Normative Perfectionism and the Kantian TraditionSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Perfectionism is an underexplored tradition, perhaps because of doubts about the grounds, content, and implications of perfectionist ideals. Aristotle, J.S. Mill, and T.H. Green are normative perfectionists, grounding perfectionist ideals in a normative conception of human nature involving personality or agency. This essay explores the prospects of normative perfectionism by examining Kant’s criticisms of the perfectionist tradition. First, Kant claims that the perfectionist can generate only hypothetical, not categorical, imperatives. But insofar as the normative perfectionist appeals to the normative category of personality or agency, rather than a biological category of humanity, it can represent perfectionist demands as categorical imperatives. Second, Kant accepts a moral asymmetry in which we aim at our own perfection but at the happiness, rather than the perfection, of others. However, the importance of autonomy in normative perfection explains why the perfectionist should recognize a self/other asymmetry. Indeed, when we see how the normative perfectionist can answer Kant’s criticisms while respecting Kant’s own claims about the connection between rational nature and moral requirements, we can see the basis for a normative perfectionist interpretation of Kant’s own ethical theory. Insofar as Kantians and normative perfectionists both base ethical demands on an appeal to rational nature, they face a common worry that the appeal to rational nature is empty or incomplete. Normative perfectionists have more and less concessive responses to this worry, providing perfectionist explanations of various apparently non-perfectionist goods. Even if we end up being pluralists about the good, perfectionist elements play an important role. Finally, because the normative perfectionist, like the Kantian, grounds its ideals and requirements in a conception of persons as rational agents, it provides a promising account of the rational authority of perfectionist demands. This comparison of normative perfectionist and Kantian essentials gives us reason to take the normative perfectionist tradition seriously.