In ethics and value theory, perfectionism is the persistence of will in obtaining the optimal quality of spiritual, mental, physical, and material being. The neo-Aristotelean Thomas Hurka describes perfectionism as follows:
This moral theory starts from an account of the good life, or the intrinsically desirable life. And it characterizes this life in a distinctive way. Certain properties, it says, constitute human nature or are definitive of humanity—they make humans human. The good life, it then says, develops these properties to a high degree or realizes what is central to human nature. Different versions of the theory may disagree about what the relevant properties are and so disagree about the content of the good life. But they share the foundational idea that what is good, ultimately, is the development of human nature.
The perfectionist does not necessarily believe that one can attain a perfect life or state of living. Rather, a perfectionist practices steadfast perseverance in obtaining the best possible life or state of living.
Perfectionism, as a moral theory, has a long history and has been addressed by influential philosophers. Aristotle stated his conception of the good life (eudaimonia). He taught that politics and political structures should promote the good life among individuals; because the polis can best promote the good life, it should be adopted over other forms of social organization.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell develops the idea of moral perfectionism as the idea that there is an unattained but attainable self that one ought to strive to reach. Moral perfectionists believe that the ancient questions such as "Am I living as I am supposed to?" make all the difference in the world and they describe the commitment we ought to have in ways that seem, but are not, impossibly demanding. We do so because it is only in the keeping such an "impossible" view in mind that one can strive for one's "unattained but attainable self."
Stanley Cavell uses Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and John Stuart Mill as models of this view and detects strains of it in Rousseau and Kant as well. Hilary Putnam has also endorsed this idea and ascribes it to Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Franz Rosenzweig.
Perfection means more than—or something different from—happiness or pleasure, and perfectionism is distinct from utilitarianism in all its forms. A society devoted to perfectionist principles may not produce happy citizens—far from it. Kant regarded such a society as government paternalism, which he denied for the sake of a "patriotic" state (imperium non paternale, sed patrioticum). While the individual is responsible for living a virtuous life, the state should be limited to the regulation of human coexistence.
Alfred Naquet has written in this regard:
The true role of collective existence ... is to learn, to discover, to know. Eating, drinking, sleeping, living, in a word, is a mere accessory. In this respect, we are not distinguished from the brute. Knowledge is the goal. If I were condemned to choose between a humanity materially happy, glutted after the manner of a flock of sheep in a field, and a humanity existing in misery, but from which emanated, here and there, some eternal truth, it is on the latter my choice would fall.
There are no universal parameters of perfection. Individuals and cultures choose those values that, for them, represent the ideal of perfection. For example, one individual may view education as leading perfection, while to another beauty is the highest ideal.
- Hurka, Thomas (1993). Perfectionism. Oxford University Press, p. 3.
- Immanuel Kant: Über den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis, AA VIII, 273-314, hier 291
- Naquet, Alfred (1904). L'Anarchie et le Collectivisme.
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- A study on Cavell's perfectionism (French)