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Let us loosely define perfectionism as the view that well-being consists in the (enjoyable) exercise of the capacities that are distinctive of one’s biological species. A dog does well when it does the sort of things that exemplify dogness, and we people do best when we make use of our various human capacities – rational, emotional, social, physical, and so on. As Richard Kraut points out in his The Ethics of Well-Being, this need not involve any sort of dubious inference from ‘x is natural’ to ‘x is good’. Rather, perfectionism should be thought of as a theory that best unifies the phenomena we are trying to understand. We have a bunch of intuitions about cases, and perfectionism captures the ones that withstand scrutiny, the argument goes:

Developmentalism [Kraut’s variety of perfectionism] does not begin with an a priori commitment to the idea that whatever nature gives us must be good. Rather, it finds it plausible that [various enjoyments are good] and, like any other theory of well-being, it looks for unifying elements among these examples. Nature comes into picture at this stage: our sense of taste, our sociability, our physical capacities, our language skills were the origins that led, eventually, to such sophisticated activities as dinner with friends, dancing, and writing. We say that nature gave us something good in all these cases, but in saying that, we are standing in judgment of nature, not bowing down to it. (Kraut 2007, 146–147)

I think this is the best way to defend perfectionism. But maybe it doesn’t capture all the cases. In chapter 8 of his excellent The Pursuit of Unhappiness and in a similar paper called ‘Well-Being and Virtue’, Dan Haybron argues that perfectionism fails as a theory of well-being. He says many interesting things, but I will focus on just one strand of the argument here. I will first quote a central case in some length:

Consider then the case of a high-ranking career diplomat for the UK, Angela, who is contemplating an early retirement at the age of 62: having served her country with great distinction for many years, Angela has come into a good deal of money through some canny investments and a bit of luck. She has all but decided to retire with her husband to a villa in Tuscany, and could do so very comfortably on her earnings. … She correctly envisages that a life there would be tremendously satisfying, occupied largely with good company and food and drink, walking the countryside and catching up on her reading — in short, kicking back and just enjoying life. It would certainly be a welcome and much-deserved respite from her demanding career in diplomacy: while rewarding in its own way, the schedule is hectic, and by now she has had enough of it. Before she can settle on her plans, however, a political crisis arises overseas and she is asked to take an important post where her considerable wisdom and skills would be of great use. … Naturally, the assignment would be taxing and heavy on travel, and frequently would involve dealing with unwholesome individuals about matters of extreme gravity, often calling for a fair measure of anger and indignation on her part.

No one would dream of begrudging her the comfortable life she had begun to set before herself. Yet she accepts the assignment, also without regret: the stakes are high enough that she feels they are probably worth it. She goes on to serve admirably and with a good deal of success in sustaining the peace, but another six years pass before she can take her retirement, which lasts five relatively sedentary but agreeable years before a massive stroke suddenly takes her life. (Haybron, ‘Well-Being and Virtue’, 8)

That is the case. Here is Haybron’s own take on it:

she would clearly be better off taking the early retirement. It would be much more pleasant, she would be substantially happier, and she would be pursuing the sorts of activities that most appeal to her and, at least at this stage of her life, bring her the greatest satisfaction. (9)

This poses a challenge to perfectionism:

For, by any reasonable measure, the diplomatic assignment involves greater perfection: it is obviously more virtuous, more admirable, and remains so over time — this is not a case of virtuous sacrifice that inhibits future perfection. And the position involves a greater degree of human functioning; she more fully exercises her capacities, functioning more fully qua human being than she would as a retiree. While the life of pleasant retirement has its own perfections, there is no credible sense, nonmoral or otherwise, in which Angela, or her activities, would exhibit more excellence on the whole if she retired. (9)

In a nutshell, the argument is this:

1) For Angela, continuing the diplomatic career involves a greater degree of exercise of human capacities from t to death than retiring.
2) Forward-looking perfectionism: at any t, the best option for an agent A is the one that involves the greatest degree of exercise of human capacities from t to the end of the A’s life.
3) But retiring is, intuitively, better for Angela than continuing the diplomatic career – continuing the career might lead to a morally better life, but it involves sacrifice, which other people should recognize in their attitudes toward Angela.
4) So, perfectionism is false.

A perfectionist might try denying 1 or 3, but they seem incontrovertible. A certain kind of perfectionist might also deny the underlying principle that robust counterintuitiveness renders a theory false, but that would mean giving up on Kraut’s insight. So if there is no other kind of perfectionism than the forward-looking one, the argument indeed goes through.

It’s easy to guess what I’m going to say next: there are other possible varieties of perfectionism than the forward-looking one Haybron tacitly assumes to be the only one. I will call them diachronic perfectionisms. According to them, it is not only the present and future exercise of capacities that matters for perfection, but also their past exercise. (There is, of course, a limited diachronic aspect to forward-looking perfectionism as well: it tells us not to make use of a capacity now if it blocks future perfection.) I will canvass two different varieties of diachronic perfectionism, which I will label Star Turn and Animal Nature. Both seem to handle Angela and analogous cases.

A credible perfectionist has to have a diachronic conception of perfection in any case. Think first of a single day:

Single Day
Sophia works on a film project for Amnesty for 12 hours with an editor, straining her intelligence, imagination, and passion to the utmost. She loves it, and could do more, but a friend from New Zealand is in town, so she wants to go for a drink with her. This involves the use of some social capacities, but no more than continuing the film project would have done. Intuitively, it is better for Angela to hang out with her friend than to continuing working until she collapses.

Forward-looking perfectionism would say it’s best for Sophia to keep working, so it’s clearly not right. What I call Star Turn Perfectionism says that each excellence should get a star turn in a well-rounded life. That is, the agent’s activity should centrally manifest each excellence in turn. While the film project involves the use of social capacities, they are not central to it in the same way as they are to drinking with an old friend, even if the very same capacities are used to the same extent. There should be time set for primarily social excellence, as well as aesthetic excellence, various mixes of different excellences, etc. Perhaps the extent to which the best life for an agent involves the exercise of our various capacities is determined by the relative importance of the capacities – maybe as humans we should spend more time on intelligent activity, and perhaps intelligent physical activity like mountain climbing, than dumb physical activity, like Finnish darts. But on the Star Turn view, each excellence should still get its turn. It is indifferent to the timing of the turn. It could be left to the agent’s whim or inclination, as long as the proportions are correct. If this is what determines when the exercise of the capacity is best for the agent, we get the right result for Sophia. (Further, assuming that she does in general hang out with her friends enough – gives the social capacities enough time for a star turn – then were she to feel like working on the film rather than hanging out with her friend, that would be the best perfectionist choice for her. Since this would intuitively be what is best for her in that case, ceteris paribus, this supports Star Turn.)
Animal Nature is governed by the same ideal of well-roundedness as Star Turn, but unlike Star Turn, it is not indifferent as such to when the various excellences are exercised. Rather, it takes seriously the fact that we are members of a biological species with specific patterns of development and decay, and natural rhythms. There are certain things we do best as children, as youths, as adults, as retirees, and so on; there are certain things we do best when we’ve just woken up, when we haven’t eaten for five hours, when we’ve exhausted our body or pushed our intelligence. It is these natural facts, which may be different for different individuals, that determine when we should give a leading role to this or that capacity or combination of capacities, both within shorter periods and within life as a whole. Animal Nature thus leaves much less room for pure caprice than Star Turn.
Stated a little more precisely, the two alternatives are the following:

Star Turn Perfectionism
At any time t, the best option for an agent A is the one that contributes most to the realization of a balanced pattern of exercising the various human capacities in leading roles over the course of a lifetime, taking into account both past actitivies and future opportunities, as well as the centrality of each capacity to human nature. The timing of the use of each capacity in a leading role is up to subjective discretion, as long as a balanced pattern is maintained.

Animal Nature
At any time t, the best option for an agent A is the one that contributes most to the realization of a balanced pattern of exercising the various human capacities in leading roles over the course of a lifetime, taking into account both past actitivies and future opportunities, as well as the centrality of each capacity to human nature. The ideal timing of each activity is determined by the developmental stage of the individual and the natural rhythms of the human animal.

Both of these varieties of diachronic perfectionism can handle the case of Angela. Begin with Star Turn. First, it is important for the robustness of our intuition about the case that Angela has not, in the past, spent a whole lot of time with her family, kicking back and reading for pleasure. Imagine Angela*, a diplomat who has been denied the opportunity to show what she’s made of in the diplomatic arena, but has instead taken it easy throughout. Now, at the threshold of retirement, she finally gets the same opportunity as Angela in the original story. Here, I think, we’d agree that it is best for Angela* to take the job and get to make the most of what she’s capable of doing, rather than retire and continue a pleasant life of leisure. So it matters to our original intuition that the social and emotional capacities that would be central to retirement in Tuscany have not played a starring role in the past. Given that they are central human capacities and she has no further opportunity to exercise them, Star Turn Perfectionism recommends chilling out. Without it, her life would be less well-rounded, and so less perfect.

Animal Nature may recommend retirement in any case. Angela has come to be of age where the most important thing she can do is pass on what she has learned, including the mistakes she has made, to her children and grandchildren. (Since I said that the ideal timing of activities is determined by natural cycles, it is an open possibility that the demand of well-roundedness overrides the demand to exercise the excellence that is naturally central to one’s stage of life. In Angela*’s case, this might mean that Animal Nature would after all recommend taking up the mission.) So again, the undesirable consequence is avoided: looking at perfection diachronically, the option that involves most perfection for Angela is precisely what is intuitively best for her.

I won’t attempt to adjudicate between Star Turn and Animal Nature here, nor compare them to positions defended in the existing literature. (I think Tom Hurka says something about well-roundedness, and I certainly welcome any references.) But once we reject forward-looking perfectionism, Haybron’s counterexample loses its bite.


  1. 1. Posted by Dara Conn | February 8, 2009 11:06 pm

    In this context, describing a course of action as “the best option for” a person presumably refers to the option that yields the greatest “well-being”. And yet it inescapably carries a note of moral judgement, seeming to adjudicate the course that she “should” take, all arising from a poorly-defined concept of “maximally exercising ones human capacities”. But who is to say that a quiet life of reading and contemplation is less fully human than working for the foreign office? Or indeed to deny that a career devoted to cruelty and the pursuit of power and wealth is just as distinctively human? Given the scope for disagreement as to what kinds of behaviour are most human, and perfectionism’s foundation in our intuitions, surely intuition is just as useful in deciding what course of action will yield most well-being? Does perfectionism have any utility?

  2. 2. Posted by Reid Blackman | February 9, 2009 7:50 am

    I can see someone quite reasonably denying premise (3) of the original argument: “that retiring is, intuitively, better for Angela than continuing the diplomatic career – continuing the career might lead to a morally better life, but it involves sacrifice, which other people should recognize in their attitudes toward Angela.”

    Suppose one thinks of what is “better for Angela” as that which increases the goodness of a life. Various features in her life are good-making features of that life. Let us allow that achieving something of great worth is one such good-making feature, and also allow that the presence of pleasure is a good-making feature. Suppose further, for the sake of a thought experiment, that these are the only two-good making features of a life and that there are two lives, one with one good-making feature and one with two good-making features. Does it follow from this that the latter life is better than the former? No. We can imagine cases in which the former is better than the latter, the latter better than the former, and their being of equal goodness. That is because, in part, the quantity of the good-making features in a life are not directly related to the degree of goodness given by those features. One life may have a single good-making feature that contributes a great deal of goodness while a second life has two good-making features, each of which contributes very little goodness.

    In the case of Angela, it seems to me entirely reasonable to hold that, though Angela misses out on one good-making feature, she capitalizes on another, and in the end, the high degree and significance of her accomplishment by staying and securing peace may indeed contribute more goodness to her life than the good-making feature of the pleausure/relaxation, etc. she would have given to her life had she chosen that. Angela makes a sacrifice, of course: she sacrifices certain things in her life that would go towards making her life a good one. But for all that she plausibly sacrifices the lesser good for the greater.

    And a quick thought about both kinds of diachronic perfectionism you mention: I wonder whether both of them are really just claims about organic wholes. For star turn, it’s the claim that the quantity of good-making features is relevant to the value of the whole (so the sum of the individual parts of the life that are good is less than the value of the life taken as a whole). For animal nature, it is the claim that property of ‘goods being in a certain order’ is a good-making feature. This dovetails well with the claim that it is only “ideally” that things go in this order, because while its presence is a good-making feature of a life its absence is not a bad-making feature (because the good-making and bad-making are related as contraries, not contradictories).

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

  3. 3. Posted by Arto Laitinen | February 9, 2009 3:45 pm

    Hi Antti,

    Thanks for the interesting post; the point that one shouldn’t equate perfectionism and forward-looking perfectionism must be right.

    A quick addition to Reid’s comment: one can add that absence of some features is a bad-making feature and nonetheless have the view that some one-sided combinations (with, say, great achievements) are overall nonetheless better than less one-sided combinations with less achievements.

    I’m not sure what to think of the relevant individuation of capacities or excellences (if literally each excellence should get a star role) – roughly how many are there: Four? Fourteen? Four hundred? “Social and emotional capacities” suggests perhaps something between four and fourteen? (This matters especially if lack of exercise of some capacities, of classes of capacities, is regarded bad-making).

  4. 4. Posted by Sam Clark | February 10, 2009 5:36 pm

    Interesting post, and I think you’ve answered Haybron. I don’t have much to add substantively, other than agreeing with Arto at 3 that the big question is, What are the central human capacities which we ought to perfect? I’m working on this at the moment, as well as on the meta-question of how we could justify claims about such capacities (can we do any better than Finnis’s ‘X is a central human capacity, don’t you think?’?). Hurka reference you might find useful: ‘The Well-Rounded Life’, Journal of Philosophy 84(1987): 727–46.

  5. 5. Posted by Antti Kauppinen | February 10, 2009 6:57 pm

    Thanks to everybody for very useful comments! Here’s a few replies.

    Dara: I agree that the notion of exercising human capacities is very vague, and I am merely hand-waving here. This is also related to the the individuation problem that Arto raises. I don’t know if the task is hopeless, though – Kraut makes a good start with commonsense categories, and notes that “we may be able to achieve a more refined and illuminating map of human powers with the help of the empirical sciences or the insights of the arts” (Kraut 2007, 137n5). This is very much in the Aristotelian spirit. Now, were we to have such a list, and a clear understanding of what it is to exercise a capacity, we could presumably use our putative discovery that it maps onto our most confident intuitive judgements about what is good for a person to deploy it as a basis of judgement in new cases where we are uncertain. That is one way in which a theory grounded in intuitions can go beyond them. (This point is general to all theories of what is good for someone, which is the sense in which I am using ‘well-being’ here.)

    I take it to be a further question whether perfection in this sense requires moral virtue. The Ancients certainly thought so, but we may be persuaded that a morally evil person could exercise, say, their intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities just to the same extent as a morally good one. This really does depend on just what ‘exercise’ and ‘capacity’ are – could Hitler have flourished emotionally while doing what he did? These issues go beyond what I can address here.

    Reid: I found Haybron’s argument for 3 plausible enough to grant it, and tried to show that even if that is admitted, perfectionism can be right. One way in which critics of perfectionism like Haybron and Sumner often defend premises like 3 is to emphasize the distinction between something being a good-making feature, all things considered, and being good for a person. So they could say that the accomplishment makes Angela’s life morally better, or maybe more choiceworthy overall (Haybron seems to take this line), but not better for her. And even if achievement did make the life better for Angela, it’s not clear if this helps the perfectionist. For couldn’t an unsuccessful peace-maker exercise her powers to just the same extent as a successful one? I do actually think that success in one’s valuable projects is a good-making feature of a life, but I see it as independent from perfectionist value.

    Your point about holism is interesting, and I need to think about it more. You may well be right. But I’m not so sure about sacrifice. Maybe there’s some ambiguity here. In a broad sense, I sacrifice something whenever I choose one good thing over another, less good thing. But I think what Haybron is talking about is something more narrow and yet easily recognizable. In this latter sense, I only make a sacrifice when I give up what is best for me in favour of something less good for me. It is this kind of sacrifice that potentially calls for admiration and compensation on the part of others. (Surely nobody should admire me if I give up on a Ford to buy a Toyota!)

    Arto: I take your point that well-roundedness is a good-making feature that can be overridden. But again, even if continuing the career is better for Angela since it involves more achievement, that doesn’t as such help perfectionism. My view about the relationship between meaningfulness and well-being, which has perfectionism as one component, does make sense of that possibility. If anyone is interested in reading a long paper about that, it can be found here. Comments are always welcome.

  6. 6. Posted by Antti Kauppinen | February 10, 2009 7:46 pm

    Thanks, Sam – your comment was in moderation while I wrote mine, so I only saw it now. I agree that your topic is central, and look forward to seeing the results. And thanks for the reference!

  7. 7. Posted by Dan Haybron | February 11, 2009 4:57 pm

    Thanks very much, Antti and all, for the very interesting post and discussion. I’m not sure if it’s kosher for the target to barge in, so I’ll try to be brief!

    1. I’m inclined to agree that forward-looking perfectionism is implausible, and had tried to set up the case to avoid this sort of objection. (Naturally I deleted the footnote explaining this from earlier drafts!) So I stipulated that Angela would get a nice retirement either way–just not an *early* one, or quite *as* nice, given her choice. (Perhaps 62 isn’t early retirement in Europe? Maybe I should have pushed her age back a few years!) So if she’s better off retiring early, it doesn’t seem to be due to the greater perfection of a more balanced life. Do you disagree?

    2. Are intuitions we might have about the importance of a balanced life really *perfectionist* intuitions? Would early retirement make Angela better off b/c her life would be more *admirable*? (My intuition: no.) If not, how do we know we’re really talking about excellence or virtue here? (Esp if we grant that her life would involve *less* capacity-excercise.)

    Perhaps intuitions about balance really concern, not perfectionism, but “externalism”–roughly, grounding WB in group norms, eg enjoying the full complement of goods people normally get to enjoy. The std version of perfectionism you discuss, on my taxonomy, really combines perf and externalism. I think externalism is more compelling than perfectionism. Eg, blindness: this seems bad not b/c it diminishes excellence, but b/c it involves *missing out* on a major element of a full human life. Similarly, maybe retirement or leisure seem to us to be among the std elements of a full life, so we miss out insofar as we fail to enjoy them. I try to deal with externalism in a paper that didn’t make the book, but I’m not sure it works.

    3. Re. Reid’s point: Antti correctly notes that I would press the distinction between WB and the good life. I set up the case so it wouldn’t be obvious which choice yields a better life on the whole. But that’s a different question from what makes Angela *better off* or *benefits* her. I think many people lead good, but not very enviable, lives.

    Dan (PS–I do recommend Antti’s paper, which is really interesting)

  8. 8. Posted by Antti Kauppinen | February 13, 2009 6:10 pm

    Thanks for participating, Dan – I was actually going to invite you to do so, but wasn’t sure if that was kosher!

    I think thinking about early retirement actually supports the well-rounded perfectionist point. (I did pass over it originally, sorry.) For would it be better for Angela if she retired at 50? -40? -30?, provided that the alternative was satisfying and challenging work? I don’t think so. Surely there is some point until which she would be better off staying in service. The diachronic perfectionist can, at least in principle (and retrospectively!), say what Angela’s ideal point of retirement would have been, and can capture the sense in which it depends on what she’s done and what she would have been able to do but hasn’t had the opportunity to do.

    As to your second point, I wonder if we mean slightly different things by perfectionism. I would want to leave it open whether perfection is something admirable or morally good. This would in line with what contemporary proponents like Hurka say. Here’s his initial definition:

    Certain properties, it says, constitute human nature or are definitive of humanity—they make humans humans. The good life, it then says, develops these properties to a high degree or realizes what is central to human nature. (Hurka 1996, 3)

    Hurka’s rough definition indeed combines externalism with the idea of development or realization of capacities, since the capacities in question are specific to the species rather than the individual. It does not as such say anything about admirability or virtue, which I think is structurally healthy. Perfectionist excellence is in the first instance making excellent use of what one has got. It takes further argument to show that such excellence is admirable or, in particular, coincides with what we traditionally take to be moral virtue. (This makes translating Aristotle’s arete tricky.)

    So, in short, on this understand of perfectionism, I would reject admirability as a test of perfectionist intuitions. I think admiration is more closely related to meaningfulness and achievement, both of which go beyond perfection, as I argued earlier.

    PS. Dan, thanks for the kind words about the paper. I hope you’ve read the new, non-embarrassing version rather the old embarrassing one…

  9. 9. Posted by Dan Haybron | February 14, 2009 11:41 pm


    I agree that Angela may not benefit from retiring too early, and hit on 62 as an age that, while a little earlier than the usual retirement age (at least by US stds), would still seem an appropriate time of life to retire. By my lights, then, life cycle considerations would not help the perfectionist here, though maybe intuitions vary on this point.

    Perhaps a different sort of case would pump the intuitions more effectively, if life cycle considerations are getting in the way. It seems to me there are lots of cases where people pursue worthy but difficult projects, sacrificing their interests to do something challenging and important (but not so much that they fail to live reasonably balanced lives or to exercise important capacities). Add to this that the individuals had alternatives that would have yielded significantly more pleasant, fulfilling lives–and also meaningful, worthwhile lives, even though their capacities aren’t exercised quite as fully. (I think some academics could be so described.) This very roughly is the sort of schema into which Angela is supposed to fit, and I would guess other examples could do the work if Angela’s case doesn’t quite convince.

    But I think a crucial Q, as you observe, is what exactly perfectionism is supposed to be. I agree that it need not center on moral virtue, or even directly involve moral virtue at all. (Though such perfectionism gives up the tight connection between morality and WB that many if not most perfectionists have wanted to assert.) Admirability need not be moral, just as many excellences aren’t moral (eg, animal excellences, physical prowess, wit…). But I don’t know how to understand “excellence” if we sever that idea from admirability altogether; what sort of excellence doesn’t merit admiration at all? (If only qualified or circumscribed admiration–eg, for Stalin’s ruthless efficiency.) I would also worry that we are confusing perfection with other values, like those motivating externalism.

    If I remember my Hurka right, his sort of perfectionism centers, not on admirability tout court, but on certain sorts of nonmoral admirability–rational and physical excellence (via the exercise of those capacities). I want to say, regarding Angela, that retiring early would not be more admirable even in a more circumscribed sense such as Hurka’s, as her capacities are not exercised more fully or in a more balanced way. The question is, is there some plausible metric of excellence on which retiring early would yield greater excellence? I don’t see that, especially if we want to preserve the connection between excellence and admirability. (Suppose we define perfection as mere capacity exercise, without any need for such exercise to merit any kind of admiration. Would this constitute excellence?)

    Still, I’m open to the possibility that perfection could be severed from admirability–my brief against perfectionism may not apply against those views. Indeed, perhaps my own view of WB is perfectionist in some sufficiently loose sense! I confess to finding something appealing in the idea that happiness, eg as emotional fulfillment, constitutes a kind of perfection–a fullness of being. Maybe all views I classify as “eudaimonistic”, including self-fulfillment views of WB, are perfectionist in this sense. This seems to me very interesting and worth exploring, but this sort of “perfectionism” seems to abandon, or at least defang, the idea of perfection as excellence or virtue. Could one not offer a kind of hedonism as a perfectionist theory in this sense?

    Summing up, my concern is that trying to reconcile intuitions about Angela’s case with perfectionism may leave us with a style of perfectionism that no longer has the teeth that gave perfectionism its distinctive allures. Maybe this just means that we (or I!) haven’t explored the possibilities of perfectionism sufficiently.

    PS–I confess I haven’t yet read the new version, but I recall that the old one was pretty interesting even if not perfect!

  10. 10. Posted by James Gray | February 15, 2009 12:07 pm

    Yes, she will be neglecting certain human needs. Is this merely a problem of not exercising perfectionism or is it a problem that people seem to have various needs in the first place?

    Perfectionism seems to ignore many basic moral psychological elements already discussed by Buddhists and Stoic philosophers, such as the fact that our thoughts and beliefs seem more important for happiness than fulfilling needs or “doing fun stuff.”

  11. 11. Posted by Jussi Suikkanen | February 15, 2009 2:24 pm


    I was pretty convinced by the reply to Dan’s objection. But, what I didn’t understand was Kraut’s reply to the objection that there is no inference from what is natural to what is good. You gave this quote:

    “Developmentalism [Kraut’s variety of perfectionism] does not begin with an a priori commitment to the idea that whatever nature gives us must be good. Rather, it finds it plausible that [various enjoyments are good] and, like any other theory of well-being, it looks for unifying elements among these examples. Nature comes into picture at this stage: our sense of taste, our sociability, our physical capacities, our language skills were the origins that led, eventually, to such sophisticated activities as dinner with friends, dancing, and writing. We say that nature gave us something good in all these cases, but in saying that, we are standing in judgment of nature, not bowing down to it. (Kraut 2007, 146–147)”

    I’m not sure I see what is going on here. I guess my worry is that nature also gave us the specifically human abilities and inclinations that enable us to lie, cheat, steal, kill, have wars, torture, and so on. I take it that the perfectionist does not want to say that the life where an agent can use and develop these abilities will be good for him/her. But, then I don’t see how it could be that Nature would be the unifying factor that explains what our well-being consists of. Something other must first explain the use of which abilities provided by the nature is good for one. I have similar worries about Star Turn Perfectionism and the Animal Nature One.

  12. 12. Posted by Antti Kauppinen | February 18, 2009 7:20 pm

    Thanks again for the comments. I was traveling until Monday night, so I haven’t got around to answering them sooner. A few quick points.

    Dan: You say

    The question is, is there some plausible metric of excellence on which retiring early would yield greater excellence?

    I don’t quite agree with that. I would say that once we conceive of perfectionism diachronically, the question is, is there some plausible metric of excellence on which retiring early would yield greater excellence over the course of the lifetime? The answer to that depends on which variety of diachronic perfectionism we adopt and, of course, what the person in question has done or neglected in the past. And my answer, in short, is that early retiring is better for Angela than continuing to work only if during her previous career she has neglected to exercise some essential capacities (to the right degree) – that is, manifest some kinds of excellence – that she would be able to exercise as a result of early retirement.

    As to the link to admiration, I suppose there is a kind of non-moral admiration that goes with ‘having the right priorities’, as we say these days. Or admiration that goes with well-roundedness – ‘she knows how to make the most of her life’. In that sense, the Angela who has worked hard in diplomatic service and now chooses excelling in family relationships over more excellence in peace-making, does seem more admirable than her working counterpart, even if she is not more admirable overall.

    At this point, we might have to agree to disagree. I’m not gung-ho for defending perfectionism as such – my own view has perfectionist elements, but doesn’t hang everything onto it.

    Jussi: Since I am not much of a moralist, I wouldn’t worry a whole lot if perfectionism entailed that a successful liar, say, can do well for himself. After all, that’s what we ordinarily think anyway. However, it’s not obvious that the moralist’s case is hopeless, either. They will say that lying, especially if it is systematic, involves some sort of corruption that is bad for the agent. Maybe the liar exercises some sort of Machiavellian intelligence that is distinctively human. But so is the capacity for friendship or fair dealing. Kraut himself likes to put things in terms of flourishing (which might be problematic, but let’s ignore that for now). Relationships based on lies are not exactly cases of ‘flourishing as a social being’, are they?

    Further, Kraut does say that in theorizing, we ‘stand in judgment of nature’. We might still achieve a fair degree of theoretical unification, even if we concluded that certain of our natural capacities and inclinations are bad for us. For one thing, we would still be able to have basically the same account of what is good for plants and animals as for humans.

  13. 13. Posted by Jussi Suikkanen | February 19, 2009 10:26 am

    I’m not much of a moralist either and I’m not really worried about cases where successful liars do well and have relationships that are good for them. I’m more worried about the Machiavellian intelligence even if I wouldn’t put it in those terms. Certain sorts of complicated wrong-doing (take even lying – can other species lie?) seem to be specifically *human* abilities. I’m worried that the perfectionist views entail that excercising and developing these abilities *makes* someone’s life go better. This is a different worry than the idea that doing these things is compatible with good life. That might be right but to think of practicising these abilities as a good-life- or well-being-maker seems more problematic.

    I also worry that Kraut’s cop out is a bit add hoc and the view would lose much of its explanatory power if only some human abilities counted for their well-being. This seems quite different from the wholly species-based account we give of plants and animals.

  14. 14. Posted by Antti Kauppinen | February 19, 2009 1:38 pm

    Good points. I think those worries highlight the issue of individuating, ranking, and measuring the various human powers in whose exercise excellence consists. The ability to lie or deceive is surely derivative from abilities to plan, mind-read, predict, communicate, and so on. The ability to organize a dinner party, which is more uncontroversially human (some animals seem to deceive others), derives from much the same more basic capacities. One thing a perfectionist might say is that we should look to the exercise of basic-level capacities, and then claim that they get used to a higher degree in honest interactions. (The self-interested liar is probably silencing the voice of sympathy.)

    This would be contingent, which again would not necessarily seem problematic. If, say, you’re living in a totalitarian state, maybe you are indeed better off lying and deceiving others, if that’s the only way open for you to rise above the unthinking life of an ox. So in some cases lying makes your life go better, but in ordinary circumstances organizing parties or going on tour with a band makes more use of your basic capacities.

    I guess I should read some of the literature next…

  15. 15. Posted by Jussi Suikkanen | February 19, 2009 3:43 pm

    That makes sense. One worry about the lower-lever is that those seem to be the ones we share with animals. Some animals can plan, mind-read, predict, communicate and so on. This seems to go against the species-specificity of the relevant abilities and well-being. In contrast, it seems like it is the higher-order abilities that set us apart.

    Not sure of the ‘more use’ idea. Anyway, I should look at the literature too… thanks for the help!

  16. 16. Posted by Dan Haybron | February 19, 2009 10:04 pm


    I did mean the question to be construed as about a whole lifetime, but perhaps our intuitions do simply diverge here. You say:

    early retiring is better for Angela than continuing to work only if during her previous career she has neglected to exercise some essential capacities

    My instincts differ: even if no capacities are neglected in the later-retirement-life, she is better off retiring early, largely b/c it would be more pleasant. (And I imagined her seeing it that way too, but this bit of the story is only in the JESP version of the case. Perhaps that helps?) Again, different cases might make the point better…perhaps best left for a future paper.

  17. 17. Posted by James Gray | February 20, 2009 3:23 am

    Why worry about the fact that a Machiavellian can live a good life? It is quite possible that people can do horrible things and still live a good life. Perfectionism is based on something like utilitarianism, so there is a standard for the good other than a single individual’s happiness.

    The only reason that this would be a problem that I can think of is if we are egoists. If we are psychological egoists, we incapable of doing nice things for others when we find out that we would be better off merely benefiting ourselves. To an ethical egoist, it would be a bad idea to be nice to others if we would benefit ourselves more by doing horrible things.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood perfectionism, but I find it to actually be more about something from the empirical sciences than ethics. Either we get happier from doing activities that we are skilled at, or we don’t. To argue against empirical evidence that an evil person shouldn’t be allowed to be happy seems irrelevant. (Of course, the empirical evidence might not support perfectionism after all.)

  18. 18. Posted by Antti Kauppinen | April 19, 2009 11:25 pm

    I am happy to report that a revised version of this post has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy ( Thanks again to all the commentators!

  19. 19. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | April 20, 2009 5:31 pm

    Congratulations, Antti!

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