Should It Be Illegal to Sack Workers for Their Looks?

One Stanford Law professor--and plenty of commentators--think so

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Stanford professor Deborah L. Rhode wrote the recently-published book Beauty Bias, which argues in favor of creating laws to punish discrimination based on looks and attractiveness. The reception the book has received is mixed. On the one hand, many reviewers find the many examples of appearance-based inequality compelling. (Shorter men earn less over their lifetimes, obese people often receive heavier sentences in court, women have been fired for weight gain.) On the other hand, many commentators are concerned that new laws might lead to a profusion of misguided legislation and regulation.

  • A Real Problem, Deeply Rooted in American Society  Dahlia Lithwick of Slate is sympathetic to the inequalities Rhode decries, particularly "the penchant to discriminate against unattractive women (and also short men)." But Lithwick has some doubts about how effective laws targeting such inequalities could be: "While appearance bias is certainly a massive societal problem with tangible economic costs, most of us--even women, and perhaps especially women--will perpetuate such bias each time we buy a diet pill or sneer at Elena Kagan for not dressing like Miley Cyrus."
  • Law Could Be Smart, If You Allow Exceptions  Mike Labossiere of Talking Philosophy runs through the criticisms of Rhode's proposed laws, including "the reasonable concern that people are naturally biased in favor of attractive people." But he still believes there is a compelling reason to favor it: relevance. While it's morally wrong "to fire or otherwise mistreat a person in a professional context based on appearance," there are certain jobs where looks are a real asset. So, he writes, "if appearance is a legitimate asset and actually part of certain jobs, then to hire (or not hire) people based on appearance would not be discriminatory in these cases."
  • Smart, If Not Feminists' Top Priority  In May, Emily Bazelon also touched on this argument in New York Times. Bazelon says that "if you fear that civil rights law is already bloated, you'll probably be unmoved. But Rhode insists that she's not conjuring up an overlawyered world in which aspiring models sue for losing work. She would allow businesses to select employees based on appearance in the same way they can legally select on the basis of sex: if it's a 'bona fide occupational qualification" for the job.'" Yet as Bazelon notes, even Rhode doesn't see this as the highest priority for advocates of women's rights.
  • Define by Weight and Age, Not Beauty  Anna North of Jezebel supports the concept but acknowledges that "Beauty is more subjective than either race or gender, and so proving appearance discrimination might be much harder than substantiating discrimination of other kinds. It also might be difficult to drum up popular support..." Instead, she proposes that "perhaps we ought to be focusing on more discrete, measurable attributes such as weight and age."
  • Current Laws Little Used--So Why Add More?  Kate Vander Wiede says in the Christian Science Monitor that the evidence of discrimination is disturbing, but is less compelled by Rhode's case for new regulation. Wiede looks at places that have such laws on the books. People use the laws seldom, which might suggest that "if a law that isn't used might not be unnecessary." Of course, "it is also true that unpopular laws - such as those concerning slavery, integration, and sexual harassment - also serve to stir thought."
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