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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Plato’s Laws and Liberal Neutralism

In Plato’s Laws the character of “the Athenian” notes that laws are much more effective if they have preambles which lay out why following the law is something worth doing, rather than just simply prohibiting some act. These preambles will often involve eloquently explaining why an admirable person would obey such a law, and why it is disgraceful, not simply imprudent, to disobey the law. The Athenian’s reasoning for this argument is that persuasion should be an element of law, and these preambles will persuade people to follow the law cooperatively, and learn from the teachings of the law.

This argument raises an important problem for contemporary liberal political philosophy. A dominant approach within contemporary political philosophy in the academy is liberal neutralism, and according to certain variants of this approach to political thought it would be inappropriate for the state to use such preambles in its laws, as this would violate state neutrality. Such preambles would violate state neutrality, as any preamble which justifies a law by reference to an ideal of character or the inherent worth of a particular set of acts will imply a particular sectarian belief about the good and according to the principle of state neutrality the state must have laws that do not rely on any particular conception of the good. But, if the laws include reference to a particular conception of the good, they quite clearly violate the state neutrality requirement. Consequently, for these particular varieties of liberal neutralism, let’s call these varieties strong neutralism, the Athenian’s approach to the writing of laws is clearly prohibited. So the question becomes how does such a state persuade its subjects? It can of course draw upon reasons that are independent of a particular conception of the good, such as that long term self-interest is best secured by obedience to the laws, but it will not be able to say that citizens should obey the laws because it is an intrinsically valuable part of life to be an obedient citizen. This approach to state neutrality avoids the evil of the state imposing a good on its subjects, but is the cost in terms of its lack of ability to draw upon an image of the good to persuade its citizens a cost that it makes sense to endure? The answer to this question is not completely clear to me, although I certainly prefer the evil of having a state that is unable to draw upon images of goodness to inspire fidelity to law, over the evil of having the state which is in danger of imposing a sectarian conception of the good on its people by persuading them that a particular conception of the good is correct.

There is another approach to liberal neutralism, let’s call it weak neutralism, which would in principle allow for such preambles, but nonetheless even for this approach the Athenian’s preambles would be deeply problematic. For this approach laws need to be justifiable on the basis of reasons that do not rely on a particular conception of the good, but this approach is silent as to how the laws are to be presented to the subjects. For example, with this approach you could have a law against theft that was justified because no matter what a person’s conception of the good is they have an interest in having their property secure from theft. However, the law might be presented in terms of the fact that a good person respects the right of his fellow citizens’ right to property. However, if a state were to take this approach the question arises as to why neutrality is required for the reasons justifying a law, but not required in terms of the presentation of the law to the people? It seems arbitrary to say that neutrality is important in justification of law, but not in terms of the presentation of the law to the people. So, it seems that weak neutralism is faced by the same dilemma as strong neutralism, in that it must choose between maintaining its commitment to neutrality and having the option of drawing on particular images of the good to persuade citizens of the importance of obeying the law.

What this tells us is that liberal neutralism, has a cost in terms of forbidding the state from persuading its citizens by reference to particular images of the good. It may seem obvious that liberal neutralism requires the state to refrain from such techniques of persuasion, but yet within liberal democracies the rhetoric used to justify laws to the public often draws on particular images of the good. And is it quite probable that full commitment to neutrality would require us to be distrustful of such rhetoric, for if we use rhetoric to justify laws that draws on particular image of the good, we are saying that the state should be in line with one particular conception of the good, rather than all of the others that exist, and this seems to violate the principle that the state should be neutral between conceptions of the good. Thus, a commitment to state neutrality would require us to drastically change our mode of every day political operation by marginalizing state rhetoric that relies on particular images of the good, and thus while liberal neutralism seems intuitively plausible, it may have greater costs than it appears to have at first glance.