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:
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.
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.