If ‘status anxiety’ is as big a threat to individual well-being as many egalitarians seem to think then logically they should favour the equalisation of opportunities based on physical attractiveness as well as those based on income. Policies focussed solely on ‘correcting’ the income distribution may simply intensify the significance of physical attractiveness or other status markers unrelated to levels of material wealth. In the absence of income redistribution a person who is physically unattractive may be ‘compensated’ by their relative wealth, while someone who is relatively poor but physically attractive may be ‘compensated’ by their beauty. An exclusive focus on income redistribution in this case intensifies the importance of beauty as a status marker and does an injustice to the rich but ugly person.
This argument is not intended to be as flippant as it may seem. Sex is an important if not crucial part of most people’s lives. Indeed, survey evidence indicates that people often rank finding an attractive and satisfying partner equal to if not more highly in their happiness quotient than having a high-paying job. The determinants of whether one is sexually successful are, however, often the result of factors which are ‘not deserved’. Those fortunate enough to be born with genes for above average attractiveness are likely to have a greater choice of potential partners than those less well endowed – but they no more deserve these characteristics than does someone deserve the advantages from being born into a higher income home, having the intelligence quotient of Stephen Hawking or the football skills of Wayne Rooney. On egalitarian grounds, therefore, differences in attractiveness meet the usual criteria considered to warrant redistributive state action – they are an important factor influencing the quality of individuals lives and they are distributed in a manner which is to use Rawls’s terminology, ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view’. One might, therefore, seek to justify a range of policies to improve access to ‘sexual goods’. These could include the provision of vouchers to enable the less attractive to buy the experience of sex with someone who is physically more desirable or if the direct involvement of money payments for sex is thought to debase the nature of the act then people could secure these goods ‘free at the point of delivery’ from professional public service sex workers contracted by the National Health Service. Alternatively, the less attractive might be provided with subsidised access to cosmetic surgery, or the more attractive might be required to undergo some simple and relatively painless surgical procedures in order to ‘level the playing field’.
With the possible exception of Martha Nussbaum, who has argued that sexual fulfilment is a human right, most egalitarians would (thankfully) balk at such suggestions.* That they do so, however, reveals the root inconsistency of much egalitarian doctrine. So called ‘luck egalitarians’ are obsessed with ‘compensating’ people for inequalities which result from ‘chance’ rather than ‘choice’ – but if eliminating the effects of luck is the key to social justice then un-chosen differences in sex appeal which contribute to the chances of a fulfilled life should indeed be the subject of redistribution.
It will not do to claim that income redistribution is justified because it requires less invasive procedures – a lifetime of punitive taxation for a high income person may turn out equally invasive as taxing the beautiful or requiring that they undergo a one-off ‘de-beautifying’ procedure. Moreover, if we accept that sexual equalisation is in fact too intrusive to warrant state intervention this would be to concede that luck cannot be eliminated as a significant factor in peoples’ lives. It will be no comfort to the rich but ugly person to know that their wealth can be confiscated in the name of social justice but that their lack of sex appeal cannot be the legitimate subject of public policy because this would be ‘too intrusive’. All the egalitarian could say to such a person is that they are the unfortunate victims of the ‘wrong kind of luck’.
Robert Nozick’s ‘solution’ to the problem of unequally distributed status is a more persuasive one. Instead of choosing one dimension such as income on which to equalise people better to have a society characterised by many different dimensions against which one can judge success – income, sex appeal, intelligence, athletic prowess, aesthetic sense, degree of sympathy for other persons, etc., etc. In such a society people who fair poorly on some dimensions in relation to their fellows are likely to find a source of self esteem from other dimensions where they do better. For those unfortunate enough to score poorly on all the relevant dimensions then better to promote self esteem by telling them that they have done as well as they can – given their limited attributes. Hardly a perfect solution to the arbitrariness of life, but considerably more plausible than an egalitarian dystopia which does actually attempt to ‘compensate’ people for the many ways in which they ‘undeservedly’ differ , or one which fixes arbitrarily on material wealth as the only legitimate subject of distributive justice.
*Nussbaum would not support de-beautification of the attractive because this would breach the human right of bodily integrity on her ‘list’ of what is required for a flourishing human life.