Course level: Undergraduate
Moral perfectionism is a moral theory that starts from an account of the good human life, and characterizes this life in a distinctive way. Certain properties, it says, constitute human nature or are definitive of humanity – they make humans human. Different versions of the theory may disagree about what the relevant properties are and so disagree about the content of the good life. But they share the foundational idea that what is good, ultimately, is the development of human nature. Aristotle and Thomas Hurka are some of the classical moral perfectionists we will study. Yet we will also compare and contrast this form of moral perfectionism with what Stanley Cavell has characterized as Emersonian or democratic perfectionism. The core ideas in Cavell’s version of perfectionism are the idea of being true to oneself, or to the humanity in oneself, and the idea that the self is shaped and transformed by maintaining a relationship to an exemplary other. On Cavell’s view, such self-formation or self-transformation also issues in the demand for the transformation of society. Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, and Schelling are some of the thinkers whose views we will study, as examples of Cavell’s version of perfectionism.