In “Eye of the Beholder” Miss Janet Tyler’s appearance is different from that of most members of the society in which she lives, and she agrees to undergo an operation to bring her into conformity with others. In “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” Marilyn’s appearance is also different from that of most members her the society in which she lives, but she resists undergoing an operation that will bring her into conformity with others. Both episodes appear to be about beauty, about an individual who is not beautiful by the standards of their world, and about the role of enforcing those standards. Ultimately, neither episode is about beauty and ugliness, but about sameness and diversity.
“Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” has us imagine a possible world in which human beings are born with the diversity of appearance with which we are familiar, but a procedure has been developed to transform each person into one of a small number of human body types. These types or models are numbered, and by the time adulthood is reached, each person is expected to choose a “transformation” into of the models, to become a number 8 or a number 12, for example. Undergoing the transformation, is not optional.
When we reflect on a possible world like this one, we can ask which features of the world are effects and which are causes. For example in Marilyn’s world, is the requirement that everyone undergo a transformation the cause of the ideology that is shared by members of the society, or is it the shared ideology that causes them to require the transformation?
This is a difficult question, one that we may not be able to answer. But it is worthwhile to consider how the beliefs and values of a society are related to the conventions and laws they adopt. In Marilyn’s society, a premium is placed on personal happiness and satisfaction. That many be true in any society, but the difference here has to do with how happiness and a satisfied psyche is achieved. When her mother suspects that Marilyn is unhappy, she orders her a glass of “instant smiles,” a drink containing a drug that will instantly improve her disposition. Such mind-altering drugs are not just found in this possible world, but in our actual world. Everyone goes by their first name. Formalities are minimized. Is that a trend in our world?
In Marilyn’s world and in ours, a premium is placed on eliminating conflict quickly and expeditiously, by the use of mind-altering drugs and other methods. In Marilyn’s world one of those methods is removing the differences between individuals that lead to conflict. Her society has outlawed literature…
Another source of conflict arises from the differences in the appearance of human beings. In our world, as Serling notes, we have “plastic surgery, body building and an infinity of cosmetics” which can be seen as tools for promoting uniformity. Marilyn’s world takes it a big step further, and distills those tools into a quick and easy transformation. The result, however, in Marilyn’s case is more than a change in appearance. After the transformation, which she is forced to undergo, she emerges with a changed character as well. Has she had a change of mind, and now realizes that the transformation is a good thing, or has the operation modified her mind as well as her body? Is she still the same person after the transformation? Notice that everyone wears name tags in Marilyn’s world, because without them, it would be difficult to identify different people by sight.
Marilyn’s philosophical difference from the others is due to the influence of her father, who exposed her to literature and philosophy, from which she came away with the idea that difference is to be celebrated, not eliminated. Her father held that “Without ugliness there is no beauty, because everyone is the same.” It isn’t clear that this is or will be a problem for Marilyn and her peers, since each individual is transformed from a natural state of diversity to an engineered state of conformity. There are still plenty of “ugly” young people who need to be transformed, and the contrast between the ugly youth and the beautifully transformed adults can be maintained. The claim of Marilyn’s father may suggest that it is appropriate to maintain the diversity of the youth in their population.
We tend to think that aesthetic judgments are distinct from judgments about government, rights, liberties, and intellectual inquiry. “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” paints a different picture. If differences are respected and valued, then what it’s considered beautiful will not be the same as what would be considered beautiful in a society where differences are devalued. Where being beautiful means appearing the same as other people, not being beautiful entails not being respected, not being valued as a person and as a member of society.
Appiah, A., 2005, The Ethics of Identity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.