debate as the "agnostic" was simply to counter his arguments, as someone who is arguing that "Bigfoot does not exist" as Pro can not provide direct evidence against Bigfoot's existence. Pro has repeatedly appealed to majority opinion and the occasional hypothetical scenario to make his point, but arguments concerning "partial attractiveness" fell into meaninglessness and a discussion on the evolutionary influence of objective beauty would have been fascinating, but unfortunately only appeared briefly in the last round as a semi-argument.

I encourage a vote for Con, but wish the best for Pro in his future debates.

Debate Round No. 5
2 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Posted by Double_R 5 years ago
Good debate. Nice to see that considering what we've had on this site lately.
Posted by Vantrigar 5 years ago
Thanks for the debate! :)
4 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Vote Placed by thett3 5 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Countering MD's absurd votebomb.
Vote Placed by MassDebator255 5 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: thats just something ugly people say.
Vote Placed by Ore_Ele 5 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Both exibited excelent conduct and S&G, though Con gets Conduct for accepting that Pro was having a time conflict. PRO had an emense mountain to climb, regarding their burden. I think that PRO was confusing objective with social subjective, when something is subjective by nature, but accepted by a society as a social norm. However, I give great props to attempting this feat and still doing fairly well at it.
Vote Placed by Double_R 5 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Very well argued by both sides. Pro had a very difficult burden which did not stand up to Cons rebuttals. Con correctly states that true objectivity requires right and wrong which Pro had no answer to.