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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