AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"The Philosophy of Facial Hair" by Henry Pratt

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Henry Pratt is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. He got interested in philosophy around his senior year in high school, when he somehow arrived at the inverted spectrum argument all by himself, blowing his mind. Shortly thereafter, he grew a speed metal goatee and began working his way through a large range of facial hair types while an undergraduate at the University of Vermont and while working on his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University. His primary philosophical work is on artistic value, though he’s also interested in the philosophies of comics, film, and other popular arts.
 
 
Sometimes, when asked what I work on, I’ve been known to reply, “Philosophy of the mustache.” In the past, this has always been a lie. This site seems like an appropriate venue for correcting the problem and mitigating my guilt, particularly because of esteemed Professor Mag Uidhir’s own fondness for sporting a mustache most appropriate to the genre of seedy 1970’s biker films.
 
Though ridiculous, the philosophy of facial hair is actually a pretty interesting topic, one that raises a number of issues in aesthetics and ethics and the intersection of the two.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. Unsurprisingly, a good case can be made for the position that facial hair can add or subtract aesthetic value from the world. It can be ugly, patchy, stringy, greasy, or sparse. It can disrupt an otherwise attractive face—consider the “depression beard” or “beard of sorrow” used in movies and on TV to signify that a character (usually portrayed by a handsome actor) has been brought low (1). Beards can also be downright repulsive, as described in this passage from Roald Dahl’s The Twits:

 
The hair on Mr. Twit’s face didn’t grow smooth and matted like it does on most hairy-faced men. It grew in spikes that stuck out straight like the bristles of a nailbrush. . . . Mr. Twit didn’t even bother to open his mouth wide when he ate. As a result (and because he never washed) there were always hundreds of bits of old breakfasts and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs around his face. . . . If you peered deep into the moustachy bristles sticking out over his upper lip you would probably see much larger objects that had escaped the wipe of his hand, things that had been there for months and months, like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a moldly old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine. Because of this, Mr. Twit never went really hungry (2).
 
Quentin Blake’s illustrations of Mr. Twit’s beard are correspondingly nauseating. But a rich, luxurious beard or mustache, properly cared for, appears on the face of it (heh) to add aesthetic value to the world. Think of the beards sported by ZZ Top, the mustaches of Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, and Rollie Fingers, and the beauty and dignity of all the presidents with facial hair (as compared to those without). Or to see some seriously meritorious facial hair, check out the website of the World Beard and Mustache Championships (3). Even hipsters have recently discovered the power and grace of the full beard, having moved on from the mustache.

At this point, you might object that you’ve got a strong distaste for facial hair, and that you fail to see the appeal of some or even all of the examples mentioned above. My own wife tolerates the full beard, but believes the mustache to have only limited value (generally of the short-term, comedic sort, rather than aesthetic value). Disagreement about the value of facial hair is exactly what we should expect: aesthetic value attributions are typically fraught with conflict, prompting questions about relativism and standards of taste. I’d like to think that there’s a standard of taste that applies to facial hair, but I won’t defend that claim here.
 
The aesthetic qualities of facial hair exert normative pressures: under at least some theories, and under at least some circumstances, one ought to wear facial hair. There’s at least some aesthetic normativity here, but there might be ethical obligations to grow facial hair as well. I don’t think any such obligation can be extracted from the Kantian tradition (feel free to prove me wrong about that. Could it be an imperfect duty to grow facial hair?). But it does arise in natural law context, emerging from Aristotelean considerations about proper functioning. Anselm writes, in what is certainly one of the only philosophical passages devoted to beards:
 
Not having a beard is not dishonorable for a man who is not yet supposed to have a beard, but once he ought to have a beard, it is unbecoming for him not to have one. In the same way, not having justice is not a defect in a nature that is not obligated to have justice, but it is disgraceful for a nature that ought to have it. And to whatever degree his being supposed to have a beard shows his manly nature, to that degree his not having it disfigures his manly appearance (4).
 
On this view, when you can grow a beard, not doing it is an aesthetic defect: it’s unbecoming and it produces a disfigurement of your manly appearance. Furthermore, it’s an ethical defect: it’s dishonorable and disgraceful.
 
You might be unpersuaded by Anselm, on the grounds that natural law theory is a crock and it should be anticipated to have bizarre consequences that stand at odds with sensible moral intuitions. Fair enough. As I thought about this issue, however, I realized that it’s also possible to advance a utilitarian argument for the obligation to grow facial hair. Who knew? In general, one of the main insights of utilitarianism can be captured by using a principle of waste avoidance as a rough guideline: ceteris paribus, if one has the capacity to produce beneficial consequences with the resources one has, one ought not to let those resources go to waste (5). Suppose that one has the ability to grow a fine beard or mustache. Not using this ability is aesthetically wasteful. With minimal effort, one could add something of beauty to the world. The costs of growing a beard are low, and doing so produces additional goods; time ordinarily spent shaving can be put to better use, and resources that go into shaving cream and razors are conserved. So, it seems, according to the utilitarian, those who can grow beautiful facial hair ought to grow it. 
 
For the record, growing facial hair also seems to be a divine command, if you buy into that sort of thing. Leviticus 19:27 reads, “You will not round off your hair at the edges or trim the edges of your beard.” Priests, in particular, “will not make tonsures on their heads, shave the edges of their beards, or gash their bodies” (Leviticus 21:5). More on this in a bit.
 
Perhaps the obligation to grow facial hair ought to sit uneasily with us. In fact, perhaps we should even be uneasy about any positive aesthetic value facial hair bears.
 
To begin, it’s pretty obvious that not everybody can grow facial hair. Many men can’t grow it, some of those who can can’t grow any that looks nice, and the vast majority of women can’t grow it. The quote from Anselm and the utilitarian argument I gave both respect these facts: since ought implies can, being unable to grow (nice) facial hair removes the obligation to grow it. At the same time, there’s something odd going on here: to grow beautiful facial hair is to do add value to the world in a way that other people can’t, precisely due to genetic dispositions that are associated with manliness. Anslem’s claim that being beardless disfigures one’s manly appearance implies that facial hair is a necessary condition on being manly.
 
This position is common in many religious and cultural traditions, where facial hair serves to differentiate men from women and children (as well as to differentiate men from men of other faiths). While many contemporary Muslim scholars argue that beard growth is encouraged but not obligatory, the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslims are forbidden to shave their beards (6). It’s the same with Hasidic and some other Orthodox Jews, many of whom are required to wear long peyos (uncut sidelocks) and beards. Greek Orthodox clergy are forbidden to shave. 


Further evidence: Samson, in the Biblical story, was a Nazarite, having vowed never to shave or cut his hair; when he was shaved (by a woman!) he became like a woman and lost his strength. The Amish believe that once a man marries, he must not shave; in 2011, the leader of a fundamentalist Amish sect in Ohio and his followers were convicted of hate crimes for shaving the beards of those Amish they believed to be insufficiently pious. The men of “Duck Dynasty” used to have a very yuppie, nigh metro-sexual look; they apparently realized that for marketing purposes, it would be good to look like real men, so they grew giant beards (7). There is also evidence that the incidence of facial hair growth spikes in reaction to men’s fashion trends that are perceived to be too effeminate (8). I think this explains not only the Freddie Mercury mustache, but also the hipster trend of growing mustaches and beards—it’s a way to show that you’re manly even though you wear skinny jeans. Complimenting your skinny jeans with a beard is like complimenting your hose with a codpiece. Finally, to get into more personal and potentially sensitive territory, a lot of notable philosophers have worn beards (even when beards weren’t in fashion for men). Is it any accident that (a) philosophers tend to be bearded and (b) we have a serious problem attracting women to the profession?


Facial hair, in short, carries a lot of cultural baggage with it. It’s a symbol of manliness. In fact, it’s a symbol of patriarchy. That’s not good.
 
The patriarchal aspects of facial hair point to a disturbing parallel. Growing beautiful facial hair might just be the equivalent of creating a beautiful painting that’s oppressive towards women. When it comes to the intersection between ethical value and the value of art, various stripes of ethicists and moralists endorse something like the following: approving representations of something morally bad (e.g., by making that thing beautiful) are ethical and artistic flaws in a work. The better action to take, when representing something morally bad, is to condemn it: that produces ethical and artistic merit. Accordingly, if you’re going to put a symbol of patriarchal oppression out there in public, you ought to take pains to indicate that it’s bad.
 
One way to do that is to make the symbol ugly. Strangely enough, in the end, Mr. Twit (despite numerous other vices) might have had the right idea all along. I shall now excuse myself in order to slather my newly unkempt beard with moldy cheese and sardine tails. I expect any similarly bewhiskered readers to do the same.

1. An example readers of this blog are likely to be familiar with is the depression beard on Bruce Wayne at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Al Gore also grew a notable depression beard in real life after the Supreme Court ruled against his election to the presidency. For other examples, see http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BeardofSorrow.
 
2. Roald Dahl, The Twits (New York: Bantam-Skylark Books, 1980): p. 5-7.
 
 
4. Anselm, On the Fall of the Devil, in Three Philosophical Dialogues, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002): Ch. 16, p. 85.
 
5. John Harris, for example, uses this principle to support medical research on extra embryos not used in artificial reproduction. See “Stem Cells, Sex, and Procreation,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 12 (2003): 353-371.
 
6. For reference, see Ibrahim B. Syed, “Growing Beard: Is It Mandatory in Islam?” at http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_201_250/growing_beard_is_it_mandatory_in_islam.htm. According to another website that appears to express a more conservative variety of Islam, “What Islam Says about the Beard” (see http://www.islam.tc/beard/beard.html), facial hair distinguishes men from hermaphrodites!
 
7. See Vyan, “Duck Dynasty is a Fake Yuppies-in-Red-Neck-Drag Con Job,” at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/12/20/1264354/-Duck-Dynasty-is-a-Fake-Yuppies-in-Red-Neck-Drag-Con-Job.
 
8. See Sarah Gold McBride, “’Power Is on the Side of the Beard’: Masculinity and Facial Hair in Ninteenth-Century America,” at http://www.ushistoryscene.com/uncategorized/beards/.

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