Perfectionist ethics requires one strive for excellence or "develop [one's] nature."

However, one particular passage in the linked text seems problematic when trying to assign values (right or wrong) to actions based on perfectionist principles:

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).

How is an agent to regard themselves after violating self-regarding duties? Under perfectionist moral ethics, can a person who is outwardly kind, but who doesn't fulfill their self-regarding, non-moral duties call themselves "moral" or "good"? Should they call themselves immoral?

What does it mean to violate one's own self-directed, non-moral principles to strive toward excellence. Is purposely choosing mediocrity wrong under perfectionist ethics?

edit: I suppose I should clarify that I do understand that a person who advances toward excellence is moral under perfectionist ethics. However, it's not clear to me what to call someone who fails to strive toward excellence. The text never explicitly states that people who don't pursue perfection are immoral.

In particular, I wonder what perfectionist ethics has to say about individuals who lack the discipline to strive for success (due to weakness of will, or akrasia), but are nonetheless kind and altruistic. Are such people really considered immoral (a word I would usually reserve for such transgressions as lying,cheating or stealing) or, are they merely misguided? It's an important distinction, because immorality may give cause for retribution or rehabilitation; an accusation of immorality carries certain weight.

  • 2
    "Notions of right and wrong seem to concern how individuals treat one-another, but not whether they violate their own self-directed principles", why? Notions of right and wrong often concern adherence to some rules or values/principles, which are ultimately self-chosen (although one might argue for their objective origin). And these rules/values may concern treatment of anything, or not be about treatment at all (surrendering to God, avoiding temptations, being authentic, etc.). This is not even specific to perfectionism. So yes, one can be outwardly kind and have a dirty mind.
    – Conifold
    Apr 25, 2019 at 19:25
  • @Conifold That quote was based on the following passage from the linked text: "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"
    – David
    Apr 25, 2019 at 19:36
  • @Conifold so my question is, supposing this distinction between self-regarding, non-moral duties and moral duties exists, how can we describe instances where we fall short of self-regarding duties? Is a failure to achieve excellence, according to perfectionism, a moral failing?
    – David
    Apr 25, 2019 at 19:39
  • 1
    Isn't it a part of perfectionism (as well as many other ethical positions) to reject this distinction, and count self-duties as moral? In other words, you seem to be asking what would perfectionists say if we assume a distinction they reject. To them it is a moral failing, to those who draw the distinction it might not be. But then they recognize non-moral ethical duties, and it is a failing on that front, so the difference is largely verbal in the end. Indeed, "this worry should not detain us for long".
    – Conifold
    Apr 25, 2019 at 19:46
  • 1
    There are, of course, some obvious differences, but then there are differences between different kinds of moral duties as well. Breaking a promise is different from swearing in front of kids, including the difference in consequences, and failing to conserve/protect nature also has consequences. So why should this difference make the difference between moral and non-moral? Perhaps, one could say that in perfectionism (as in most of ethics) personal failings are seen (mostly) as less damning than hurting others, and the word "immoral" is felt to be too strong to use, given typical connotation
    – Conifold
    Apr 25, 2019 at 21:19

2 Answers 2


In perfectionist ethics, I am inclined to think, the difference beween self- and other regarding duties is not a basic or even a particularly significant divide. Perfectionist ethics centres on the excellence of which we are capable. This excellence will focus on our natural and essential capacities, whatever they might be; and will not contain as an essential feature two pathways of excellence, one self-regarding and the other other-regarding, with different consequences for regret, shame, remorse and self-criticism in the two cases. The whole self is encompassed in perfectionist ethics. It is an ethics of character and of the whole person, not of different types of action (self/ other) in which that self might express or embody itself.

a complete perfectionist account of welfare will include three separable claims:

1.Perfectionism: The good life for an x is determined by the core account of what it means to be an x.

2.Identification of the Core Capacities: The core account of what it means to be an x involves a specific set of capacities, {a, b, c}.

3.Fulfillment of the Core Capacities: A life lived according to capacities {a, b, c} involves certain specific activities {q,r,s} (Dale Dorsey, 'Three Arguments for Perfectionism', Noûs, Vol. 44, No. 1 (March 2010), pp. 59-79: 62.)

As moral agents, if my understanding of perfectionism is anywhere near right, perfectionists are committed to the development of their deliverative and rational faculties. Is this not true of Aristotle, an authentic a perfectionist as can be found ? But we find Aristotle drawing no line of any moral significance between a self-regarding virtue such as sophrosune (temperance) and an other-regarding virtue such as philia (friendliness): Ethica Nicomachea, II.7.

Indeed, if we follow Aristotle further and acknowledge 'the unity of the virtues' in the sense of EN, V.13.1444b-1145a), the virtues as so intrinsically intertwined that no final discreteness is possible between them, the self- and other-regarding virtues are merely different aspects (not parts), of an undivided moral personality.

In face of this, why should a moral agent regard herself differently after failing in one kind of virtue or duty, the self-regarding kind than in the other kind, namely the other-regarding ? The undivided moral personality, integrated by the unity of th virtues, is completely involved in both cases.

You properly and interestngly bring up the case of 'what to call someone who fails to strive toward excellence.' The opening lines of EN seem to assume a metaphysical framework of such striving but Aristotle does use terms such as innsensibility (anaisthesia), lack of ambition (aphilotimia) and impassivity (aorgnesia' (EN, 2.VII) which in the immature or otherwise not fully integrated moral personality can block the stirving yoward excellence.

  • It's interesting that you bring up insensibility (anaisthesia), lack of ambition (aphilotimia) and impassivity (aorgnesia.) When I originally wrote this post, I was thinking of imperfection in terms of another term used by Aristotle: weakness of will (akrasia). How should a perfectionist regard an agent who understands that it is better to do A than B, all things considered, but does B anyway due to a lack of conviction? How should the agent regard him/herself?
    – David
    Jan 19, 2020 at 21:28
  • Consider an individual with severe hypertension, who can't abstain from his favorite burger restaurant (an example of weakness of will--a failure of his self-regarding duty to his physical condition.) But, the man volunteers his time to meaningful charitable causes and strives on behalf of the needy (we consider altruism a core account of what it means to be human.) Is such a man moral by the perfectionist standard, or immoral?
    – David
    Jan 19, 2020 at 21:42
  • But, as you convincingly mention in your own post, perfectionism does not distinguish between self and other regarding duties. Still, it would seem strange to call a selfless man "immoral", if he can't manage his high blood pressure. And, as you mention there are other terms we could use to describe the man's condition (weak-willed, insensible, lacking ambition, and impassive) but what I really I wonder is where such individuals fall on the immoral-moral spectrum under a perfectionist standard.
    – David
    Feb 18, 2020 at 20:27
  • Then again, maybe I've taken too much of a reductivist approach by trying to place such people on a spectrum from immoral to moral. A perfectionist might see the selfless glutton is "morally complex" rather than partly (or totally) immoral. Although I'm not sure if there's a philosophical term for this, the idea I'm getting at is that the selfless glutton meets the demands of perfectionism in some ways, but falls short in others. Maybe "imperfect" would be a better term than "immoral."
    – David
    Feb 18, 2020 at 20:41
  • Of course, to distinguish imperfection from immorality might imply that, if something is imperfect, it is not necessarily immoral. In other words, some perfectionist acts would then be considered supererogatory -- nice to have, but not absolutely essential.
    – David
    Feb 18, 2020 at 21:20

In perfectionist ethics, there are self-regarding duties -- that is, duties that prescribe responsibility to strive for excellence.

Excellence requires taking care of yourself. To the extent that you don't do this, you aren't able to do as well. (In the extreme, you die.)

  • 1
    Would you have sources from perfectionist ethics philosophers who take a similar view? This would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome. Jun 2, 2019 at 2:05
  • 1
    This was meant as a statement of fact (in place of the abstract, which their source focuses on). On reflection, it doesn't answer the OP's question(s) "Is purposely choosing mediocrity wrong under perfectionist ethics?".
    – user558317
    Jun 2, 2019 at 20:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .