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Morality, Beauty, and Abercrombie

July 17th, 2009 | 6 min read

By Gary Hartenburg

There are, at least, two general ways of thinking about moral rights and goods.One way is to think of rights as protections against others who would prevent me from satisfying my desires.What is good is what satisfies the desires I happen to have.On this view, if I have a desire to eat, then, all things being equal, it’s good that I eat.The action of eating is good because it satisfies a desire.That bit about “all things being equal” isn’t insignificant.Usually, in order for all things to be equal, my action cannot harm someone else and others involved in my actions must consent to be part of the action.(Usually, the degree to which someone is involved in my actions—prominently or peripherally—is related to the kind of consent I need to secure from them—explicit or tacit.)

The second way of thinking about rights and goods starts by holding that I have a duty (based on a standard of what’s reasonable) to seek what is good and avoid what is bad.Thus, rights are simply provisions to ensure equal treatment so that everyone can seek what is good as much as possible.Notice that the second way of thinking lacks any reference to my desires.I am supposed to seek whatever is good and avoid whatever is bad regardless of whatever I might desire.

I’m not entirely sure that these two ways of thinking are mutually exclusive in all respects and implications.I suspect that they’re not.But taken as general approaches or even as accounts that sketch out general action-guiding principles, they seem to be sufficiently different to consider in opposition.In general, the former view is expressed by David Hume and, perhaps, John Rawls, among others; the latter by Socrates, Plato, and St. Thomas among others.

These different approaches to what’s good and right affect our everyday judgments about what’s morally permissible and impermissible.Consider, for example, Abercrombie and Fitch, which is in the news again for allegedly telling an employee with a prosthetic arm that she cannot work on the sales floor because she does not fit the Abercrombie “look policy.”What should we say about Abercrombie’s behavior?

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