Perfectionism in Moral and Political Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


The first thing to say is that an objective account of the good need
not make reference to the good of human beings. Some people think
that certain aspects of the natural world are valuable and would have
value even if no human being existed. Others believe that great
achievements in art and science have value beyond any effect that they
have on the lives of human beings. Perfectionist views that
affirm judgments of this kind are examples of what can be called
nonhumanistic perfectionism. Perfectionist accounts of
the human good, by contrast, are accounts that seek to identify the
goods that contribute to the value of a life for human beings.

The good life for human beings can be understood in at least two
importantly different ways. On the first understanding, such a life is
construed in terms of well-being. The best life for a human being is a
life that goes maximally well for the person who leads it. On the
second understanding, the good life for a human being is construed in
terms of excellence or success. An excellent human life could be a
life that is best in terms of well-being, but it need not be, for it
is possible that such a life requires a human being to make sacrifices
in his own well-being for the sake of other persons or goods. Thus the
notion of an excellent human life is broader than that of a life high
in well-being. And since it is the broader notion, a general
characterization of perfectionism should employ it rather than

Perfectionism, so understood, contrasts with both hedonism and desire
satisfaction accounts of the human good. Let ‘X
refer to an object, an activity or a relationship. Then, for the
perfectionist, if X is good, then it is not good in virtue of
the fact that it is desired, or would be desired under appropriate
conditions, by human beings. Likewise, for the perfectionist,
if X is good, it does not follow that X must be a
pleasant mental state or causally related to one. Perfectionist
accounts of the human good, of course, can allow that some goods are
experiential, but they reject the hedonistic thesis that all intrinsic
human goods consist in pleasurable sensations or attitudes.

1.1 Two Versions of Perfectionism

Putting nonhumanistic perfectionism aside, perfectionist goods are
components of an excellent human life. Historically, as noted
above, perfectionists have related these goods to the development of
human nature. For example, the development of rationality is
often considered to be a perfectionist good because it is a capacity
essential to human nature. Following Aristotle, a number of
contemporary writers have sought to develop accounts of the human good
along these lines (Hurka 1993, Foot 2003). We can use the term
human nature perfectionism to refer generally to accounts of
the human good that relate perfectionist goods to the development of
human nature. Other writers, however, have characterized
perfectionism without any reference to human nature. John Rawls
characterizes perfectionism as requiring the maximum “achievement
of human excellence in art, science and culture” (Rawls 1971,
325). Derek Parfit characterizes perfectionism in terms of the
achievement or realization of “the best things in life”
(Parfit 1986, 162). Here it is the existence of the objective
goods, and not their relation to the development of human nature, that
is highlighted. Similarly, other writers have identified
perfectionism with the realization of a specified list of objective
goods (Finnis 1980, Griffin 1986, Arneson 2000). We can use the
term objective goods perfectionism to refer generally to
accounts of the human good that identify perfectionist goods without
relating them to the development of human

Both types of perfectionism confront formidable challenges.
Proponents of human nature perfectionism must present an adequate
account of human nature. More precisely, they must give a plausible
account of the properties that are central to human nature and the
development of which explain why certain activities and states are
good for human beings (Hurka 1993). Whether there is any account of
human nature that both yields plausible results and has genuine
explanatory power can be doubted (Dorsey 2010). By contrast,
proponents of objective goods perfectionism, having freed the
identification of objective goods from dependence on the development
of human nature, must explain why some things, and not others, are
counted as good. Objective goods perfectionists need not formulate an
exhaustive list of these goods. They may think such an undertaking to
be misguided. But they should have something to say about what makes
an alleged good an objective good, one worthy of pursuit (Sumner 1996,
Sher 1997).

1.2 Perfectionism and Pluralism

The distinction between human nature perfectionism and objective
goods perfectionism helps us approach an important question in value
theory. Must perfectionists be monists, holding that there is at
bottom only one form of life that is best for all human beings; or can
they hold that there exists a plurality of equally good forms of life
for human beings? The question is important, since it is very
plausible to think that the best life for one human being may differ
from the best life for another.

Human nature perfectionism identifies the human good with the
development of human nature. This looks like a monistic ideal,
one that identifies a single form of life as best for all human
beings. But, in fact, the ideal leaves many issues open.
Let us stipulate that the best life for a human being is the life that
maximizes the development of his nature. Then, it still could be
true that for different human beings different activities and pursuits
would best promote their good. This could be true, since
different people may be able to best develop different aspects of human
nature. Given their temperament and talents, some do well to
concentrate on artistic pursuits, while others do well to focus on
theoretical studies or athletic achievements. Moreover, even
those who do well to focus on the same type of perfection, may find
that some activities and goals serve this end better for them than for
others. Finally, different tradeoffs between one’s own
perfection and the perfection of others may be rationally eligible and
this too will contribute to the plurality and variety of modes of life
consistent with the perfectionist ideal.

The compatibility of objective goods perfectionism and value pluralism
also can be established. One need only assume that some perfectionist
goods are either roughly equal or incomparable in value (Finnis 1980,
Raz 1986). Friendship and understanding, for example, may both be
perfectionist goods, but they may not be comparable in a way that
allows us to rank lives that realize these goods to different
degrees. More generally, perfectionist goods may be combinable in
different proportions, yielding a range of different types of life
that are valuable and worthy of pursuit. The adjective
“perfect” when applied to a human life suggests one that
is maximally good or excellent, but if goods conflict and are
incomparable, or if combinations of goods are of equal or incomparable
value, then a plurality of different types of life may have a title to
that designation—or perhaps no life can be strictly perfect, but
many can be very good.

Nothing said here, of course, rules out the possibility that there
really is only one way of life that is maximally best for human
beings. The point pressed is merely that perfectionism is
consistent with value pluralism. Put otherwise, if objective
goods are plural and incomparable, as many recent writers maintain,
then this fact about the nature of value does not undercut the
plausibility of perfectionism, of either the human nature or objective
goods variety. To be sure, a plausible perfectionism will
recognize that pluralism has its limits. Perfectionist value
theory seeks to identify goods and activities that human beings ought
to preserve, promote and engage with. It implies that some ways
of living are not valuable for human beings, even if they are fully

Perfectionism as a moral theory directs human beings to protect and
promote objectively good human lives. As such, it can take an egoistic
or non-egoistic form. Egoistic forms of perfectionism are well
represented in the history of moral philosophy. These theories direct
each human being to perfect himself as much as possible, or at least
to some threshold level. Egoistic forms of perfectionism need not be
narrowly self-interested. A number of perfectionist writers have held
that the good of others contributes substantially to one’s own good
(Green 1986; Hobhouse 1911). By promoting the good of others, one can
thereby promote one’s own good. On such views, there is no deep
conflict between one’s own perfection and the perfection of
others. Non-egoistic forms of perfectionism, by contrast, allow for
such conflicts. They hold that each human being has a non-derivative
duty to perfect others as well as a duty to perfect himself. Such
views, at least in principle, can direct human beings to sacrifice
their own perfection for the sake of

Whether it takes an egoistic or non-egoistic form, perfectionism is
best understood as a moral theory that directs human beings to care
about the perfection of others as well as themselves. This claim is
consistent with recognizing, what is evidently true, that there are
serious limits to our ability to bring about the perfection of others.
These limits explain why some philosophers, most notably Kant, have
held that we cannot have a duty to promote the perfection of others
(Kant 1785). Many perfectionist goods require self-direction for their
realization. We cannot compel another to develop her capacities, at
least not all of them. Nor can we compel another to participate in
valuable social relationships. This valid point, however, should not be
overstated. We can work to ensure that others live under conditions
that are conducive to their own self-development or their own
realization of perfectionist goods. Indirect promotion may be possible
where direct promotion is not. The fact that human beings cannot
directly bring about the perfection of others is nonetheless important.
It may explain why, in practice if not in principle, a plausible
perfectionism would direct each human being to be more concerned with
her own perfection than with the perfection of others.

2.1 Consequentialism and Deontology

The best life for a human being might be one that simultaneously
best perfects himself and best perfects others. But this
possibility is unlikely. Even if the conflict between one’s
own good and the good of others is not as sharp as it is often taken to
be, there will, in all likelihood, be circumstances in which human
beings must choose between their own perfection and the perfection of

How then should this conflict be adjudicated within perfectionist
ethics? Egoistic forms of perfectionism have a ready answer to this
question. One should promote the perfection of others only to the
extent that the perfection of others furthers one’s own
perfection. Non-egoistic forms, by contrast, must find a way to
balance the conflicting demands. One natural response to this problem
is straightforwardly consequentialist. Perfectionism, it can be said,
requires that we pursue the greatest development of all human beings
at all times (Hurka 1993, 55–60). So understood, perfectionism
gives each human being a shared comprehensive goal. This makes
perfectionism a very demanding moral theory. It is demanding in two
respects. First, it demands, other things being the same, that we
weigh the perfection of others equally with our own
perfection. Second, it demands that, to the extent left open by the
first demand, that we maximize our own perfection.

Perhaps this kind of consequentialist perfectionism asks too much of
us. We can imagine forms of perfectionism that relax both of its

Consider, for example, a perfectionist moral theory that includes an
agent-centered prerogative. Such a theory could allow that
persons can favor their own perfection, to some reasonable degree, over
the perfection of others and that persons need only pursue their own
perfection up to some threshold level. This relaxed perfectionism
would depart from the main historical defenses of perfectionism (which
emphasize maximization) and it would not well fit the term
perfectionism (which connotes maximization). But the important
question is whether a view of this type is nonetheless plausible.

The answer depends, in part, on whether human nature or objective
goods perfectionism is the favored view. If perfection is
understood in terms of the development of human nature, then a view
that departs from the maximizing injunction will look less
promising. A person who has extraordinary potential for
excellence, but who only achieves a threshold level of development does
not plausibly achieve perfection. Since she was capable of so
much more, we should not be content with her modest achievements.
Intuitively, we should judge that she has not fully lived up to the
requirements of perfectionist morality (Hurka 1993, 56).
Moreover, on this version of perfectionism, an agent’s
primary moral goal is to develop human nature, not to lead a rewarding
or fulfilling life. But if the development of human nature is the
goal, then it is a bit of a mystery why each human being’s own
development should have special value for himself (Hurka 1993,

Matters look different if perfection is understood in terms of the
realization of objective goods. For, on this version of
perfectionism, it is plausible to hold that each human being has an
agent-relative interest in leading a successful life, where success is
understood in terms of the pursuit of valuable goals and the
realization of perfectionist goods. A successful life, so
understood, plausibly requires only a threshold realization of certain
perfectionist goods, such as friendship, knowledge, and aesthetic
experience. For these reasons, a non-maximizing injunction fits
better with objective goods perfectionism than with human nature

Whatever its merits, the introduction of an agent-centered
prerogative into perfectionist morality would exacerbate a problem with
standard consequentialist versions of perfectionism. It would
appear to give human beings a moral liberty to harm others if doing so
would promote their own
True, the problem is present even without the
introduction of the agent-centered prerogative. A pure
consequentialist perfectionism in principle could enjoin the sacrifice
of those who had little potential for perfectionist achievement for
those who had great potential. But such a view would at least
have the virtue that those who were sacrificed would be contributing to
the goal of maximum perfectionist achievement—a goal they
should share if they are consequentialist perfectionists. The
same is not guaranteed to hold true if the prerogative is

Since the worry here is one that confronts consequentialist accounts
of morality in general, it might be thought that perfectionist morality
should take a deontological structure instead. Deontological
perfectionism would hold that the goal of promoting human perfection is
constrained by the requirement to respect the perfection, or the
capacity to achieve it, in each human being. The structure of
such a view can be glimpsed by considering the objective goods version
of perfectionism. For it is plausible that the achievement of
certain objective goods, such as friendship or community with others,
requires that we treat others with respect. Requirements of
respect, it can be said, are constitutively necessary conditions for
the realization of many perfectionist goods.

This is not the place to explore the structure of such a view in
detail. Nor is it the place to discuss the extent to which it
represents a genuine departure from consequentialism (Pettit and Smith
2004). Instead, another possible response to the worry can
be mentioned. As Rawls pointed out, perfectionism is often taken
to be merely one element of a general moral theory (Rawls 1971,
325). The moral duty to maximize human perfection must be balanced
against other moral principles. Deontological constraints and
agent-centered prerogatives might limit the duty to promote human
perfection, but they might do so because they are derived from
independent moral principles. On this mixed view, in which
perfectionism is understood as merely one element of a general moral
theory, it is possible to recommend perfectionism as an agent-neutral
maximizing doctrine and avoid the unwanted implications that morality
is excessively demanding and that it endorses the sacrifice of some for
the sake of greater overall human perfection.

2.2 Elitism and Inequality

Perfectionist ethics has often been associated with elitist
doctrines. Whether it takes a consequentialist or deontological
structure, perfectionism is compatible with assigning different weights
to the perfection of different human beings. And a number of
important perfectionist writers have maintained that the perfection
that matters the most is the perfection of those who are capable of
achieving the most. This “superman” version of
perfectionism, a view famously associated with Nietzsche, gives
absolute weight to the excellence achievable by certain great men, such
as Socrates or Goethe and zero weight to the rest of humanity
(Nietzsche 1873/1876; Griffin 1986, 60–61).

The superman version of perfectionism is an extreme view. It
holds that some human lives count for much and many human lives count
for nothing. This view should not be confused with a different
and less extreme view, one that can be termed the prioritarian
version of perfectionism. This view holds that we should
value the perfection of each and every human being, but in aggregating
human perfection we should count the greater perfections more than the lesser
How much more? On a simple version of the view, greater perfections
count for more than lesser perfections simply in virtue of being
greater. A human life that achieves twice as much perfection as
another human life has twice as much value. But it is possible that
greater perfections count for even more. On a complex version of the
view, greater perfections count for more than lesser perfections in
virtue of being greater and in virtue of an appropriate multiplier.
More precisely, on this version of the view, an equal unit increase of
perfection counts for more the greater the perfection already
attained. Accordingly, a human life that achieved twice as much
perfection as another human life would have more than twice its

The prioritarian version of perfectionism, on either the simple or
complex version of the view, does not imply that the lives of those
who can achieve little count for nothing. It holds only that greater
perfections—a greater development of human nature or a greater
realization of objective goods— have greater value. It directs
us to pursue the greatest overall human perfection, where this is
determined by a weighted summing of the perfection of all human

Compared with the superman version, the prioritarian version of
perfectionism is significantly more plausible. It captures the
thought that greater achievements are more valuable than lesser
achievements without denying value to the latter. It recognizes
the claims of greatness without excluding all other achievements from
moral concern. Still, while not elitist, prioritarian
perfectionism will likely have inegalitarian implications for the
distribution of resources. Thomas Nagel explains:

A society should try to foster the creation and preservation of what
is best, or as good as it possibly can be, and this is just as
important as the widespread dissemination of what is merely good
enough. Such an aim can be pursued only by recognizing and
exploiting the natural inequalities between persons, encouraging
specialization and distinction of levels in education, and accepting
the variation in accomplishment which results. (Nagel 1991, 135)

One might object to these claims by holding that a sufficient amount
of goods that are “merely good enough” should be able to
outweigh a small number of truly excellent goods. But if the excellent
goods are weighted more heavily, as recommended by the prioritarian
version of perfectionism, then in practice this possibility may be
unlikely. (Much depends here on the strength of the prioritarian
multiplier.) Nagel appears to accept the prioritarian view, for he
concludes that “no egalitarianism can be right which would permit
haute cuisine, haute couture, and exquisite houses to disappear just
because not everyone can have them” (Nagel 1991, 138).

The prioritarian version of perfectionism, then, may license
significant inequality in the distribution of resources. The
inegalitarian character of the view has some attractive consequences,
however. When applied to population ethics, it has the potential to
avoid Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion”. As Parfit

We might claim that, even if some change brings a great net benefit
to those who are affected, it is a change for the worse if it involves
the loss of one of the best things in life (Parfit 1986, 163).

The focus here, as with Nagel’s remarks, is on perfectionist goods
rather than on the welfare of human beings. To avoid the repugnant
conclusion, it must be claimed that these goods—“the
kinds of experience and activity which do most to make life most worth
living”—take absolute priority over less
valuable experiences and activities.

This claim, as Parfit allows, is vulnerable to counterexample. It is
very hard to believe that the best artistic experience is infinitely
better than a slightly less good, but still excellent, artistic
experience. Viewing a Picasso might be better than viewing a Braque,
but not infinitely better. It is more plausible, then, to construe the
prioritarian version of perfectionism as just assigning some finite
positive multiplier to the greater perfections. But while such a view
would not be vulnerable to the kind of counterexample just adduced, it
would disable it from answering the Repugnant Conclusion (Hurka 1993,

The discussion so far has emphasized the perfectionist concern with
creating and preserving the best human experiences and activities. This
concern inclines perfectionism toward inequality. But it is possible to
defend an egalitarian version of the view; and the history of
perfectionist ethics contains a number of such examples. Here four
possibilities for developing an egalitarian version of perfectionism
briefly can be mentioned.

(1) One can hold, as Spinoza did, that the most important
perfectionist goods, such as understanding, are non-competitive. Their
realization by one human being does not impede, and may advance, their
realization in others. Maximum perfection, so understood, is compatible
with equality of material condition (Spinoza 1667).

(2) One can hold, as some writers like T. H. Green did, that
inequality in the distribution of resources impedes the perfection of
all, the rich as well as the poor. Perfectionist values, on this view,
can be fully realized only in a society in which each member is roughly
equal in power and status (Green 1986; Brink 2003, 77–88).

(3) One can hold that the perfection of each human being matters
equally and that the distribution of resources most likely to promote
the greatest overall human perfection is not one that contains great
inequalities. Such a view would reject the prioritarian multiplier
discussed above, holding instead that equal unit increases of
perfection for those who achieve little count the same as equal unit
increases of perfection for those who achieve much; e.g., an increase
from 9 to 10 has the same value as an increase from 99 to 100.

(4) One can hold that perfectionism inclines toward inequality, but
that other non-perfectionist principles impose an egalitarian
constraint on the pursuit of perfectionist values.

These possibilities show that there is no tight connection between
perfectionism and inequality. The degree to which perfectionism
licenses inequality will depend on answers to a number of difficult
questions, e.g. which version of perfectionism is best?, how great are
the natural differences between human beings?, to what extent are
perfectionist goods competitive?, and what, if any, non-perfectionist
moral principles limit the pursuit of perfectionist values? The answers
to these questions are very much in dispute within perfectionist
morality. Without firm answers to them, no one should reject
perfectionist ethics out of hand because of a commitment to egalitarian

2.3 Self-Regarding Duties

Human beings should care about their own perfection as well as the
perfection of others. As we have seen, the standard of perfection
is objective in the sense that it guides, or should guide, human
action, even if it what it recommends is not desired. These
claims explain why perfectionism assigns an important place to
self-regarding duties. A self-regarding duty to develop
one’s talents, if there is such a duty, is categorical. One
has the duty whether or not one has a desire to fulfill it.

The possibility of self-regarding duties of this kind are sometimes
rejected on conceptual grounds. Moral duties concern one’s
treatment of others, and so a moral duty to oneself is a confused
notion. But this worry should not detain us for long. The
key point is that we can have categorical reasons to develop our nature
or to engage in valuable, as opposed to worthless, activities. It
is a secondary issue whether we should classify a self-regarding duty
as a moral duty or as (merely) a categorical non-moral duty (Raz
1994, 40). But while the worry should not detain us, it does point
to an attractive feature of perfectionist ethics. Much
contemporary moral theory ignores duties to oneself, whether understood
as moral duties or not, and focuses exclusively on our duties toward
others. Perfectionist ethics is an important corrective to this
tendency. By expanding the domain of ethical concern, it has the
potential to enrich contemporary moral philosophy (Hurka 1993, 5).

Different perfectionist theories offer different accounts of the
content of self-regarding duties. Generally speaking, it is
useful to distinguish negative from positive duties to oneself.
Negative duties are duties to refrain from damaging or destroying
one’s capacity to lead a good life. For example, barring
exceptional circumstances, one has duties to refrain from suicide and
self-mutilation. Positive duties, by contrast, are duties to
exercise one’s capacity to develop one’s nature and/or to
realize perfectionist goods. For example, one has a duty to
develop one’s talents and not to devote one’s life entirely
to idleness and pleasure (Kant 1785).

Specific negative and positive self-regarding duties are derived
from the more comprehensive duty to oneself to do what one can to lead
a good or excellent life. It is probably true, as Aristotle
pointed out, that the success of one’s life depends on factors
outside of one’s control. If so, then no one can have a
duty to lead a good life. Still, excluding the effects of luck,
we can say that each human being will have a more or less successful
life depending on the decisions they make and the options they
pursue. And we can add that each human being has a comprehensive
duty to lead a successful life, to the extent that it is within his or
her power to do so.

Stated at this level of abstraction, the perfectionist case for
affirming self-regarding duties does not look particularly
controversial. Resistance to it will likely derive from one
of two quarters. Some will reject the very possibility of
categorical duties, whether to oneself or to others. Others will
accept the possibility of categorical duties, but insist that they are
limited to the treatment of others. This latter view, on its
face, looks unstable. It is likely motivated by the worry that if
self-regarding duties are acknowledged, then the door is open for
paternalistic interference. To address this concern, we must turn
now from perfectionist ethics to perfectionist politics.

The transition from perfectionist ethics to perfectionist politics
is a natural one to make. Political institutions can be arranged,
and state policies can be adopted, that promote or impede perfectionist
values in various ways and to varying degrees. If one is
committed to perfectionist ethics, then this commitment establishes a
presumption in favor of perfectionism in politics. Other things
being equal, one should favor political institutions and state policies
that do the best job of promoting the good in the context in which they
apply. Importantly, this natural presumption can be
defeated. For one thing, the political pursuit of perfectionist
ends might be self-defeating. This possibility is considered
below. But it will be useful to begin by assuming that
perfectionist state policies can be effective in achieving their

Critics of perfectionist politics often reject the idea that there
are objectively better and worse ways of living. Subjectivism or
nihilism about the good often stands behind anti-perfectionist
commitments. But the most influential recent philosophical
criticisms of perfectionist politics do not stem from this
quarter. Sophisticated critics of perfectionism grant, if only
for the sake of argument, the claims of perfectionist value
theory. They then seek to show that perfectionist state policies,
even if informed by a sound understanding of the good, nonetheless
would be illegitimate. The character of perfectionist politics is
best appreciated by considering these arguments and their

3.1 The Principle of State Neutrality

Many contemporary writers on politics reject perfectionism and hold
that the state should be neutral among rival understandings of the
good (Dworkin 1978; Ackerman 1980; Larmore 1987; Rawls 1993). The
principle of state neutrality, as it can be called, articulates a
principled constraint on permissible or legitimate state action.
The constraint can, and has been, formulated in different
Three formulations of the
constraint have attracted support of late, and can be mentioned

  1. The state should not promote the good, either coercively
    or non-coercively, unless those who are subject to the state’s
    authority consent to its doing so.
  2. The state should not aim to promote the good unless there
    is a societal consensus in support of its doing so.
  3. The state should not justify what it does by appealing to
    conceptions of the good that are subject to reasonable

As these formulations bring out, the idea of state neutrality has
been understood broadly in recent political
A natural interpretation of the principle
would allow the state to promote the good, so long as it did so in an
even-handed manner. But most proponents of state neutrality wish
to keep the state out of the business of promoting the good altogether,
at least if the good to be promoted is controversial or subject to

A perfectionist approach to politics rejects the principle of state
neutrality on all these formulations. For perfectionists, there
is no general principle in political morality that forbids the state
from directly promoting the good, even when the good is subject to
disagreement. It will be helpful to spell out in a
little more detail the implications of this rejection of state

The first formulation presented above follows from a consent-based
account of political legitimacy. Contemporary Lockeans do not reject
state action the promotes the good, so long as the state action in
question enjoys the consent of the governed (Simmons 2005).
Perfectionist political theory rejects consent theory and so rejects
this formulation of the neutrality constraint. The second formulation
appeals to societal consensus, rather than actual consent. It holds
that in large pluralistic societies, the state should not aim to
promote the good, since what is considered good often will be subject
to controversy. This formulation of the constraint is not
extensionally equivalent to the first one, since there can be a
societal consensus that an institution or practice is good and ought
to be supported by the state even when there is not universal
agreement on the matter.

The second formulation is vulnerable to the following objection. A
state might intentionally promote a particular religion, adherence to
which was backed by a firm societal consensus. This state does not
look to be a neutral state. The second formulation confronts another
problem. It targets the aims of state officials. But these aims are
not always open to view, and state officials may have a variety of
motives in mind when they make political decisions. For this reason,
some have thought that it is more promising to apply the neutrality
constraint not to the aims of state officials, but rather to the
justifications they give in public for the decisions they make. This
yields the third formulation of the neutrality constraint. Defenders
of state neutrality often defend the doctrine by appealing to the
ideal of public reason. Public reasons, they argue, must be shareable
in a way that excludes appeal to controversial ideals of the
good. Thus state neutrality and public justification in politics
emerge as different sides of the same

Recently, some proponents of state neutrality have argued that the
third formulation of the constraint is insufficiently demanding.
State action may have an adequate neutral justification and yet remain
non-neutral. For example, if state action that was designed to
promote a particular religion were justified on the grounds that doing
so were an effective means to serve some neutral end, such as civil
peace, then the action would remain non-neutral, even if otherwise
justified (Patten 2012, Kramer 2017). In response, proponents of state
neutrality can propose a fourth formulation of the constraint, one
that combines elements from the second and third formulations.

  1. The state should not justify what it does by appealing to
    conceptions of the good that are subject to reasonable disagreement.
    Nor should it promote neutral ends by aiming to promote some
    permissible conceptions of the good over others.

This formulation of state neutrality applies to both the means and ends
of state action.[11]

Formulations of the neutrality constraint, such as the ones distinguished here,
figure in recent influential versions of social contract theory, most
notably that of Rawls and his followers (Nagel 1991; Rawls 1993; Barry
1995). These views represent the chief contemporary rival to
perfectionist political theory. In developing an account of
political morality, these modern day contractualists instruct us to
bracket our full understanding of the human good. Only by so
doing, is it possible to present an account of political morality that
has a hope of securing the allegiance of citizens who hold very
different conceptions of the good.

The plausibility of the principle of state neutrality remains very
much in dispute in contemporary political philosophy. Proponents
of the principle maintain that state neutrality is necessary if the
state is to respond appropriately to the fact that reasonable citizens
in modern democratic societies are committed to conflicting conceptions
of the good. They also hold that state neutrality is vital to
ensuring stable and mutually beneficial social cooperation in these
societies. Those sympathetic to perfectionist politics
counter: (1) That support for valuable forms of life requires
political action and that strict adherence to the principle of state
neutrality “would undermine the chances of survival of many
cherished aspects of our culture;” (Raz 1986, 162) (2) That
it is possible to reject state neutrality and embrace value pluralism
and hold that there are a plurality of good, but incompatible, forms of
life fully worthy of respect (Raz 1986); (3) That proponents of state
neutrality overvalue the goods associated with agreement and undervalue
other goods (Wall 1998); and (4) That state neutrality is neither
necessary or sufficient for stable social cooperation and for
preventing the abuse of state power (Sher 1997).

Much of the debate over state neutrality assumes that there is a
strict incompatibility between state neutrality and perfectionist
politics. But, in reality, the relationship between the two is
more complex. While perfectionists reject the principle of state
neutrality on its common formulations, they need not reject it on all
possible formulations of the principle. To explain: some
perfectionists, as just noted, embrace value pluralism and hold that
there are a plurality of good, but incompatible, forms of life fully
worthy of respect. These perfectionists can claim further that
the truth of value pluralism explains how fully reasonable people can
adopt and pursue different ideals of the good. With this idea in
mind, they could propose the following restricted principle of state

RNP: If two or more ideals of the good are eligible for those
who live in a particular political society, and if these ideals have
adherents in that political society, and if these ideals cannot be
ranked by reason as better or worse than one another, then the state,
to the extent that it aims to promote the good in this political
society, should be neutral between these ideals in its support of them.
(Wall 2010)

RNP restricts the scope of state neutrality to ideals of the good
that are fully reasonable. Whether or not it is a sound principle
of political morality, it is a principle that both responds to the fact
of reasonable pluralism and is available to the political
perfectionist. Since RNP does not rule out state action that
promotes reasonable over unreasonable conceptions of the good, a
proponent of this principle can accept it while affirming the
perfectionist claim that “certain conceptions of the good are
worthless and demeaning, and that political action may and should be
taken to eradicate or at least curtail them” (Raz 1986:

3.2 Respecting Persons

Still, the principle of state neutrality, on its common
formulations, remains an anti-perfectionist principle—one with
wide, if not completely unrestricted, scope. Its proponents
seldom present it as a foundational normative commitment,
however. As mentioned above, state neutrality is often defended
as an appropriate response to the fact that reasonable people in modern
societies disagree in good faith over the nature of the good and/or the
good life for human beings. But how exactly would state
neutrality constitute an appropriate response to this purported

A popular answer appeals to a moral norm of respect for persons,
where persons are understood as rational agents. The distinctive
feature of persons is “that they are beings capable of thinking
and acting on the basis of reasons” (Larmore 1996,
137). To respect another person one must engage his capacity to
respond to reasons. In politics to respect another person is
“to insist that coercive or political principles be as
justifiable to that person as they are to us” (Larmore 1990,
137). The mutual justification of political principles, it is then
argued, is possible only if all citizens bracket their controversial
views about the good and seek to argue from common ground. Note
that this way of grounding state neutrality explains why the principle,
on its second and third formulations, does not rule out state promotion
of shared or uncontroversial conceptions of the good. Since a
shared conception of the good could figure in common ground
justifications for political principles, its promotion need not express
disrespect to any citizen. State neutrality thus applies only to
disputed conceptions of the good.

Suppose now that a modern state favors a disputed ideal of the
good. We need to explain why this action would be disrespectful
to some of its citizens. The state might favor an unworthy ideal;
but if so, then its action would not be justified on perfectionist
grounds. So we must assume that it favors a sound ideal. On
this assumption, how would its action express disrespect to those whose
views were disfavored? Proponents of state neutrality point out
that people can have mistaken views, even while being appropriately
reasonable. (This possibility is often explained by reference to
what Rawls termed “the burdens of judgment.”) They
then insist that if someone is appropriately reasonable, then his views
about the good should not be denigrated by the

This argument immediately invites two questions. First, what
is the connection between respecting a person’s appropriately
reasonable views about the good and respecting her? Second, how
should we construe the phrase appropriately reasonable—that is,
how reasonable is appropriately reasonable? The first question is
pressing, since the argument, as it stands, appears to confuse respect
for persons with respect for the views that they currently endorse.
People, after all, are not stuck with the conception of the good
that they affirm. As rational agents, they can revise their views
in response to evidence, argument and reflection (Raz
1998). If this is correct, then, so long as the state respects
their capacities as rational agents, it is unclear why it must also
respect their mistaken, albeit reasonably affirmed, views.

Proponents of state neutrality can respond that there is an intimate
connection between the views about the good that a person affirms after
reasonable examination and his social identity. By disrespecting
the former, the state disrespects the latter. As one writer

Of course it remains the case that respect is for persons, not for
their doctrines. But these doctrines are so deeply a part of
people’s search for the meaning of life that public governmental
denigration of those doctrines puts those people at a disadvantage,
suggesting that they are less worthy than other citizens, and, in
effect, not treating them as fully equal ends in themselves. (Nussbaum
2011, 22)

In considering these claims it is important to keep in mind that we
are assuming that the state is favoring a sound ideal of the good over
a misguided or false ideal. If we assume further that persons
with mistaken views about the good are not rationally sealed off from
true beliefs about the good, then we can hold that the state in
favoring the sound ideal is, among other things, attempting to engage
the rational powers of its citizens. This will be true, at least,
if state officials justify their favoritism toward the ideal by
appealing to the reasons that establish its soundness. By doing
so, state officials arguably would show respect for all citizens
understood as rational agents (Galston 1991, 109).

We have arrived at two contrasting understandings of the norm of
respect for persons. For lack of better terms, let us call them
Respect (1) and Respect (2).

Respect (1): Respect for persons, understood as rational
agents, requires the state to respect the rational powers of its
citizens, including their capacities to examine and revise their
conception of the good. It also requires the state to justify its
support for sound or true conceptions of the good by presenting valid
reasons to its citizens for doing what it is doing.

Respect (2): Respect for persons, understood as rational
agents, requires the state to respect the doctrines that its citizens
affirm, including their conceptions of the good, whether sound or not,
provided that these doctrines are (i) the product of the appropriately
reasonable exercise of their rational powers and (ii) bound up with
their sense of identity.

Naturally, if Respect (1) is the favored view, then an appeal to the
norm of respect for persons will not ground the principle of state
neutrality, at least on its common formulations. By contrast, if
Respect (2) is the favored view, then it may provide a good measure of
support for the principle. The type and degree of support that it
provides, however, will depend on how clauses (i) and (ii) get

Consider clause (ii) first. It suggests that a person’s
beliefs about the good can be bound up with her sense of
identity. We might call these identity-constituting
. Other beliefs about the good may not be central
to a person’s identity, call them peripheral
. The distinction is not sharp, and a commitment
that is peripheral for one person may be identity-constituting for
another. Still, while fluid, the distinction does seem to mark
something important. Certain commitments are very tightly bound
up with a person’s sense of who he is, while others are
not. The present modest point is that, given Respect (2), respect
for persons requires the state to respond in the right way to its
citizens’ identity constituting commitments. It does not
speak to the issue of how the state should respond to their peripheral
commitments. Thus an appeal to Respect (2) would not explain why
state action that favors disputed conceptions of the good that do not
impugn the identity-constituting commitments of any of its citizens
would be impermissible.

Next consider clause (i), which is of greater importance and brings
us to the question of how to construe the phrase “appropriately
reasonable” in the statement of the respect for persons
norm. Respect for persons, on Respect (2), requires the state to
respect the conceptions of the good of its citizens provided that these
conceptions are the products of the appropriately reasonable exercise
of their rational powers. The standards of appropriate exercise
can be set high or low. Consider the

Fully Reasonable: a conception of the good is appropriately reasonable
so long as “its adherents are stably disposed to affirm it as
they acquire new information and subject it to critical
reflection” (Cohen 2009, 52). Adherents of such a conception
apportion their beliefs to their evidence, are alert and attentive to
new evidence, and appropriately update their beliefs as new evidence
becomes available.

Moderately Reasonable: a conception of the good is appropriately
reasonable so long as its adherents are stably disposed to affirm it,
given the evidence that they have, and given that they satisfy minimal
standards of coherence and consistency. Adherents of such a conception
update their beliefs as they become aware of new evidence.

Minimally Reasonable: a conception of the good is appropriately
reasonable so long as it is the product of a person’s efforts to find
meaning or value in life. (Nussbaum 2011)

The first of these specifications is demanding, especially if the
standards of critical reflection are themselves demanding. Many
conceptions of the good affirmed by people in modern societies will not
qualify as appropriately reasonable under it. The second
specification lowers the standards, but it too is inconsistent with a
range of conceptions of the good that flout simple demands of
consistency and are not responsive to evidence, such as those oriented
around astrology or New Age religions (Nussbaum 2011). If
either of these specifications is factored into Respect (2), then the
norm of respect for persons will not rule out nonneutral state action
that favors some disputed conceptions of the good over other less
reasonable conceptions.

The first two specifications, however, can do justice to the thought
that respect for persons is respect for their distinctive capacity to
respond to the reasons that apply to them. It is much less clear
that the third specification can do so. Since irrational and even
silly conceptions of the good can be the product of efforts to find
meaning or value in life, they are entitled to full respect under
it. However, since these conceptions of the good are not the
product of the exercise of rational capacities—except in the
very minimal sense in which any belief is the product of such
capacities—the third specification fits uncomfortably with the
thought that respect for persons is respect for their rational capacity
to respond to reasons. Yet this minimal specification of the
standards of reasonableness—precisely because it is so
undemanding—can support a principle of state neutrality with
wide scope.

There is a tension, then, between construals of Respect (2) that
take seriously the claim that the distinctive feature of persons is
their capacity to respond to reasons and construals of Respect (2) that
can ground a principle of state neutrality that has the kind of wide
scope associated with common understandings of the principle.
There may be no cogent construal of Respect (2) that both does justice
to the thought that persons are owed respect in virtue of their
rational capacities and grounds a principle of state neutrality with
wide scope. Moreover, Respect (1) remains an eligible
interpretation of the norm of respect for persons and, as emphasized
here, it cannot ground a principle of state neutrality of the sort that
proponents of the principle traditionally have wanted to defend.

No conclusions can be drawn in this entry concerning the best
interpretation of the norm of respect for persons. In light of
the foregoing discussion, two modest points can be registered.
First, a simple and straightforward appeal to the norm of respect for
persons cannot ground or justify the principle of state neutrality (on
any of its common formulations), since this norm, like other normative
commitments, is subject to a range of interpretations, which are very
much in dispute among moral and political philosophers.
Second, perfectionists and anti-perfectionists alike can
accept that respect for persons is a factor relevant to assessing the
legitimacy of state action. Their disagreement over how this norm
is best characterized is reflected in their disagreement over state

3.3 Self-Respect and Societal Excellence

Putting respect for others aside, considerations of self-respect, and
the social conditions that support a secure sense of self-respect,
have been thought to bear on the advisability of perfectionist
political action. Most notably, Rawls claimed that a secure sense of
self-respect, and the social conditions that support it, is a
fundamental primary good, one that political institutions ought to
secure for those subject to them. Self-respect, Rawls further
claimed, requires two elements: (i) a “secure conviction that
[one’s] conception of [one’s] good, [one’s] plan of
life, is worth carrying out” and (ii) “a confidence in
one’s ability, so far as it is within one’s power, to
fulfill one’s intentions” (Rawls 1971, 440).

The first of these elements – the conviction claim – may
tell against state measures designed to promote some activities and
pursuits over others on the grounds that they are especially valuable
or worthy of advancement. For such state action could express the
view that the disfavored pursuits are not equally worthwhile and this,
in turn, could damage the self-respect of those whose conception of
the good is bound up with them. Presumably, this is why Rawls held
that “democracy in judging one another’s aims is the
foundation of self-respect in a well-ordered society” (Rawls

Two perfectionist responses to this line of thought can be mentioned
briefly here. First, state efforts to promote excellence can be
designed to encourage a wide range of human achievements that can be
appreciated by many who do not directly participate in them. Further,
people’s self-respect may be affected significantly by the
excellence realized by their society. If so, then by promoting
societal excellence, the state would further the self-respect of its
members (Kramer 2017). These positive effects on self-respect of state
action that promotes excellence would need to be balanced against any
negative effects of such action. Second, self-respect, as
characterized by Rawls, may not be the relevant good. Rather, the
relevant good may be merited self-respect (Wall 2013b). Put
otherwise, each person may have a genuine interest in living a life
that is valuable and worthwhile, not one that he merely has a secure
conviction is valuable and worthwhile, whether or not it in fact is.
On this view of self-respect, perfectionist political action that
favors worthwhile pursuits over base pursuits can further the relevant
good by contributing to a social environment that nourishes it. As
this second response brings out, concerns over self-respect engage
deeper questions in value theory that divide perfectionists from many
of their critics.

3.4 The Harm Principle

Those who reject the principle of state neutrality entrust the state
with the task of promoting the good. This can give rise to the worry
that a perfectionist account of politics is insufficiently sensitive to
the harm of coercion and to the value of liberty. If the state need not
be neutral among rival understandings of the good, then is the door not
open for the coercive imposition of state policies designed to promote
the good? In fact, many versions of perfectionism drawn from the
history of political thought have paid little heed to the value of
individual liberty. It is an important matter, then, to what extent
perfectionist politics can be reconciled with a proper regard for
individual liberty.

To approach this issue, it will be helpful to consider the so called
harm principle. The harm principle, as articulated by writers in the
liberal political tradition from Mill to Feinberg, is often taken to
be an essential safeguard for individual freedom in political
society. At least at first pass, the harm principle substantially
restricts the power of governments to promote the good. It holds that
governments cannot coercively interfere with persons unless doing so
is necessary to prevent them from causing clear and direct harm to
others. The harm principle requires interpretation and can be
understood in different ways. But for present purposes our question is
whether the harm principle is best understood to be an
anti-perfectionist principle—a principle that provides reasons
for rejecting or limiting perfectionist politics.

The first thing to say is that not all perfectionist policies are
coercive. Governments can and do promote the good noncoercively. A
government may promote the good, for example, when it intelligently
subsidizes art. This perfectionist policy need involve no coercive
So the harm principle, even if sound, would
not bar all perfectionist policies. It would rule out only coercive
governmental policies designed to favor some options and discourage
others. The question then is whether this restriction is itself

Here we need to proceed with caution. The extent to which
perfectionism licenses the coercive promotion of the good depends,
among other things, on the degree to which autonomy or liberty is
itself recognized to be a perfectionist good. On some versions of
perfectionism the harm principle would be an anti-perfectionist
principle, while on others it would not be. Consider, in this
regard, Mill’s own defense of the harm principle. For Mill
“individuality” is an essential component of a good human
life. Mill’s notion of individuality can be understood to be a
conception of autonomy. A person is autonomous for Mill if he leads his
life on his own terms and develops his capacities and faculties
according to “his own mode of laying out his existence”
(Mill 1859, 64). The important point for present purposes is not Mill’s
particular characterization of autonomy, but rather the structure of
his view. Autonomy is understood to be an essential aspect of a good
human life, not a separate norm. And the value of autonomy explains, at
least in part, why Mill recommends the harm principle.

The Millian defense of the harm principle sits well with the
perfectionist focus on good human lives. (Brink 2013) Its availability nicely
illustrates how perfectionist politics can be consistent with a strong
rejection of state coercion. But it is natural to suspect that
Mill overstates his case. Even granting that
“individuality” is an aspect of a good human life, we
should wonder why it takes priority over all other aspects. If a
governmental policy, say a policy that criminalizes the sale and use of
dangerous recreational drugs, would prevent many from ruining their
lives while infringing the individuality of only a few, then, contrary
to Mill, the government may do better in discharging its duty to
promote good human lives by adopting the policy than by not adopting

This point can be pushed further. Autonomy, it can be argued,
requires that one have access to an adequate range of valuable or
worthwhile options (Raz 1986). This adequacy requirement does not imply
that every time an option is closed off one’s autonomy will be set
back. Moreover, what may be of value is not autonomous agency per se,
but valuable autonomous agency. Joseph Raz explains: “Since our
concern for autonomy is a concern to enable people to have a good life
it furnishes us with reason to secure that autonomy which could be
valuable. Providing, preserving or protecting bad options does not
enable one to enjoy valuable autonomy” (Raz 1986, 412). If
valuable autonomy, and not autonomy per se, is what has perfectionist
value, then when governments eliminate, or make it more costly for
persons to pursue, worthless options, then they may do no perfectionist
harm and much perfectionist good.

On Raz’s view, the harm principle is superceded by an autonomy
principle that captures the truth in it while avoiding its
exaggerations. The autonomy principle holds that the state has negative
duties to respect the autonomy of its citizens as well as positive
duties to promote and sustain social conditions that contribute to its
realization. The harm principle, to the extent that it is sound, is
vindicated because it follows, given certain contingent facts, from the
autonomy principle. This leads Raz to reformulate the harm principle as
a principle “that regards the prevention of harm to anyone
(himself included) as the only justifiable ground for coercive
interference with a person” (Raz 1986, 412–13). So construed, the
harm principle would permit the coercive enforcement of at least some
self-regarding duties.

Both Mill and Raz accept versions of the harm principle. But they
accept it not as a limit on perfectionist politics, but rather as a
principle that guides the proper promotion of the good. Their political
theories are examples of perfectionist liberalism and their discussions
of the harm principle show how perfectionist politics can be supportive
of individual liberty. It can be objected, however, that the defense of
individual liberty provided by perfectionist liberalism is
insufficient. Recall that on the perfectionist view discussed here
autonomy is an aspect of a good human life. It is not a separate norm.
A strong and uncompromising defense of the harm principle, it may be
thought, must be based on a different understanding of the value of
autonomy, one that holds that the autonomy of persons cannot be
infringed even when doing so is, all things considered, in their best
interests. Autonomy, on this view, is a sovereign right, not an ideal
to be promoted (Feinberg 1989). The nature and plausibility of this
alternative view of autonomy, however, are not matters that can be
taken up

3.5 Manipulation and Independence

Most perfectionist writers accept that sometimes the state can
permissibly use coercion to promote the good. Still, coercion is
in general a clumsy device for pursuing perfectionist ends
(Hurka 1993, 157). Noncoercive perfectionism, such as subsidizing
valuable pursuits, attaching penalties to worthless ones or creating
new valuable options, is often the better method for promoting
Even noncoercive
perfectionist measures, however, may pose a threat to autonomy.
As one critic expresses the worry,

Messing with the options that one faces, changing one’s
payoffs can be seen as manipulation … If it is done
intentionally, it also takes on the insulting aspect of manipulation,
for it treats the agent as someone incapable of making independent
moral decisions on the merits of the case. (Waldron 1989,

The objection is that noncoercive state perfectionism is inherently
manipulative. It distorts the rational decision making of
citizens by altering the value of their options. It is also
insulting—the state treats its subjects as if they were
children—and this is objectionable, over and above any impact
it has on their autonomy.

These are important concerns. Before discussing them more
fully, we need to clarify their character. The noncoercive
perfectionist measures in question are paternalistic in the sense that
they are intended to help citizens lead better lives. Not every
kind of noncoercive state perfectionism is paternalistic,
however. Recall nonhumanistic versions of perfectionism.
Those who accept these views might favor state support for excellence
in science and art not because doing so will enable citizens to lead
better lives, but because the state ought to promote excellence.
This defense of noncoercive state paternalism does not presume that
some citizens are not good at making independent moral decisions about
how to lead their lives. The manipulation objection to
noncoercive state perfectionism, accordingly, must target a subset of
these measures.

Focus then on noncoercive state perfectionist measures that are
intended to help citizens make better decisions about how to lead their
lives. Even if these measures are well designed, they may invade
autonomy. And if autonomy is itself a perfectionist good, then
there would be perfectionist reasons to oppose these perfectionist
measures. These reasons would not establish that no such measures
should be undertaken. Presumably, the autonomy-based reasons
could be outweighed in some cases, but—assuming again that
autonomy is a perfectionist good—these reasons would establish
that there is a pro tanto case against state perfectionism of
this kind.

Is it true that noncoercive state perfectionism that aims to help
citizens make better choices is inherently manipulative in an
autonomy-invading way? Perhaps not. No government
“can avoid either nonrationally shaping its citizen’s
preferences or providing them with incentives” (Sher 1997,
66). This is true, since even if governments do not adopt
perfectionist measures, the unintended consequences of state action
will have effects on citizen preferences for options and on the
relative costs of the different options that they confront. Thus
it can be said that “if all political arrangements do
nonrationally shape preferences and provide incentives, a government
will not further diminish autonomy simply by producing these effects
intentionally” (Sher 1997, 67).

This line of argument can be extended further. Every political
society provides its members with an ethical environment, an
environment that consists of options and pressures, some rational and
some not, that affect how the options are perceived. A political
society that does not engage in state perfectionism of any kind can be
said to countenance the ethical environment that results from its
political decisions. (It countenances this environment insofar as
it could have made decisions that would have affected it, but chose not
to do so.) It is possible that an ethical environment that
results from no state perfectionism will be ideal for the autonomous
decision making of its members. This may not always be the case,
however. Noncoercive state perfectionist measures may be able to
counteract or cancel various pressures and influences that would
otherwise impede rational decision making by its citizens.
Designed well, such measures might contribute to an ethical environment
in which people were best able to respond to the reasons for and
against the options that they confront.

This argument puts the spotlight squarely on the effects of
perfectionist measures. If these measures help citizens respond
better to the reasons for and against the choices that they confront,
then they may not invade, but rather protect and promote, autonomous
decision making. If so, this state perfectionism could not be
resisted by appeal to autonomy’s perfectionist value.
Even if this argument were accepted, however, it would not
address all the concerns that motivate the manipulation
objection. That objection points not only to the effect that
noncoercive state perfectionism can have on autonomous decision making,
but also to its potentially insulting character. And its
potentially insulting character is a function of the fact that it is
intentionally undertaken by the state.

Noncoercive state perfectionism can take two forms. It might
be designed to protect and promote autonomous agency, or it might be
designed to help citizens pursue or engage with valuable options
(Wall 1998, 197–198). The second form may seem insulting in the
way that the first is not. For the first form of state
perfectionism merely seeks to empower citizens to make authentic
decisions about how to lead their own lives. It does not attempt
to encourage them to take up some pursuits over others on the grounds
that doing so would constitute a more valuable exercise of their
autonomous agency. It is possible that people have a fundamental
right to ethical independence that rules out at least this second form
of state

We cannot escape the influence of our ethical environment: we
are subject to the examples, exhortations, and celebrations of other
people’s ideas about how to live. But we must insist that
that environment be created under the aegis of ethical independence:
that it be created organically by the decisions of millions of people
with the freedom to make their own choices, not through political
majorities imposing their decisions on everyone. (Dworkin 2011,

If there is a right to ethical independence (and if people generally
believed in its existence), then this would help to explain the sense
of insult mentioned above. State perfectionism, it could be said,
usurps the responsibility of people to lead their own lives as they see
fit, provided that they allow others the same freedom. By so
doing, it treats adult citizens as if they were children.

The right to ethical independence may be thought to follow from
something even more fundamental—the equal moral status of
citizens. State perfectionist measures, whether coercive or not,
that aim to encourage some pursuits and discourage others on the
grounds that they have greater ethical value offends this status by
presuming that some citizens are not fully capable of forming, pursuing
and revising a conception of the good (Quong 2011, 101–106).
This denial of equal moral status explains why such measures send an
insulting message, one that is objectionable over and above any impact
it has on the autonomy of citizens.

In response, perfectionists can argue that the purported right to
ethical independence is an exaggeration of an important, but more
modest truth. If autonomy is a perfectionist good, and if it is a
central component in a well lived life, then persons have rights to
make important life-shaping decisions that governments must
respect. By acknowledging and honoring these rights, governments
treat their citizens not as children, but as independent moral
agents. However, these rights do not follow from, or add up to, a
general right of ethical independence, one that rules out all
governmental efforts to promote the good.

Further, perfectionists can argue that it is no insult to a
person’s status as a moral equal to treat him in ways that
presume that his rational capacities are not perfect, but subject to
error. Our capacity to form, pursue and revise a conception of
the good, like our capacity for a sense of justice, can lead us to
mistaken conclusions. When the state supports valuable pursuits
over worthless ones, it no more denies the equal moral status of those
who reject its action than when it enforces a sound conception of
justice that is in dispute. In both cases, presuming that
citizens can make errors does not express the view that they lack, or
are deficient in, the capacities that constitute equal moral

3.6 Indirect Arguments

The principle of state neutrality, the harm principle, and the
purported right to ethical independence all impose moral limits on the
power of governments to promote the good or the means by which they can
use to promote the good. But sometimes it is claimed not that
perfectionist politics are in principle illegitimate, but rather that
they are or would be self-defeating. The best way for the state to
promote the good, it is sometimes claimed, is for it to refrain
scrupulously from all direct efforts at promoting the good (Kymlicka
1990, 199–205). An indirect argument against perfectionist politics
thus grants that it is permissible for the state to promote good human
lives, but seeks to shows that efforts by the state to do so will fail.
Indirect arguments of this kind take different forms. Some arguments
appeal to the nature of the human good, while others point to the
incompetence of modern governments.

The most influential argument that appeals to the nature of the
human good holds that for an activity or relationship to improve a
person’s life he or she must endorse its value. This argument, which is
often referred to as the endorsement constraint, holds that
political measures that compel or guide people into activities or
pursuits that they do not value will be counterproductive. These
measures will not improve the lives of anyone; and they may do harm by
directing people away from activities and pursuits that would add value
to their lives.

The endorsement constraint is based on a simple idea. To add value
to a human life, an activity or relationship must be affirmed from the
inside. “No life goes better by being led from the outside
according to values the person does not endorse” (Kymlicka 1990,
203). Questions can be raised about what constitutes endorsement of an
activity. For example, does endorsement require a positive affirmation
of the value of an activity or does it merely require that one not be
alienated from it? Different versions of the endorsement constraint can
be distinguished depending on how the motive that is taken to condition
the value of activities is characterized. And different versions of the
endorsement constraint will have different implications for state
policies. Suppose, for example, that many citizens have no opinion
whatsoever on the value of art and that they are induced to attend art
museums because their government gives them a tax break for doing so.
Here they do not endorse the activity in the strong sense of positively
affirming its value. Nevertheless, the government policy of giving tax
breaks to citizens who attend art museums may do some good if
endorsement does not require positive affirmation. If the citizens are
not alienated from the activity, then they may derive value from

The endorsement constraint looks particularly compelling when
certain examples are considered. To take one such example: it is widely
thought that for religious worship to add value to a life it must be
true that the person actually sees the value of religious worship from
“the inside.” Critics of the endorsement constraint contend
that the argument overgeneralizes from these plausible examples (Wall
1998). Critics also contend that the endorsement constraint has real
force when directed at state efforts to compel people to pursue
particular activities, but much less force when directed at state
efforts to discourage, or forbid, certain worthless activities (Hurka
1995, 47–48). For example, if the state criminalizes prostitution, then
it need not compel anyone to pursue an activity that he or she judges
to be of no value. Closing off a worthless option can leave many
worthwhile options open for people to pursue according to their own
judgments about the value of these options.

The endorsement constraint can be bolstered so that it speaks
against state efforts to screen off bad options, even when these
efforts leave citizens free to pursue valuable options according to
their own judgments. The endorsement constraint, it is sometimes
claimed, is necessary to ensure that people lead lives of ethical
integrity. To lead a life of ethical integrity one must respond well to
the challenge one’s life presents one with. And such a challenge, or so
it may be argued, cannot be made better when “it has been
narrowed, simplified, and bowdlerized by others in advance”
(Dworkin 1995, 271).

This defense of the endorsement constraint grounds it in a
background conception of a good human life, one that holds that the
goodness of a human life lies in “the inherent value of a skilled
performance of living” (Dworkin 1995, 244). This background
conception of a good human life (a conception Ronald Dworkin refers to
as “the challenge model”) has been subject to telling
criticism (Arneson 2003); but its availability nicely illustrates how
an ethical concern for promoting good human lives can ground resistance
to perfectionist state policies designed to promote such lives.

Rather than appealing to a background conception of a good human
life, indirect arguments more frequently appeal to more mundane facts
about the competence of modern governments. For a variety of reasons,
it is often thought that modern governments simply are not up to the
task of promoting the good. It will be helpful to distinguish local
from global versions of this objection. It might be true that a
particular state should not directly promote the good. Those in power
in this state might hold false beliefs about the good, for example. In
addition, it might be true that states in general should not directly
promote certain objective goods. Friendship is a good that plausibly
contributes to the objective value of human lives, but if states try to
promote it directly they may do more harm than good. These are both
instances of local worries about perfectionist politics.

The global objection generalizes from either or both of these
worries. It holds either that all states lack the competence to promote
the good or that all (or perhaps most) goods are such that it would be
counterproductive for the state directly to promote them. Local worries
about the effectiveness of perfectionist politics present no deep
problem for perfectionist political theory. No serious writer on
politics does not share them to some extent. Global distrust of
perfectionist politics, however, may seem to present a genuine
objection. If global distrust of the competence of modern governments
to promote the good were warranted, then the best policy for states to
adopt might be state neutrality. For consequentialist reasons, a
perfectionist approach to politics could recommend that the state never
aim to promote the good.

The global objection rests on very strong claims. Perfectionists can
reply that those who advance them exaggerate valid worries about the
potential for states to abuse their power. In addition, they can argue
that the global objection threatens more than perfectionist politics.
If states cannot competently promote the good, then, for the same
reasons, they may not be able to enforce justice competently either
(Caney 1991). Finally, perfectionists can argue that institutional
safeguards, such as legally codified rights, can be effective in
preventing the abuse of state power, including state power that
promotes perfectionist goods (Sher 1997).

Be this as it may, it is important not to confuse means with ends.
The end of perfectionist politics is the protection and promotion of
objective goods and/or objectively valuable human lives. The question
of where and how often the state should rely on indirect, rather than
direct, measures to promote the good is a question within perfectionist
Though nothing of much importance turns on it, one could categorize a
view that holds that perfectionist political ends are, for contingent
reasons, always best pursued indirectly as a genuine instance of
perfectionism. Indeed, one can imagine a view that holds that
perfectionist political ends will be best achieved if no state official
accepts the perfectionist approach to politics. This would be an
extreme limiting case—a self-effacing perfectionism, but
perhaps a perfectionist theory of politics nonetheless.
Alternatively, one might conclude that a perfectionism that always
counseled its own rejection would not be worthy of the name.

Perfectionism has a distinguished pedigree in the history of ideas,
but like many theories in moral and political philosophy it remains
very much a work in progress. The topics discussed in this
entry—perfectionist value theory, perfectionist ethics and
perfectionism as an approach to politics—are subject to
on-going controversy and development. Moreover, these topics, while
complementary, remain partially independent of one another. It is
possible to affirm perfectionist ethics and reject perfectionism as an
approach to politics. Likewise, it is possible to accept some of the
claims of perfectionist value theory while rejecting perfectionist
ethical and political conclusions.


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