Perfectionism, in philosophy, means something quite different from the popular definition (the character trait of feeling a compulsion to be or do things, “perfectly”). In philosophy, perfectionism describes any philosophy of pursuing the best possible life, human excellence, or other “highest good”—or any philosophy of ethics or politics that prioritize such goals. In none of these cases does it imply reaching a state of “perfection” in the popular sense, since “perfection” in such matters is philosophically meaningless. Few if any philosophers are believe in a “perfect” life or “perfect” person. Instead, philosophical perfection means pursuing the “best possible,” such as:
- A theory of values in which a “good life” means one aimed at the highest “good,” either for oneself, or for the world in general, where “good” may be defined differently by different philosophers. However, all perfectionist philosophies assume some objective notion of the “good”—not whatever you feel like or desire.
- As a theory of ethics, that perfectionism, as defined above, determines what is morally right and wrong; in other words, whatever serves the highest “good” is morally right.
- A theory in which political systems and government policies should serve the perfectionist agenda; in other words, that politics should create the conditions for attaining the highest “good” for either individuals or humanity as a whole.
These philosophies are separable but cumulative. You can easily be a philosophical perfectionist without being an ethical or political perfectionist, but not the other way around; ethical and political perfectionism assume value-perfectionism. And, historically, philosophers often combine all three positions. Many famous philosophers have been perfectionists—such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, and Marx.
Societies around the world today seem to assume philosophical perfectionism; it is normal to assume that self-improvement, professional accomplishment, and changing the world for the better are the purposes of life. We discuss some types of perfectionism in section five
The most well-known perfectionist in early western philosophy was Aristotle, with his philosophy of eudemonia, and its relationship to politics. Eudemonia, a Greek word, is often translated as “happiness”; however, it means something more like “having a good life,” which, to Aristotle implied both personal well-being and the greatest possible fulfillment of human potential. In other words, spending your life taking recreational drugs and watching television could not be considered eudemonia no matter how happy it makes you. You must develop your potentials for excellence, whatever they are (Aristotle believed that people could be excellent in many different ways, depending on their natures). Aristotle also argued that politics, among all human endeavors, had the greatest potential to promote eudemonia.
Around the same time as Aristotle, the three foundational philosophies of China—Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism—all promoted other different kinds of perfectionism–because they had different values. Buddhism is founded on the idea that one should aim one’s life at liberation from suffering (liberation from ego and desire). Taoism focuses instead on creating harmony with nature and liberation from social, physical, and mental limitations. Confucius was more similar to Aristotle, prioritizing the development of human potential within the traditional Chinese social structure and for the sake of society as a whole.
Following the enlightenment in Europe, many philosophers, such as Kant and later Nietzsche, focused on the power of reason to discover truth and accomplish practical ends. For them, rationality became the most powerful and essential aspect of perfectionism, still a popular attitude today, although there have been backlashes against rationalism during several periods.
Kant was one of the first rational egoists – a form of ethical perfectionism. Ethical egoists, such as Max Stirner and Ayn Rand, argued that we cannot rationally be obligated to act for the perfection of other people and their lives, but only to act rationally in our own best interests–the highest ethical guideline in their philosophies. This may sound heartless, but these philosophers argued that it is immoral and perhaps impossible to force people to develop their human potentials or participate in activities that we deem conducive to a good life. The best we can do for all humanity is to be the best people we can be and not interfere with others’ pursuits of perfection.
Nietzsche introduced a controversial notion of perfectionism, implied in his ideal of the Ubermensch or “Superman” – a “great” human being, meaning a person with superior abilities whose thoughts and actions are not limited by tradition – one who may have a significant impact on human history, such as Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, or Hitler. The fact that people like Hitler could fit the definition of Nietzsche’s “superman” is one of the reasons this philosophy has been most attractive to egoists and repellant to many others. Nietzsche’s philosophy implies that society should prioritize the development and success of people with “superior” potential because they are the only ones capable of realizing the highest objective good. It is easy to see how Hitler and other ego-maniacs might see justification for their selfishness in Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Many philosophers today lean towards a much more moderate relative of Nietzsche’s philosophy — prioritarian perfectionism, which aims at the greatest perfection of humanity as a whole but recognizes that each of us has greater or lesser potential to contribute towards that goal. Prioritarian perfectionism still implies that people with greater potential deserve more resources than others, a controversial notion, but it does not recognize the ideal of Nietzsche’s “superman” which implied that the rest of us are more-or-less worthless.
Does perfectionism promote elitism and inequality? The previous discussion might well give you the idea that perfectionism implies inequality and elitism, or is incompatible with pluralism (where a society should be shaped by multiple, potentially conflicting, ideologies, such as under democracy). Perfectionism depends on the idea that there are “objective goods” – that what is “good” is not entirely subjective or culturally relative. This could justify prejudice or domination of others, but not necessarily. For example, Aristotle’s perfectionism claimed that the maximal development of human potential and well-being is objectively “good” but also individualistic. An artist requires different resources and conditions for maximal development than a physicist, or a farmer. Under some forms of perfectionism, people can still fulfill their unique natures and potentials. Some philosophers argue that the conditions for perfection are non-competitive—that one person’s perfection does not need to take away from another’s. Some argue that equality is the best condition for everyone’s perfection. So, perfectionism is not necessarily elitist or inegalitarian. It depends on one’s notion of objective good.
IV. Famous Quotes
“There is truth, my boy. But the doctrine you desire, absolute, perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught.” ― Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
This quote from the great novelist Herman Hesse points to both the relatedness and the difference between the popular meaning of perfectionism and the philosophy. Someone is being told to seek personal perfection, which could be interpreted in the popular sense of doing everything perfectly; however, the following sentences about the deity within and living truth imply the more ancient philosophy of seeking to fulfill one’s innate potential for excellence and morality.
“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” ― William Faulkner
This unusually positive quote from the seemingly pessimistic novelist William Faulkner seems to express the modern American version of philosophical perfectionism, in which the highest good is thought of as ultimate self-development and success. It is easy to see how this philosophy supports psychological perfectionism, but it really implies only doing one’s best, not perfection.
V. Types of Perfectionism
- Objective goods perfectionism: the most general version of perfectionism, in which the criteria for highest “good” does not depend on human preferences or views. For example, if an objective goods perfectionist believes that scientific development is a “good,” than they mean that it is, period, for all of us, whether we all believe in it or not.
- Non-humanistic perfectionism: versions of perfectionism in which the objective “goods” are not all human conditions. Great artistic and scientific accomplishments are among the most often cited non-human perfectionist goods.
- Humanistic perfectionism: in which the “goods” are human conditions, such as:
- Personal well-being: the highest good is the greatest health and happiness of individuals.
- Human excellence: the highest good is the greatest development of human potentials such as athleticism and artistry.
- Human nature perfectionism: the highest good is the fulfillment of either universal or individual human natures, such as the capacities for reason and compassion.
Although all these philosophies seem to overlap, they are also distinct. For example, “personal well-being” (i.e. health and happiness) could easily conflict with “human excellence”; this seems to be an ethical issue in our society where many parents wish to maximize their children’s “excellence,” perhaps at the expense of their happiness, at least in the short-term. Of course, one could argue that such a policy favors the children’s happiness in the long-run. In any case, this shows that “personal well-being” and “human excellence” are potentially very different “goods.”
VI. Perfectionism versus Hedonism
Hedonism is the philosophy and practice of seeking maximum pleasure for its own sake. This cannot be considered a form of perfectionism because hedonists do not claim that pleasure is an objective “good”; it is simply the fulfillment of individual urges and preferences. And, perhaps more importantly, in practice, living hedonistically conflicts with prioritizing most “objective goods” since enjoying yourself can easily conflict with self-improvement or making the best life for yourself or others.
VII. Perfectionism in Pop Culture
Example #1: The Olympics
A perfect symbol of ancient Greek perfectionism, surely Aristotle would be gratified that the international community invests so much in this originally Greek event celebrating the pursuit of perfection in athletics. Its popularity demonstrates the world-wide feeling that human excellence is an objective good which should be pursued at almost any cost.
Example #2: “Neolution” in the television series Orphan Black
In this British television series, a cultish corporation called “neolution” is using genetic-engineering, cloning, and advanced bio-technology in an attempt to create human beings with superior abilities – to take control of human evolution. This kind of perfectionism has a long history going back to the early twentieth century when the idea of “eugenics” – the genetic perfection of humanity – first became a popular idea. Although the idea became much less popular after WWII, since it was one Nazi justification for the Holocaust, it continues to appear in many films and television programs exploring the potential of technology to create better human beings.