Is beauty objective? Or in the eye of the beholder? (Poll)

There is massive disagreement about the ontology of beauty. For many today, beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. For others, beauty is an objective reality. I’ve thought a lot about this over the last several years and honestly, I’m still not 100% persuaded either way. I’ve interacted with philosophers’ thoughts on this subject. I am currently, however, really interested in what the rest of you have to say: The artist, the banker, the farmer, the housewife, the convict, the preacher… But maybe, more importantly, I am interested in why you feel beauty is objective or subjective. So please, answer the poll question and leave your thoughts below.

Is beauty objective?


ThMona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouchede concept of beauty has challenged us for centuries. There is an age-old debate: Is beauty an objective quality, as timeless and universal as the laws of physics, or is it purely in the eye of the beholder, subject to personal experiences and cultural influences? This question has sparked debate among philosophers, artists, and scholars for generations. Some argue that there are objective features of beautiful objects, inherent to the object itself. Others claim that beauty is entirely subjective, a matter of personal preference and cultural interpretation.

Beauty as Objective

Beauty, according to the objective view, possesses qualities that transcend individual preferences and cultural variations. To support this perspective, one must consider both historical and scientific insights.

Historical and Cultural Perspectives

Various cultures throughout history have held distinct standards of beauty. The ancient Greeks admired the perfectly proportioned human form. But ideals of feminine beauty have evolved through time seeing different traits as optimum. Some argue that despite these variations, there are universal elements that contribute to our perception of beauty. Consider the timeless appreciation of symmetry and proportion in art and architecture across diverse cultures. This may suggest that there are objective qualities that resonate innately within humanity.

Beauty as a transcendental

For many, the most convincing argument for the objectivity of beauty rests in the identification of beauty as a transcendental. If beauty is a transcendental like truth and goodness, then it is convertible with these and ultimately a characteristic of God. This would make beauty an objective characteristic of being. Perfect beauty would ultimately be found in the infinite perfection of God. True beauty then would have nothing to do with our subjective judgements of particular cultures or individuals. It would be rooted in the nature of God

Evolutionary Biology and Beauty Preferences

Some advocates of the objective view turn to evolutionary biology to explain certain aspects of our perception of beauty. According to this perspective, human beings are naturally drawn to traits that signal health and reproductive fitness. For instance, clear skin, symmetrical features, and certain body proportions may serve as indicators of good health, making them universally appealing. While evolutionary biology does not account for all aesthetic judgments, it suggests that there may be some objective factors at play in our perception of beauty.

Psychological and Neurological Studies

Psychological and neurological research has shed light on the idea that beauty may have objective underpinnings. Studies using brain imaging technology have shown that when people view objects they consider beautiful, specific areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward are activated. While these findings don’t confirm an objective reality of beauty, they do suggest that our brains respond to certain stimuli in consistent ways, providing some support for the objective perspective.

However, it’s important to acknowledge the criticisms and counterarguments directed at the objective view of beauty. Opponents argue that even if there are certain universally appreciated features, these do not imply an objective fact about the nature of beauty. Instead, they contend that these shared preferences may be the result of cultural conditioning and personal experiences.

There is also the perspective that these scientific arguments support a subjective view of beauty. In this line of thinking, the beauty of the object rests in the evolutionary and neurological development of the subject.

Beauty as Subject to Personal Preference

Advocates of the subjective view assert that beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder, shaped by personal experiences, cultural influences, individual perspectives, and even sexual desires. The complexities of cultural relativism and the role of personal experiences in shaping our perception of beauty are crucial for understanding this perspective.

Different Cultures, Different Beauty Standards

One of the strongest arguments for the subjectivity of beauty is the vast cultural diversity in beauty standards. What one culture finds attractive, another might not. For example, the curvaceous figures celebrated in some African cultures contrast with the slim, angular ideals prevalent in many Western cultures. Some argue that this cultural diversity in beauty standards challenges the notion of beauty as an objective quality and suggests it is culturally constructed.

Media and Cultural Influences

The media plays a pivotal role in shaping our perception of beauty. Advertisements, fashion magazines, and social media platforms bombard us with images of supposed beauty, influencing our personal standards of attractiveness. Critics of the objective view argue that these media-driven beauty ideals are rooted in profit-driven motives and reflect cultural norms and trends that can change rapidly. Proponents of objective beauty sometimes argue that these do not represent true beauty. Instead, they reflect flawed judgments or assessments of desirability that may be ontologically distinct from beauty.

Psychological and Sociological Research

Psychological and sociological studies offer support for the idea that beauty is subjective. Research has shown that personal experiences, such as upbringing, life events, and cultural exposure, significantly influence our aesthetic judgments. What one person finds beautiful, another may not, and these differences often trace back to personal histories and cultural backgrounds.

While advocates of the subjective view acknowledge that cultural relativism and personal experiences heavily influence our perception of beauty, they argue that this does not diminish the value of the aesthetic experience. Beauty is still very much a part of the human experience, even if it is not an objective claim about the world.

The Interplay between Objectivity and Subjectivity

The debate about the nature of beauty does not need to be an either/or proposition; beauty can exist on a spectrum between objectivity and subjectivity. The interplay between these two perspectives is evident in various aspects of human life.

Personal Experiences and Emotions

Our personal experiences and emotions significantly shape our experience of beauty. A work of art, for instance, can evoke powerful emotions that enhance our perception of its beauty. The personal connection we feel to an object or artwork can make it beautiful in our eyes, even if others do not share the same sentiment.

Works of Art that Bridge the Gap

Certain works of art challenge the strict divisions between objective and subjective beauty. Consider the enduring appeal of the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David. These masterpieces possess qualities like beautiful proportion and symmetry, often associated with objective beauty, yet they also evoke deep emotional responses, revealing the role of subjectivity in our aesthetic experiences.

A Middle Perspective

Some hold a perspective on beauty that takes into account both objective and subjective elements. This viewpoint recognizes that beauty can have universal qualities that resonate with many people while also acknowledging the role of personal experiences and cultural influences. The debate over beauty does not need to be a binary argument but can encompass the complexities of human perception.

Defining Beauty

Part of the challenge is actually defining beauty. Culturally we tend to have a loose definition of beauty that may actually encompass other aesthetic categories such as pretty, sublime, or agreeable. Philosophers on the other hand tend to have stricter understandings of the terms though they may not all agree. The article, “Beauty and more: a systematic approach to reconciling aesthetic categories” explores this issue more thoroughly.

Philosophers also often occupy themselves with different questions as they relate to beauty. Thomistic philosophers such as Jaques Maritan were interested in the ontology of beauty while Immanuel Kant was interested in judgments of beauty. So while Maritan argued for a universal rule or objective idea of beauty, Kant is often seen as arguing for a subjective understanding of beauty. The two ideas can actually work together. Kant was concerned with the judgment made in the human mind. But he still believed that the individual ought to reach the same conclusion as any other individual. This oughtness is rooted in the subjective judgment, not the objective ontology. So Maritan could be correct about the objectivity of beauty and Kant correct that individuals make a subjective judgment about beauty. This potentially could reconcile Kant’s subjectivity with the existence of objective beauty.


In the quest to understand the nature of beauty, the debate between objectivity and subjectivity remains both fascinating and complex. The concept of beauty may, in many ways, be a blend of objective features and subjective judgments. While the ontology of beauty may be universal, the personal plays a significant role in shaping our perception of beauty. As Immanuel Kant and Crispin Sartwell have contended, beauty is not a “such thing,” but rather a concept that is deeply intertwined with the human experience.

Whether beauty is objective or subject to personal preference, it is an integral part of the human condition. Our diverse perspectives on beauty enrich our understanding of the world and the things that we find beautiful. While the debate may persist, what remains true is that beauty, whatever its nature, continues to inspire and captivate us, enhancing our aesthetic experiences and the way we engage with the world.


This poll is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect pieces from the past that are either still relevant today. This piece was first published on May 27, 2014, and has been significantly amended.

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  • I voted “NO”. I’m not going to get into too much detail here, but I can tell you, as an ugly person, and as a person that lusts, beauty is not at all objective. There is a double standard.

  • I voted “yes.” I believe forms of beauty are objective, and within these broad parameters, there are many subjective factors. For instance, facial symmetry is beautiful, but various facial characteristics are in the eye of the beholder. However, even if facial symmetry is traumatically distorted, we can find even wounds to be subjectively beautiful if they were received from saving someone. Waterfalls, etc, were also in mind.

  • I voted no. Beauty should be objective without a doubt, but given how differently every aspect of beauty can be viewed it becomes subjective to individual opinion.

  • Wrong question. Or more importantly, non-issue. Who gains power if it is? Who gains power if it isn’t? This is like asking if God is objective. What does it ultimately matter? Who am I to define God? Who am I to define Beauty? Just as God defines himself, so does Beauty.


  • Hi Rondall, I absolutely believe beauty is objective, both framed by our values, morals and learning and yet at the same time carved invisibly into the fabric of the Universe behind the scenes.

    Humanity having drifted far far away from the Source of Beauty is deceived and being self deceived is at the heart of human blindness, aggravated by an inflated impostor ego, aggrandized by a woeful ignorance of Truth, which is God.

    I think beauty has everything to do with good and evil, and ultimately has everything to do with the fall of man. Imagine if the tree in the garden was the tree of the knowledge of beauty and ugliness.

    If beauty is not objective then it is not beauty at all, it is just mere opinion and anything and everything then is both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

  • I think Beauty is eternal and yes, objective, but as with Truth and Goodness, we “see through the glass darkly,” and therefore, our perception of it will always be subjective. To believe in God is, I *think* to believe in the eternal and objective nature of Beauty/Goodness/Truth.

  • I voted “yes,” but my full answer is “beauty is both objective and subjective! It always has an objective aspect, but also always requires a beholder and the uniqueness of the beholder”

  • Hey Rondall. Way to open up a can of worms! Since you asked me to respond, here goes…

    I am a proponent of aesthetic objectivism, in that beauty is an intrinsic quality of an object independent of the person experiencing the object. I further believe that true Beauty is defined according to God’s original intention of creation (it was “good”). And as such, all true Beauty points to God, because it hints at His fingerprint upon the universe. In this way, Beauty and Truth are related, in that they both originate from God’s purpose in action.

    However, I also believe that we are an experiential and highly opinionated species. And since beauty is a quality that provides humans with a perceptual experience, our experience of beauty is subjective, though the quality of beauty is not. And this makes sense because our perception of beauty, and how we respond to it, is a subset of our free will.

    I blogged on this a few years ago: https://manuelluz.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/o-beauty-ancient/

  • More importantly, why do you feel the need to classify, even objectify, Beauty as either objective or subjective?


  • Your question actually asks of the value of words to express experience. I would argue that it is the “objective” that is beautiful, the thing-in-itself that allows for the freedom of a “subjective” response. Therein lies, in my opinion, a purely democratic process, and therefore a freedom that objective beauty personifies.
    There is also a wonderful, though quite different approach to defining beauty, in a book entitled: The Retrieval of the Beautiful: Thinknig Through Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetics, by Galen A. Johnson, an honors professor of philosophy at the University of Rhode Island. Good luck with your “curiosity.” :-)

  • Matt Skinner says:

    Wow! Great question. I’m leaning towards saying it is NOT objective in most situations. Man looks at the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). I would say, for example, that my wife is not only physically beautiful but she also has character qualities that I think are beautiful (patient, loving, kind, etc). However, those are still only my opinions and someone else may disagree (in which case I’d have to clobber them).

  • I believe there are God shaped vacuums…that get filled with that pleasing to Him and beneficial like food for our souls and spirit…or with the perverse…which simply is that that indulges our fleshly desires. And one such space longs for the aesthetic…builds appreciation and thus nurtures a thankful heart.

    We thus get a glimpse of what God declared “good” in Creation with that we perceive as beautiful. The “what” and the “degree” to what defines beauty for us is personal and I would say subjective…but that we will find beauty…the “finding” is objective.

  • Bobbette Rose says:

    I believe we are made with an innate understanding of beauty…it’s part of our being created in the image of God…God is beauty…anything that brings me into a connection with that “God” beauty whether I understand it as coming from God or not, will be seen by me as beautiful. That’s why something can be horrific and externally revolting but have the power to make me weep for the beauty of it…because it’s connecting me with the something true about God and the way I have been created.
    I just spent a year at the bedside of my dying father as he slowly withered away minute by minute, it was sad, it was hard, there were alot of ugly moments and yet it was profoundly beautiful.
    However my understanding and ability to receive something as beautiful is subjective. Every moment and object has the potential of being understood as beautiful based on my ability to receive it as beauty. And this is what makes beauty mysterious and ungraspable and why I think we have grown to disdain it. We grown ”bent” and believe more in “ugliness” (or that which rejects the created truth of God) as being our guide to truth rather than beauty.

  • Bill Goldman says:

    Once, a long time ago, I was doing a course with the Open University on Aesthetics (in fact, it was called that), and one of the questions was something like “What is beauty?” I remember researching it by reading an essay by Kant, and my impression was that he concluded that beauty both is and is not objective, i.e. it is in the eye of the beholder but it is also objectively present.

    The simplest argument that shows this to be true, I think, is that if it were not true, how would, say, two art critics be able to debate on the relative merits – that is to say, beauties – of two different pictures? If the beauty’s objective presence can be debated, then it cannot be merely in the eye of the beholder – you can’t debate whether strawberries or bananas taste better, right?

    But the whole of cultural criticism is based, I would say, whether consciously or not, on the premise that there IS something to discuss, i.e. that beauty is not only, but only partly, in the eye of the beholder.

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