The price of beauty

William Saletan, who I think is one of the most sophisticated popular writers on medical ethics, wrote a piece earlier this week criticizing the decision to give a face transplant to a woman whose face had been severely damaged. At issue is whether we can justify risking a life in order to achieve a merely aesthetic/cosmetic benefit. Society is wrong for judging people according to appearance, goes the argument. We shouldn't participate in an immoral system.

First of all, this is related to a line of argument frequently made in bioethics that medical procedures should have only medical benefits (this is one of the charges made against male circumcision). But why on earth should that be? As long as benefits and harms are up for consideration, why not a non-medical benefit? Why should benefits be restricted to a relation to the ostensible process? I take my child to Gymboree. I do so not because I believe their claims that it will help his cognitive development. I do it so he can play in a room with lots of mats and I can chat with moms. Is there anything wrong with that?

Also, it seems extremely tough to ask this woman without much of a face to sacrifice a semblance of normalcy in order to prove a point about how society should be more tolerant. People tend to think that our culture is unique in the value it places on human beauty. Multiple studies show, hwoever, that every culture so values it. What is considered beautiful varies, the fact that beauty is valued is not. Wishing away such a strong and universal drive will be difficult, if not impossible.

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