Whenever ethics and aesthetics come into conflict, is it always aesthetics that must give way? What is so bad about killing ugly people to decrease the net ugliness in the world?

I have to wonder: are you trolling? If not, I'm not sure whether any possible reply is likely to satisfy you. That said, since it can be useful to try to articulate things we normally take for granted, a handful of comments.

If someone thinks that getting rid of ugly people trumps not killing people, there's an obvious question: perhaps you're beautiful now, or at least, perhaps you're not ugly. But that can change. It might change slowly through the depredations of aging, or it might change in an instant because of some horrific accident. If you think it would be okay to kill someone because they're ugly, you should agree that it would also be okay to kill you if you become ugly.

Now the reply might be: this amounts to begging the question; it implicitly puts ethics above aesthetics. The test I've offered is near kin to the Golden Rule or, at least the Silver Rule, or in any case Kant's Categorical Imperative. But that misses the point. If Jack thinks it would be okay to kill someone else just because they're ugly but not okay to kill Jack if Jack should become ugly, then Jack has simply stepped outside rational discussion. Jack has offered a distinction without a difference; he couldn't have any reply to someone who said "Nope; it would be fine to kill you if you turned ugly, but not to kill me."

If there's to be any actual reasoning about the matter, the Golden-Rule-like question is unavoidable. My guess is that that there would be very few people—if there are any at all—who'd be willing to be killed for being ugly. But suppose there are some. (For all I can say for sure, maybe you're one of them.) What can we say then?

The fact is, someone could consistently think beauty is so valuable and ugliness so vile that it's better to kill the ugly than let them sully the boulevard. There's no knock-down proof that this is wrong. But it seems to ignore an awful lot. To begin with the least of what's ignored, people who are physically ugly can sometimes make things that are beautiful. But quite apart from that, a world with less suffering and less fear, other things equal, sounds like a better world to most of us. If people could be killed merely for being ugly, the sum total of fear and suffering would surely increase. And anyone who's ever been moved by acts of kindness and compassion is likely to think that a world with more kindness and more compassion is better than a world with less.

But there's something simpler, and for most people it will be pretty convincing. It's a question: how could the fact that someone has the bad luck to be ugly possibly mean that they deserve to die?

Seems to me the only serious answer is that it couldn't.

A postscript: the larger question was whether ethics always trumps aesthetics. A closely-related question is whether a life that always puts moral considerations above all other considerations, no matter how apparently trivial the issue, is a good one. Susan Wolf had interesting things to say about this some years ago in her paper "Moral Saints." (Journal of Philosophy, August 1982.) Here's a link to her essay:


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