Old Man: Do you see that young man over there?
Young Man: Yeah.
O: What do you think of him, of his looks?
Y: He looks strong. He’s handsome, I suppose.
O: Yes, he’s very handsome. Everyone agrees. People look at him in awe. Sometimes they can’t take their eyes off him.
Y: He thinks highly of himself—
O: Because other people think highly of him. Was that jealousy I heard?
Y: I’m not jealous exactly. I feel fine about the way I look.
O: But you don’t get praised the way he does.
Y: And I don’t see why he should.
O: Do you mean to ask why people should think highly of him because of his looks?
O: Well, that’s a question. But you can’t just leave it there. You can’t just feel satisfied because you were sharp enough to ask such a sharp question. You can’t just challenge a fact and think highly of yourself for doing so. Anyone can ask that question in a snide way. Anyone can be bitter. You’re not just bitter, are you?
Y: I guess I am bitter. But I’m not only bitter. I really don’t understand why people admire a handsome guy more.
O: Let’s think it through. What’s one reason?
O: Say more.
Y: Well, we may instinctively associate certain looks with health. And if we can see health, then we can find a mate, or competition, or something.
O: Good. So there is a possible explanation in evolutionary biology.
Y: But that doesn’t explain why we praise people for good looks. We might have no chance of being the mate of the good-looking one. In my case, I have no interest in being his mate, but I feel like I should treat him well because he looks good.
O: You might see him as competition.
Y: Maybe. But in that case I wouldn’t want to be friends with him.
Y: Still, I feel like there must be more.
O: Some missing moral element? Yes, something that makes us jump from seeing biological advantage to seeing praiseworthiness.
O: It’s the same thing with intelligence and genius, really. These we recognize as advantageous, but we also tend to think of them as innate or inherited—mostly outside the control of the one who has them.
Y: Exactly! And yet we praise them for it anyway! We praise them for what they have been given.
O: It is odd. But now you’ve got yourself to the bigger question.
Y: Which is?
O: Should we praise a man for his character or for his choices? for who he is or for what he does?
Y: Now I think I’m out of my league.
O: Yes, but I bet you don’t feel bitter anymore.