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Morality, Beauty, and Abercrombie

July 17th, 2009 | 5 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?

Of course, Abercrombie tries to justify its action (and other similar actions in the past) by referring to its look policy, which says that the company wants its sales staff to look a certain way—usually young, athletic, sexy, etc.But of course the reply to that is to question whether the look policy itself can be justified in some way.Can the look policy be justified?

On the first way of thinking about rights and goods, the look policy could be justified the following way: Abercrombie has a claim (let’s suppose it’s a reasonable one) that having a sales staff that looks a lot like their target market improves sales.Since having a prosthetic arm isn’t in keeping with selling to the target market, moving the salesperson with the prosthetic arm to the stockroom is justified.In other words, having a certain look is part of the job description for an Abercrombie salesperson.

So on the first view, Abercrombie has a desire to maximize its sales to its target market, and it has a right to fulfill that desire just as long as no one is harmed by the actions it takes to fulfill the desire.But didn’t Abercrombie harm its employee by asking her to move to the stockroom?According to Abercrombie, no.In the first place, she wasn’t fired.In the second place, no laws were (clearly) broken.In the third place, the employee doesn’t have a right to be a salesperson.(This last point suggests that harms are to be understood primarily as violations of rights.)

(It is important to note that attempting to cast aspersions on Abercrombie’s actions by trying to identify a way in which they have harmed the salesperson means that we are still operating within the first way of thinking about rights and goods.)

Contrast the first way with the second.On the second way, we ask what good Abercrombie is trying to accomplish or realize.One answer is clear: money.But that isn’t a very good answer because money isn’t a basic good; it’s only good for what it can get the one who has it.So what other good is Abercrombie trying to realize?Another answer is: a certain kind of “look”—the Abercrombie image.

At this point, the second view directs us to ask whether the Abercrombie image is a good one, and the rubric under which the goodness of images are evaluated is beauty.Thus, the pertinent ethical question turns out to be: Is the Abercrombie image beautiful?If yes, then it is to be pursued.If no, then it is to be avoided, or at least improved upon.

Well, is the Abercrombie image beautiful?I don’t know.I suspect that it’s not, but I’m not expert enough (or at all) in that area.I of course know what I like when it comes to images (and I don’t like the Abercrombie image), but what I like is not necessarily a good guide to what’s good as far as images go.If you’re a relativist about beauty, then this whole approach comes to naught.If you’re not a relativist about beauty, then you have your work cut out for you: discover whether the Abercrombie image is beautiful or not.

I suppose the nonrelativist about beauty will appeal to a certain feature of beauty—harmony, for example—that is lacking in the Abercrombie image.(The reasoning would be that the Abercrombie image lacks harmony because it is too uniform and so lacks a sufficient amount of difference that is needed to realize the different elements that can be harmonized.)But appealing to criteria is not necessarily the only way to evaluate the image objectively; one could be a particularist about aesthetic judgments.Spelling out this distinction, however, is for another day.

In any case, on the second view it turns out that the question of whether the “Abercrombie look” is beautiful or not counts for a lot in our moral judgment about whether Abercrombie made the right decision in sending its employee to the backroom.Abercrombie’s action will be defensible only if its intentions are reasonable, that is to say, only if they intend to bring about some good—in their case, the good of a particular (beautiful) image.