In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Perfectionism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classical Texts
  • Historical Studies
  • Perfectionist Ethics
  • Perfectionism in Politics

Philosophy Perfectionism
by
Steven Wall
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0410

Introduction

The term perfectionism in philosophy, unlike its more common usage in popular psychology, denotes a range of theoretical positions. There are perfectionist accounts of ethics, perfectionist accounts of well-being, and perfectionist accounts of politics. These positions are often mutually supportive, but one can accept some of them while rejecting others. Perfectionist views purport to be objective in that they characterize states of affairs, character traits, activities, and/or relationships as good in themselves and not good in virtue of the fact that they are desired or enjoyed by human beings. In the history of philosophy, perfectionism has a long and impressive pedigree. It is often associated with ethical theories that characterize the human good in terms of the development and exercise of capacities that are taken to be central to human nature. Aristotle is the foundational figure in this tradition, but perfectionist arguments of this kind can be found in writers as diverse as Aquinas, Kant, (arguably) Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, G. E. Moore, and T. H. Green, among others. Perfectionism also has been associated with ethical theories that, while not tying the human good specifically to the development of human nature, accept some alternative objective account of the human good. Typically, such views have a teleological structure, holding that we have duties to promote the good. More recently, perfectionism has been used to refer to political theories that reject the liberal principle of state neutrality and hold that it is permissible for states to favor, actively and intentionally, objectively valuable conceptions of the good over base ones. Perfectionism, in both moral and political philosophy, has often been charged with being anti-egalitarian and hostile to individual liberty. This charge is encouraged and sustained by a selective focus on the elitist ideas of certain influential perfectionist writers, such as Nietzsche. For these writers, what matters is the excellence of the few, not the mediocrity of the many. It is a mistake, however, to identify perfectionism with any specific articulation of it. Contemporary defenses of perfectionism have attempted to show how its central ideas are compatible with, and indeed supportive of, human equality and individual autonomy.

General Overviews

There are a few general overviews of perfectionism in philosophy that can be recommended. These are either encyclopedia entries or survey articles in edited collections. Hurka 1998 provides a brief summary of some key ideas of perfectionist moral theory. Wall 2019 is an up-to-date discussion of perfectionism in moral and political philosophy. Bradford 2016 discusses perfectionism in relation to rival accounts of well-being. A valuable critical discussion of some influential perfectionist arguments can be found in Dorsey 2010. Wall and Klosko 2003 is a useful collection of contemporary writings on perfectionism in politics, both for and against.

  • Bradford, Gwen. “Perfectionism.” In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being. Edited by Guy Fletcher, 124–134. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    A sympathetic discussion of perfectionism and its relationship to theories of well-being or what is good for a person for his own sake.

  • Dorsey, Dale. “Three Arguments for Perfectionism.” Nous 44.1 (2010): 59–79.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2009.00731.xE-mail Citation »

    Discusses and clarifies three influential arguments for perfectionism and subjects them to critique.

  • Hurka, Thomas. “Perfectionism.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 7. Edited by Edward Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L070-1E-mail Citation »

    A very brief outline of the central ideas of perfectionism understood as a moral theory.

  • Wall, Steven. “Perfectionism in Moral and Political Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

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    A summary and critical analysis of perfectionist views in moral and political philosophy, discussing a range of objections that have been raised against them.

  • Wall, Steven, and George Klosko. Perfectionism and Neutrality. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

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    A collection of papers by leading figures in the perfectionism/neutrality debate in contemporary political philosophy.

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