The Progressive Living Glossary

Definition: Perfectionism




"Perfectionism" is a vague but convenient label for a broad family of theories concerning the nature of ethics. Perfectionistic theories derive their common characteristics from their emphasis on the crucial importance of the development of human excellence in any adequate ethics.

Perfectionists have held that human beings should evaluate their character and their actions in light of standards that specify an ideal of perfection, this ideal having several dimensions. The most important of these standards concern morality, the grounds for


deeming an activity or outcome as significant, and competence. However, perfectionists have also been concerned with articulating the nature of excellence in the intellectual, aesthetic, and, to a lesser degree, physical arenas. The perfectionist maintains that human beings have the potential for excellence in all of these areas, and should do their utmost to actualize this potential by cultivating their capabilities. If this is done, and only if this is done, will a maximum of good be brought into existence.

Because of their belief in objective standards


of excellence, some Perfectionists have exhibited a tendency to elitism; however, a bias of this nature is in no way essential to Perfectionism, as Thomas Hurka, perhaps the most distinguished of the contemporary proponents of Perfectionism has pointed out. Hurka writes "Although Perfectionism has often been anti-egalitarian, the tradition contains important defenders of distributive equality. . . And whatever a theory's final claims about distribution, the way it derives them depends crucially on its structure. . . . a distributively neutral principle [supports


unequal shares] only given certain contentious empirical theses" (Perfectionism, 1993).

In the West, the historical roots of perfectionism may be traced to the ethical theories of Plato and Aristotle, who are often said to have been proponents of a "self-actualization" ethics. In the East, Confucius was the founding figure of an independent Perfectionist tradition.

Key recent works are Hurka's Perfectionism and Brand Blanshard's Reason and Goodness. See also Xinzhong Yao's An Introduction to Confucianism.