Perfectivism: An Introduction

December 31, 2012

perfectivism (small-p): An ethical doctrine endorsing the pursuit of maximal intellectual excellence, or 'perfection,' with the aim of maximal self-actualization or eudaimonia. Historical forerunners of the essential idea here include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas, Thomas Jefferson, Ayn Rand, Henry Babcock Veatch, David L. Norton, Leonard Peikoff, John M. Cooper, Fred D. Miller, Jr., Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Richard Kraut, Thomas Hurka, and Tara Smith. This doctrine is more or less synonymous with what is by now traditionally referred to as 'Aristotelian (or neo-Aristotelian) perfectionism,' although Jefferson and other key American Framers appear to have developed this core thesis independent of predominantly Aristotelian intellectual-cultural streams. (Note also that Hegel, who was deeply influenced by Aristotle, might upon further inspection be shown to fall right into the thick of the perfectivist tradition.)

Perfectivism (capital-P): The official or brand-name system of thought and intellectual property of The Ultimate Philosopher, founded in early 2011. The official website for Perfectivism,, currently (Dec. 2012) redirects to this page.

Perfectivism (in either sense) is a specific variety of ethical perfectionism, one explicitly neo-Aristotelian and neo-Enlightenment in spirit, for which one's intellect is the specific fundamental or primary potentiality (or capacity) which one ought to strive to actualize (or to perfect) as a matter of one's basic ethical obligation. This differs from, for instance, Nietzsche's version of perfectionism which spoke to a primal 'will to power,' instead of intellect, as the primary value-locus for human beings. For Perfectivism, all of an individual's perfections - especially moral, epistemic, and aesthetic perfection - are anchored in the perfection of the intellect. Perfectivism also explicitly affirms a eudaimonistic interpretation of (self-)perfection - that is, it regards the concepts of 'self-perfection,' 'self-actualization,' and 'eudaimonia ' as synonymous. (Other, more well-known synonyms for eudaimonia are "living excellently or well (qua man)," "activity of the soul in accordance with reason," "the good life," "real happiness," "flourishing," or "having an enviable quality of (human) life.") A perfectivist account of the human good recognizes that living thoughtfully and intelligently is the common or generic form of eudaimonia - that these are features of all flourishing human lives whatever any given person's specific, unique or individuative goals or potentialities are.

It is believed by The Ultimate Philosopher that neither perfectivism nor Perfectivism can be refuted, as any attempt to do so would be self-defeating; rather, P/perfectivism could only be perfected upon in accordance with its own ground rules which all reasoning agents are presumed to accept implicitly if not explicitly. Perfectivism holds, for instance, that one ought to advance the best arguments or theories that one possibly can in pursuit of the ultimate and absolute truth of things or hard facts of the matter, the resulting objective knowledge translating into practical power, i.e., into one's eudaimonic potentialities becoming actualized. (Self-actualization, as per the Maslow hierarchy of needs, encompasses (among other things) practicing a certain sort of rationally-binding, universalistic, empathetic identification with other sentient beings and a concern for other humans' self-actualization; the consequent benevolent sociality and respect for humans qua autonomous moral agents is implicit in one's basic ethical commitments.)

A further influence from an Aristotelian direction involves an empirical, biocentric study of the phenomenon of final causes understood as actualized potentialities, i.e., a teleological understanding (the Greek term teleios meaning perfection of a sort) applied to formally-organized biological (living) processes. Authors such as Ayn Rand, Philippa Foot, Harry Binswanger, Allan Gotthelf, James Lennox, Eric Mack, Douglases Rasmussen and Den Uyl, and Tara Smith have been recent contributors in the literature to such a naturalistic understanding of goodness. And while some see the 'natural end' or function of living human beings understood teleologically to entail an evolutionarily-selected-for 'inclusive fitness' as a (normatively dubious) standard of evaluation, and thereby allegedly constituting a basis for rejecting such a biocentric explanation of our ethical concepts, confusions here can be cleared up by specifying that it is the self that is the potentiality that the moral agent ought to actualize, that legitimate human final ends are properly understood within an Aristotelian or intellectualist account of self-actualization or eudaimonia, and that any plausible conception of eudaimonia is informed by the biological (living) character of human beings. (These points, taken together, is how to best understand what Rand meant by "man's life qua man" as the standard of moral value.)

Perfectivism is the philosophy of the future, with a fine track record of precedent in the Aristotelian and Enlightenment traditions; recent theoretical formulations for how to perfect one's intellectual processes appear in Ayn Rand's work on cognitive and epistemic method, displaying her laser-like focus on the fundamental importance of systematic, contextual, hierarchical, orderly, efficient and economical mental integration as the cardinal function of human consciousness. (See her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology ([1966] 2nd ed. 1990), and Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1991) and Understanding Objectivism ([1983] 2012), for introductory and intermediate material on Objectivism's implicitly perfectivist method.) A perfectivist life is, in essence, an Aristotelian one; widespread adoption of such an ethos would (realistically!) lead to a society that would assuredly rate as utopian by present standards. Moreover, Perfectivism is distinctive among other versions of perfectivism (Rand being a notable identical-similarity, however) in affirming a genuinely radical individualism at the heart of a modern, post-Locke understanding of human nature, flourishing and rights. Will a more-or-less-apolitical 'Übermensch-ism' be the next frontier? Had Nietzsche been productive into (say) his 70s, would humanity have reached such a stage decades ago? (Short short answer: Yes!) Galt's Gulch social ethics, one might suppose, and something about the power of ideas to change society....

A most ambitious treatise expounding the principles of Perfectivism is expected to be completed in the near future. (Target completion and/or release date: April 20, 201_.)

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