Some thoughts on Perfectionist Politics

Perfectionism is the doctrine that the state legitimately can, and should use, coercion to improve the character and lives of the citizens and residents who are subject to it. For the Perfectionist it does not matter if an adult citizen or resident recognizes that a quality is valuable, and wants to develop it in themselves. Rather, it is the state’s duty to use coercion where necessary to ensure that people develop these valuable traits. So at its core we might say that the essence of Perfectionism is that statecraft is soulcraft, in that state policies do not just need to support liberty, equality or justice, but rather ensure that people become better human beings. There are many forms of Perfectionism, ranging from liberal varieties that see it as a fundamental objective of state policies to support the development of autonomy in their citizens, and more non-liberal or illiberal varieties that emphasize that the state should use state policies to encourage temperance, good judgment and aesthetic refinement among other things.

Now, as a firm supporter of egalitarian liberal principles of justice, I find Perfectionism to be a troubling doctrine. It very much makes sense to me say that a just state would use its coercive authority to ensure genuine equality of opportunity and that every citizen and resident has the resources to live a fulfilling life, including the resources required to contribute to the political, social, economic and cultural life of the society. However, it in itself it does not seem to me to be the duty or role of the state to use policy to ensure that its citizens and residents have certain character traits. It is often remarked that this hesitance is due to the fact that liberals are relativists and don’t believe that any way of life is better than any other. However this is quite clearly not the case as I certainly believe that certain ways of life that are not harmful to equality of opportunity and egalitarian liberal principles are superior to others. But nonetheless, the question of what ways of life are best is a separate question from the question of what reasons can be used to justify the use of state coercion to pursue a certain goal. An obvious example of this is that thinking that aesthetic appreciation is intrinsically valuable does not require that one think that state power should be used to ensure that people develop their abilities for aesthetic appreciation. So, this is clearly not an issue between relativism and skepticism and moral objectivism, but a question of what purposes a state can pursue through coercion and which it cannot. The Perfectionist says that a state can use coercion to make a person better while the non-Perfectionist says that this is illegitimate.

I will argue that while there seems to be a stark contrast between the Perfectionist, and the non-Perfectionist that non-Perfectionist policies tend to have to be justified in terms of Perfectionist beliefs. Thus the issue is not one of whether we should be Perfectionists or non-Perfectionists but instead what kind of laws or policies can be justified. I will argue that “Indirect Perfectionism” can be justified because it is requirement of justice, but “Direct Perfectionism” cannot be so justified.

It should be noted that for the sake of this entry I will only be talking about policy that pertains to adult citizens and residents. Policy concerning children, due to their vulnerability, and lack of ability for consent and fully reflective judgment necessarily must be dealt with in unapologetically Perfectionist terms; state policy regarding the health and education of children must ensure that coercion is used to ensure that children develop positive qualities and good health.

One example of a seeming non-Perfectionist policy is the requirement that all citizens and residents must have access to a certain set of monetary and non-monetary resources in order to live a decent life. This policy does not seem to mandate any particular way of life. In fact it is compatible with a diversity of modes of life. But if we ask the question why a certain set of standard resources is required for a citizen to live a decent life, we ultimately enter the territory of perfectionist values. The only way to say that a certain set of resources is required to live a decent life is if we have a sense of what a valuable life would be and are looking to ensure that all have equal access to living this sort of life. Thus, there are perfectionist beliefs here as we must take a stand about what kind of lives are decent, and what kind are indecent, and this requires us to think about what makes a life intrinsically worthwhile. We cannot thus avoid the question of what makes a life worthwhile when we are thinking about many seemingly non-Perfectionist policies as sometimes the only way to say that someone has a right to access a certain thing is to suppose that the thing that they have the right to access is so valuable that access to it must be provided for all. Same-sex marriage offers a case in point here. The move to support same-sex marriage has been generated largely based on the principle that because marriage is an intrinsically valuable part of life, and therefore same-sex couples should not be excluded from accessing this part of life. Consequently, many seemingly non-Perfectionist policies that support equal access to opportunities or forms of life are dependent for their justification on Perfectionist beliefs about what practises, and traits are intrinsically worthwhile.

Now, when access to an opportunity or form of life is justified based on the intrinsic value of that opportunity or form of life we are not dealing with a case of simple Perfectionist policy. Typical Perfectionist policies mandate that all citizens have a certain set of traits or engage in a certain set of rituals; for example societies that require all citizens to engage in practises that ensure their chastity would be directly perfectionist in this way. Thus, I refer to these typical Perfectionist policies as “Direct Perfectionism,” as the policies directly justify the use of coercion on the basis that the policy or law will ensure that people have certain traits or live certain kinds of lives. Contrastingly, a policy or law that justifies equal access for all to an intrinsically valuable opportunity or form of life can be referred to as “Indirect Perfectionism”, as these policies are not justified on the basis that the implementation of the policy will ensure that fact that citizens live a certain kind of life or have a certain character, and thus the policies do not directly ensure Perfectionist ends. But yet the policy itself could not be justified if we did not already have Perfectionist beliefs about what makes a life worth living, and thus they are still Perfectionist albeit in a much weaker sense.

Nothing I have said thus far shows why “Direct Perfectionism” would be less justifiable than “Indirect Perfectionism” as I have only laid out the difference between these two phenomena. But yet, it seems to me that “Indirect Perfectionism” is far more justifiable because these types of policies better accord with our intuitions about what justice requires than “Direct Perfectionism” does. Now let us take a hypothetical example where a certain class of citizens and residents do not have access to resources for aesthetic appreciation, athletic development, or general non-vocational educational development as the market does not provide these goods at a price where they are accessible to all. In this case I want to say that this situation is socially unjust as a sector of the population are being denied access to certain valuable opportunities and resources that are important to a well-lived life because of their socio-economic status. The injustice exists because all do not have equal access to the resources and opportunities required to live a well lived life, and thus the individuals who are denied access to these opportunities are not given their due. And as a citizen or resident justice requires that each has access to a set of opportunities that allows them to live a well-lived, valuable life. Consequently, “Indirect Perfectionism” is a requirement of justice, as coercive laws and policy must be created to rectify this injustice and ensure that all citizens and resident have access to the goods mentioned above.

Now suppose that as a result of the preceding injustice, policy and laws are developed to ensure that all citizens and residents have access to resources for aesthetic appreciation, athletic develop and general non-vocational educational development. But nonetheless very few additional people are using these resources, despite the fact that all have access now. It seems to me to be odd to say that such a situation is unjust as all have equal access to the relevant opportunities. We might say that the citizens and residents are living worse lives as a result of not taking up these opportunities, but the fact that citizens and residents make this decision is not enough to generate injustice, as no one is deprived of their equal claim to significant opportunities. Consequently, in this situation I don’t think that pursuing a “Directly Perfectionist” policy of ensuring people use these resources would be justifiable as no injustice is being done. We might not like that people are spending their money buying access to cable packages so they can watch more reality shows, rather than spending it on other more noble pursuits, but the fact that this is occurring is not enough to justify forcing people to engage in these noble pursuits. Part of the meaning of freedom requires that we positively allow all to pursue a valuable life, but we do not force them to live a life that others might deem valuable, and this is why “Direct Perfectionism” seems deeply questionable.

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Cultural Practises: Beyond the Opposition between Local and Universal

Countries with an avowedly multicultural identity, like Canada, face an interesting question in terms of how they can reconcile respect for the equal dignity of individuals with respect for the diversity of cultures. Some cultural practises seem to violate the equal dignity of individuals and yet are an integral part of certain cultures. For example, clitoridectomy stands out as one such practise as it seems to be harmful to girls and women, and yet is certainly an integral part of certain cultures.

Within this multicultural context, members of particular cultures may say that they should be allowed to continue to engage in a practise that is illegal because this practise is part of their culture. Some, call them multiculturalists, are quite receptive to this sort of exemption for certain cultural practises as they think this is required to respect the diversity of cultures within a state. On the other hand, liberal universalists are critical of this claim and say that if a practise violates laws that are meant to defend the rights and well-being of equal citizens than it really does not matter if the practise is a part of your culture. According to this latter perspective it is not enough to justify the validity of a practise, and its eligibility for exemption from an existing law, to point to the fact that it is a part of your particular cultural tradition. In this debate I tend to be far more supportive of the latter position, than the former, but for the sake of this piece I do not want to focus on the specifics of whether policy should provide exemptions for cultural practises that violate existing law, but rather look at what these kinds of exchanges tell us about the nature of value and its relation to culture. It seems to me that cultural traditions are inexorably linked to universal values, rather than being opposed to them, and consequently we should not speak as if there was such a fundamental opposition. Universal value is an aspect of culture, rather than oppositional to culture.

When someone says that they should be able to engage in a practise because it is part of their culture, or their religion for that matter, what are they saying? On the most literal reading of their statement they are saying that as far as possible people should be able to engage in practises that are part of their heritage, and should not be impeded from doing so by existing law. Liberal universalists tend to take this interpretation of the defenders of multicultural policies of exemption, and as a result quite rightly point out that if this is what multiculturalists mean they are quite simply defending a quite repugnant form of cultural relativism. If a practise causes harm to children or significantly reduces their opportunities in life, but is a part of a culture’s practises it seems quite cruel to say that the practise should continue merely because it is part of a group’s culture. This would be like saying women should continue to be the predominant caregivers of children because they have been in our culture in the past. I gave the example of children as the way that a culture treats children is particularly important because children, unlike adults, do not have the ability to leave their culture if they decide they do not like it until they have reached adulthood, and so they are particular vulnerable to being unjustly harmed by cultural practises.

However, I don’t think all multiculturalists are arguing for this kind of vacuous relativism, and I think there is more sophisticated defense. For example, to defend a cultural practise by saying that it is part of one’s culture can plausible be viewed as suggesting that this practise should be exempted from existing law because it constitutes a unique and significant value, such that by preventing the practise the lives of those who practise the culture would be diminished. On this account culture is not just a mere set of practises that we inherit from the past that has no universal value, but rather culture gives an insightful account of our place in the world and its practises constitute a valuable mode of operation. The value of culture in this sense is not just that the members of the culture happen to like to practise it, but that in a real sense it enhances the lives of its members and allows them to understand what is most significant. Different cultures represent differing notions of what is valuable, but they all purport to answer the question of what is significant. Now, from a policy angle the mere fact that a cultural practise that is illegal can be shown to have significant value is not enough to justify an exemption for it as the law could be protecting a value that is more fundamental. But this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument is not insensitive to the interests and lives of the members of the culture. Consequently it is not open to the liberal universalist charge of uncaring cultural relativism.

Yet, this latter interpretation of the multiculturalist argument would completely change the way we talk about multiculturalism. If cultural practises that are currently illegal should be exempted for members of a particular culture because they provide significant value to the lives of the members of the culture, than why shouldn’t the law forbidding in general be repealed? Once we begin to justify cultural practises in terms of their value to the lives of their members, the practises are not merely valuable for a particular culture, but for citizens in general as there value is universal and not conditional upon cultural membership. In this case, all other things being equal, if a significantly valuable cultural practise is made illegal through existing law than why wouldn’t we just legalize this practise in general? By only allowing members of a certain culture to engage in this practise through an exemption we would be preventing others from accessing a valuable option, and thus denying the principle of equality. Consequently, upon this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument the argument is not about whether a culture should be free to engage in a particular practise that others within the society are not free to engage in, but whether a currently illegal practise should be made legal because it is valuable. Of course, there are some cases where exemption makes sense as a matter of prudence, but these are not the norm.

What the preceding faintly shows is that the defense of cultural practises need not be framed in terms of the opposition between the defense of local cultural practises on the basis that they are part of a tradition and the defense of universal human values. But liberal universalists and multiculturalists themselves are far too often willing to frame their arguments in terms of this opposition. Liberal universalists tend to suggest they are standing up for universal human values, against the particular parochial practises of traditional cultures. We can see this in the debate on the headscarf in France. Liberal universalists justified the banning of the headscarf in public schools based on the fact that they were defending the universal value of equality, as the headscarf symbolizes the subordination of women. On the other hand, the critics of the ban tended to see this as a case of the French majority trying to impose their values on an already oppressed cultural minority who merely want to retain their traditions.

Now, through framing these issues in terms of universal values and local traditions, something deeply important is missed about the relation of culture and value. Cultures are always related to the particular, but value is always mediated and made most present through the particular. Fairness is an example of this. In an abstract sense what fairness requires is very hard to understand. Surely, it is fair to make a decision by flipping a coin, as no party has a significantly better chance of guessing correctly, but it would be odd to say that a fair way of organizing society would be by flipping coins to decide who did what and who had power in that society. Thus, the value of fairness can only be understood in particular contexts. A fair way to decide who should get the last slice of cake after each has had one piece might be through a random selection, whereas in an artistic competition fairness in judging the winner is based on fidelity to criteria that are integral to the nature of artistic competition that is occuring. Likewise, for Christians, what piety requires is very different from civic nationalists, or Muslims, but both are concerned with the same core object of piety.

Cultures are thus not particular traditions that are opposed to universal values. Rather each culture’s practises are a mediation of a related set of values that can plausibly apply to anyone; thus cultures do not simply represent the particular, but rather the mediation of universal values in a particularistic form. Now, some cultures may have a better mediation of one value than another, culture or contain values that we deem are more or less important. Surely, the contemporary culture of Canada has done a better job to mediate the value of compassion than the culture of Ancient Sparta. But this does not change the fact that particular cultures are not opposed to universal values, but an attempt to bring together and mediate a set of universal values in a form of life.

Thus, when we are talking about a culture’s practise and debating its value we should not be framing the issue in terms of the defense of a particular culture retaining its tradition, absent of any claim of universal value, against a claim of the defense of universal human values. Instead, when we are talking about cultural practises, we are talking about mediations of universal values that have their value precisely in the fact that they are not just a local custom, but instead a way of thinking and living life that can reveal what is significant to anyone. Engaging with other cultures is not a matter of respecting their diversity, but of trying to grasp them and see if they reveal something valuable about how we should live.

Freedom of Contract, Poverty and Democratic Citizenship

It is typical in advanced capitalist nations for employers to make employment conditional on employees agreeing that they will not do anything to damage the reputation of the organization they work for, including publicly criticizing that organization. Of course, most companies have whistleblower policies that provide employees with a process and channel to report about breach of existing policy or regulation through internal mechanisms. However, while these mechanisms offer a means to raise grievances about coworkers or the company as a whole breaching their existing policy or the letter of the law, they are not designed to deal with more generalized criticism of the organization on ethical grounds.

In light of the fact that existing whistleblower protections do not provide a channel for more generalized ethical critique of an organization’s operations I want to turn to the question of whether it is legitimate for employment to be made conditional on an employee not engaging in public ethical criticism of the company they work for. To limit the scope of this question I will look at Canada, in particular, rather than advanced capitalist nations as a whole. In particular, I will argue that under the existing political economy Canada this kind of employment clause is not legitimate as it undermines democratic citizenship, but that under more egalitarian economic conditions these clauses could be legitimate.

The general defense for the legitimacy of making this kind of non-criticism clause a condition of employment is that according to the notion of freedom of contract citizens should be able to agree to contracts with other citizens or organizations as far as possible. The key to this view is that the freedom to make agreements and engage in contracts is integral to the freedom of a society. Consequently, citizens should not be prevented from engaging in contracts as this would be paternalistic and not respect the right of citizens to make their own decisions.

Futhermore, another point that supports the legitimacy of employment contracts that include a non-criticism clause is that even if this non-criticism clause imposes a significant burden on persons, someone always has the right to leave their job. Thus, while they may give up their right to critique an organization or set of organizations publicly, they do not give up this right indefinitely as they can always leave the company if they choose to engage in this criticism.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this defense of freedom of contract based on considerations of fairness and equity that are codified in Canada’s laws. For example, citizens are not able to sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, as this would alienate one’s most basic freedoms. Furthermore, one cannot agree to a contract that pays below the minimum wage even if you are so desperate that agreeing to this wage seems desirable, as it is postulated that all people who work should not be paid below a certain level. However, while there are quite a few exceptions the case remains that the notion of freedom of contract dominates the social imaginary of Canada.

Under the current conditions in Canada while there are some social protections for the vulnerable the state typically does not ensure that all of its citizens are guaranteed an income that can support a decent life. While minimum wage laws and social assistance ensure that all are provided with some level of income, relying on these sources of income is not enough to avoid poverty or support a decent way of life. For example, about 1 in 7 Canadians lives in poverty which goes to show that there are still many Canadians who are not being provided with adequate resources and opportunities (material, educational or otherwise) to secure a decent life.

While poverty does not equally affect all groups in Canada, as aboriginals, the mentally and physically disabled are at greater risk, the statistic provided above shows that poverty is a significant risk for all Canadians. No matter what your race, sexual orientation, gender and physical and mental capabilities are in Canada you are at risk of being in poverty because if you do not have either a income sufficient to avoid poverty, or someone to support you financially, there is no guarantee that you will have enough to live a decent life, and it is most likely that you will not have enough to live reasonably well.

This is the context in which Canadians live and under which non-criticism clauses are made conditions of employment. Consequently, I think it is deeply problematic, in this context, to legitimize non-criticism clauses as this forces citizens to have to choose between economic security and their ability to publicly critique their organization for engaging in legal practises that they and others may find deeply problematic.

Now, it should be noted that some public criticisms of an organization by an employee may be reasonable grounds for dismissal. For example, going on Facebook and calling your boss a “fucking douchebag prick” because he would not let you take Monday off seems to me to be reasonable grounds for dismissal. However, if I work for a construction company and publicly write on my blog that the company that I work for needs to stop taking advantage of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) because this is having a pernicious effect on Canada, and our specific community, I hardly see this as reasonable grounds of dismissal. And yet under the current regime of non-criticism employment clauses this would be reasonable ground for dismissal because if my blog had gone viral and lead to a boycott by other companies, or by criticisms from NGOs, this would negatively affect the ability of the company to make profit. Consequently, as an employee I would have done something to damage the companies reputation and cause it to lose profits. In which case I have violated the terms of employment and am subject to firing by taking actions as a citizen to protect the public interest.

Consequently, what is wrong these non-criticism clauses in the current economic context of Canada is that they are too vague, and require citizens to not only engage professionally with their employer, but also to be a loyal ambassador for their company in public life, if they are to maintain employment. It may be legitimate to require that employees do not engage in personal criticism of other staff, or slander against the company, but it is not legitimate to require that employees do not engage in public ethical criticism of your company’s practises as this undermines democratic citizenship. It undermines democratic citizenship because in an economic context where being unemployed puts one in danger of poverty asking people to choose between economic security and freedom to critique will likely encourage people to choose economic security. While the freedom to speak out is deeply important, it is a far less pressing need than those immediate basic needs that economic security takes care of, and so far fewer people will be willing to risk unemployment and speak out against what they see as legal, yet unethical practises. Inevitably, most people will choose to remain silent on these kind of things if they feel that they risk not being able to provide a decent live for themselves and their families. By using these non-criticism clauses we thus insulate organizations from public criticism of questionable practises and thus weaken the ability of the citizenry to question and debate the validity of these practises as far fewer people will speak out. This undermines democratic citizenship as it weakens the ability of the body politic to effectively understand existing questionable practises in organizations and discuss how to deal with them.

This negative effect on democratic citizenship is further reinforced, as there are very few employment options that do not require an employee to agree to a non-criticism clause. Some very small businesses do not have these kinds of clauses due to their general informality, and being self-employed also would avoid this, but these options are not significant enough to create a significantly unburdened option apart from risking unemployment and not engaging in public criticism of one’s employer.

Therefore, while, in the current Canadian context banning the kind of non-criticism clauses that prevent employees from publicly speaking out about legal, but potentially unethical practises, that the organization they work for engages in, would go along way to strengthening democratic citizenship, it is still not an ideal solution. While democratic citizenship is important, so too is the prevention of poverty. And banning these aforementioned legal clauses will not necessarily help combat poverty. As a result I think it would be better to change the existing political economy so that the risk of poverty was so negligible that citizens were not forced to choose between economic security and the freedom to critique legal, yet ethically questionable practises. Under these conditions there would be less of a need to ban these clauses as they would not undermine democratic citizenship, as citizens would not have to risk poverty if they were to speak out against the organization they work for. But I suspect that this change in political economy will not occur anytime soon given that we currently inhabit a political moment dominated by an ideology of privatization and efficiency, so perhaps loosening the ability of employers to silence employees in this area is a good step in the right direction.


Works Cited

“Just the Facts.” Canada Without Poverty RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.