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Perfectionism and Moral Theories

Matteo Falomi – Sapienza Università di Roma

1. I want to consider, in what follows, the relation between ethics and conceptions of the self.

The idea that our conceptions of the self, or self conceptions, might be important for ethics has

been initially met with resistance in the analytic tradition. To mention just two sources of

distrust: first, appeals to the naturalistic fallacy have made it hard to recognize the way in

which a description of who we are might be relevant for an understanding of what we must do1;

second, the idea (which dates back at least to Sidgwick) that character is exclusively expressed

in action has promoted an understanding of moral theory which makes action, and not

character, the primary focus of moral evaluation.2 These assumptions has been, as is well

known, increasingly contested in more recent development of the tradition. In metaethics, for

instance, metaphysical discussions on the nature of self has been deemed relevant to the

explanation of moral motivation and moral responsibility; in normative ethics, instead, virtue

theorist has revaluated the importance of character for our understanding of moral assessment

and practical reasoning. What I want to consider, however, is a further way in which our

conceptions of the self might be relevant for ethical thought – a way which cannot be readily

accommodated, I believe, within metaethical or normative debates. The problem I have in mind

1 A version of this argument can be found already in Moore’s Principia Ethica; see Moore 1959: 113-114.
2 See for instance Sidgwick 1981: 391-394.

has been famously stated by Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, where, in speaking of our

judgements of ethical value, he invites us to ask «what value do they themselves possess».3

Nietzsche is asking, in other words, why do we find morality on the whole valuable, or what

are the sources of the interest we take in it. An answer to such questions might involve, in

various ways, an appeal to our conceptions of ourselves, and in what follows I want to explore

some of these ways. I will consider, in particular, Cavell’s account of moral perfectionism: my

claim will be that Cavell’s use of this notion provides a peculiar way of understanding the

relation between our self conceptions and our commitment to morality in general. I will then

compare Cavell’s ideas with two other important accounts that are relevant in this connection:

the neo-Aristotelian position that Alasdair MacIntyre puts forward in After Virtue, and the

neo-Kantian conception articulated by Christine Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity.

These authors link, like Cavell, a certain description of what we are with our exposure to

morality as such: still, as I will argue, the connection they envisage seems to exclude (in

different ways) the very dimension of moral experience that Cavell’s notion of perfectionism

emphasizes. The aim of the comparison is then twofold: I want, on the one hand, to indicate a

possible framework in which Cavell’s work on perfectionism may be understood; and on the

other, to spell out what Cavell’s specific contribution to such a framework could be.

2. In Cavell’s understanding of perfectionism, questions about our conceptions of the self are

not simply seen as relevant for ethics, but as ethical questions themselves. This point is easy to

overlook, but as I will try to show it has a crucial significance for Cavell’s moral philosophy.

Cavell doesn’t start, in other words, with some philosophical account of what we are, and then

3 Nietzsche 1967: 17.

moves to see how this philosophical anthropology might be important for ethics. Problems

about our conception of ourselves, rather, belong to a specific register of moral life – namely,

the perfectionist register. This register exists alongside the dimension of ethics that is usually

articulated by moral theories, and in which more canonical questions about the right course of

action are asked. Both registers are associated with specific moral difficulties and peculiar

modes of moral reasoning.4 In what follows, I won’t give a full description of these two registers

of moral life: I will provide, instead, an introductory sketch of their difference by focusing on

the kind of moral difficulty that, according to Cavell, characterizes each of them. Having

outlined the difference between perfectionism and the area of moral life articulated by moral

theories, it will be possible to raise the question of their relation: this will, in turn, enable us to

see the connection that Cavell envisages between our self conceptions and our engagement in


Let’s begin from the following passage, from Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome:

A call for change will not be expressed as a particular imperative when what is problematic in your life

(as of now) is not the fact that between alternative courses of action the right has become hard to find,

but that in the course of your life you have lost your way. 5

Cavell here contrasts two kinds of moral difficulty: one has to do with choosing the right action

between alternative possibilities, while the other is expressed by Cavell as a matter of “losing

one’s way”. The first kind of difficulty is encountered when we don’t know what to do: we are

faced with two possible courses of action, and we wonder which one is recommended by

4 See Cavell 2004: 24.

5 Cavell 1990: xxx.

morality. When we envisage such a dilemma, we may want to recur to moral theories: by

specifying general principles of conduct, moral theories can enable us to derive a particular

imperative about the action we ought to perform in the relevant situation. Moral theories may

work, in this perspective, as a guide for action.

It is important to note one point: our willingness to recur to some moral theory in order to solve

our difficulties about what to do presupposes that we are committed to the project of morality.

We must think of ourselves as moral agents, hence willing what morality wills, if the purpose of

understanding what morality commands in this particular case is to have some interest for us.

We may say, therefore, that our difficulty about what to do, when we are uncertain between

possibilities of action, presupposes that we are not in difficulty at another level: our conception

of ourselves as moral agents should not be problematic for us. In order to experience a

perplexity about what to do (morally), we must know who we are.

This leads us to the second type of moral difficulty: we may think, in fact, that a peculiar sort of

moral perplexity may arise about one’s conception of oneself. Cavell describes this sort of

difficulty through the idea of “losing one’s way”. In order to understand what Cavell means

here one must appreciate the force of the remark that a certain way may or may not be mine.

Assuming that the image of the way indicates a certain mode of life in general, the thought that

a given mode of life might be mine is meant to portray a peculiar relation between my identity

and such a mode of life: a certain way of life counts as “mine” in the relevant sense if not living

that life means to me that I cease to be myself, to be who I am. The idea of a way of life being

mine emphasizes, in other words, an internal relation between the mode of life at issue and my


Now, we can think of a difficulty related to this mode of conceiving ourselves by postulating a

distance between my present mode of life and the mode of life which counts as really mine.

We may come to feel, in this sense, that our current mode of life is not really ours, that it

doesn’t express or represent who we are. This sort of perplexity, that Cavell names «crisis», is

the peculiar moral problematic that calls for a perfectionist assessment of our condition: the

image of «losing one’s way» is another description of this kind of experience.6

Having sketched the difference between these two register of moral life, we might now

consider their relation: how the perfectionist questioning of one’s identity is related to the

sphere of moral theory? In this respect, I want to stress two points: first, the perfectionist

questioning is, in Cavell’s perspective, essential to moral theory; second, this mode of

questioning may nonetheless enter in conflict with the requirements of moral theory.

Let’s begin from the idea that a perfectionist register is essential to moral theory. We may

introduce the issue by bringing out a point that was implicit in what has been said so far. Our

present mode of life may involve a commitment to morality, a conception of ourselves as moral

agents. A perfectionist investigation of our present mode of life, therefore, may induce us to

question whether our current commitment to morality is really ours. What Cavell indicates

here is a particular way of raising the question of our interest in morality, of the value morality

has for us: for if my present commitment to morality doesn’t really represent me, then my

consent to morality is a matter of mere conformity; in this case, morality is valued as a way of

gaining social acceptance, or of avoiding responsibilities towards one’s life, etc. If a moral theory

doesn’t have a space for such perfectionist investigations of our relation with morality, then it

might leave the nature of our interest in morality in the dark: we might never know whether

6 On the idea of «crisis» see for instance Cavell 2004: 11; Cavell 2004: 446.

our adoption of morality is merely «moralistic», whether we are enforcing morality on ourselves

by «immoral means».7 In this sense, Cavell claims that a perfectionist questioning of one’s

identity is essential to moral theory:8 without this mode of self examination, we would never

understand the value morality has for us.

This brings us the possibility of a conflict between the perfectionist register and the sphere of

moral theories. What happens, indeed, if we discover that our present commitment to morality

is not really ours? We might be brought, in such a predicament, to withdraw our consent to

morality as such, because such consent, as it stands, is a sign of our dispossession of ourselves.

As Cavell puts the point in The Claim of Reason, we would find ourselves in the position of

seeking «the salvation of the self through the repudiation of morality».9 This is a peculiar case of

moral conflict: it is not a conflict of obligations within a moral code (for what is on trial is

morality itself), nor is it the usual challenge to morality from the point of view of egoism. We

may think of it as combining certain features of these two kinds of conflict. As in the case of a

conflict between morality and egoism, what is challenged is morality on the whole, and not a

specific obligation. As in the case of conflicts of obligations within a moral code, the conflict is

motivated morally. What brings me here to question morality in general is not an egoistic desire

to affirm my present interests and needs as they stand: the kind of questioning that interests

Cavell is rather driven by one’s sense that one’s present interests and needs should be different

from what they currently are. Cavell wishes to understand the force of this “should” as moral,

although not in the sense in which one should or must perform a particular action out of duty.

7 See Cavell 1990: 13.

8 See for instance Cavell 1990: xxxi. See also Cavell 2004: 316.
9 Cavell 1979: 269.

To sum up, in Cavell’s perspective, the question whether my present conception of myself is

really mine belongs to a specific register of morality. This register, which Cavell calls

perfectionism, is essential to understand our adherence to morality as a whole: we couldn’t

clarify the nature of our interest in morality independently of it. Perfectionism can, on the

other hand, conflict with our commitment to morality: such a commitment might in fact be

part of a mode of life that I cannot recognize as mine anymore. Since perfectionism is itself a

dimension of our moral life, this kind of conflict may be seen as a moral conflict with morality.

3. Having completed this admittedly crude sketch of Cavell’s position, I will now proceed to

compare Cavell’s ideas with those of MacIntyre and Korsgaard. Let’s take MacIntyre first. There

is a sense in which we can say that, in MacIntyre’s account, the relation between self and

morality has a central place: according to his conception, indeed, the practice of morality allows

us to realize our true selves. Even if MacIntyre wishes to depart from certain features of the

Aristotelian framework, this much at least is retained: obedience to morality is the device

through which we get from our present state, our nature as it stands, to the full realization of

our telos, of what we really are10 (a departure from Aristotle lies surely in the way in which

MacIntyre conceives of the human telos). The idea of a device shouldn’t be understood in

instrumental terms: in the Aristotelian account MacIntyre endorses, in fact, while virtues are

seen as «[…] means to an end, the relation of means to end is internal and not external».11 It

wouldn’t make sense, in this perspective, to say that I might realize my telos by means other

10 See MacIntyre 2007: 52-55.

11 MacIntyre 2007: 184.

than the virtues: the exercise of virtue belongs indeed to the very description of human


MacIntyre shares then with Cavell the idea of a distance between my present mode of life and a

mode of life that realizes what I am. A crucial difference, however, lies in the role that

MacIntyre assigns to morality in such a framework. In Cavell, as we saw, morality is an

dimension of moral life alongside the perfectionist register, in which questions about our true

self are raised. These two registers may generate a specific kind of moral conflict: we can

question our commitment to morality from the point of view of the realization of our essence.

In MacIntyre, instead, morality is the means (the only one, indeed) to realize one’s self:

morality, therefore, cannot by definition be in conflict with the realization of the self. It seems,

then, that MacIntyre’s way of connecting self and ethics excludes the very possibility of

understanding our relation to morality as a whole that Cavell wishes to emphasize.

The exclusion is not accidental. The possibility of a conflict between morality and realization of

the self presupposes that these notions can be separated, as Cavell is indeed inviting us to do.

But in MacIntyre’s perspective, such a separation could only mean that we’ve lost the only

possible rational understanding of morality: if morality is not connected to the realization of our

telos, then we won’t be able anymore to make sense of our commitment to morality in general.

Our conceiving ourselves as moral, in such a predicament, is only a cover for the affirmation of

our arbitrary desires. From this point of view, then, the difference between MacIntyre and

Cavell is striking: while in MacIntyre the possibility of questioning the value of morality from

the point of view of the self is a symptom of the fact that morality is over, in Cavell this very

possibility opens up a specific dimension of moral experience – a dimension that is, in fact,

essential to every account of moral conduct.

I want now to turn briefly to Korsgaard’s position in The Sources of Normativity. Korsgaard

doesn’t share MacIntyre’s pessimism about modern moral philosophy: for her, the burden of

questioning our engagement in morality as such is not a sign of the degeneration of our moral

culture, but is precisely what distinguishes the modern outlook from ancient ethics of

excellence.12 She accordingly believes, like Cavell, that questions about the value of morality are

an essential feature of our ethical thinking: still, her treatment of such questions seems to

exclude, analogously to MacIntyre’s account, the very possibilities of criticism that Cavell

wishes to preserve.

Korsgaard as well gives pride of place to the connection between our conceptions of the self and

our obligations. Elaborating on the Kantian insight that our will must be determined by a law,

she argues that the laws that govern our actions must be expressive of what she defines our

«practical identity». By this she means a certain description under which we value ourselves,

and that gives sense to our conduct; examples of practical identities are for instance mother,

soldier, citizen, etc.13 In this perspective, it is because we conceive of ourselves in certain ways

that we have reasons to act or not to act, hence certain obligations. Now, the obligations

deriving from our practical identities are not ispo facto moral, but Korsgaard thinks that

reflection on our practical identities can lead us to recognize moral obligations. We need to

acknowledge that, while our particular practical identities are contingent, the fact that we must

have some practical identity to make sense of our conduct it is not: this gives us a reason for

adopting a practical identity that doesn’t spring from any practical identity in particular, but

from our conceiving ourselves as human. In conceiving ourselves as human beings, according to

12 See Korsgaard 1996: 4-5.

13 See Korsgaard 1996: 100-101.

Korsgaard, we recognize the obligations we have towards humanity as such, namely our moral


The upshot of this transcendental argument is that, if we have a conception of ourselves at all,

then we must be conceiving ourselves as moral agents. Now this conclusion, if correct, would

spoil the possibility of raising the sort of questions about morality as a whole that Cavell

indicates. Korsgaard, not differently from MacIntyre, is indeed obliterating the space in which I

can ask whether my present way of conceiving myself – including my present commitment to

morality – is really mine. The point of her argument is to show that, if I have a conception of

myself at all, then I am by default conceiving myself as a moral agent. Moral identity, in this

perspective, must be mine, whatever the relation I may happen to have with my present mode

of life in general: I am committed to morality, therefore, even if my current ways of conceiving

myself don’t represent what I really am.

Korsgaard, for this reason, doesn’t have a space for the kind of moral conflict with morality that

Cavell stresses. She is in general careful to preserve the possibility of conflict: she endorses

Bernard Williams’ view that we cannot conceive ourselves only as moral agents, if we are to

make sense of the point morality has for us.15 But the conflicts Korsgaard recognizes are

typically conflicts of obligations generated by a clash between our moral identities and those

more local practical identities that are in general compatible with morality. There is no space,

here, for the sort of conflict that Cavell describes, in which a question about my identity draws

me to criticize my commitment to morality as a whole. In order to question morality as a

14 See Korsgaard 1996: 120-123

15 Korsgaard 1996: 125.

whole, in Korsgaard’s perspective, I should be a complete normative sceptic16: I should, that is,

not value anything at all, and not have any reason to act in one way rather than another.

Korsgaard doesn’t see that I might have some values and commitments that don’t represent me,

and that also this acknowledgement may lead me to criticize my adherence to morality.

In spite of all their apparent differences, Korsgaard shares with MacIntyre a certain way of

connecting morality and conceptions of the self. What Korsgaard’s reasoning shows, in fact, is

that we already are the kind of animals that are exposed to morality. As she writes, the fact that

we are human beings, and that we must value something if they are to act at all, «is simply the

truth»:17 we must, therefore, value morality as well. Korsgaard’s transcendental arguments are

then reaching by a different route the same conclusion that MacIntyre achieves through

teleological arguments: for MacIntyre as well, indeed, our exposure to morality can be read off

from the very description of the kind of beings we are. This suggests a further way of

articulating their difference from Cavell. In Cavell’s perspective, in order to be exposed to

morality we must have a self that we can call our own: Cavell writes in this sense that moral

perfectionism is «the precondition of morality».18 In this perspective, we’re not simply are, but

we must become human beings, beings that are exposed to morality. The task of becoming

human, moreover, is seen by Cavell as a specifically moral task: constructing one’s self, or caring

for it, is a particular dimension of our moral life, associated to peculiar difficulties and specific

modes of reasoning. It is only through an engagement in these modes of reasoning that we can

hope make ourselves committed to morality. Our commitment to morality, in other words, is

16 Korsgaard 1996: 160-164.

17 Korsgaard 1996: 123.
18 Cavell 1990: 62.

itself a moral problem: we cannot prove, by philosophical arguments, that our exposure to

morality is already built in our conception of ourselves.


Cavell, S. 1979 The Claim of Reason, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York

Cavell, S. 1990 Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, Chicago University Press, Chicago

Cavell, S. 2004 Cities of Words, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

Korsgaard, C. 1996 The Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

MacIntyre, A. 2007 After Virtue, Third Edition, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

Moore, G.E. 1959 Principia Ethica, Cambridge University Press, London and New York

Nietzsche, F. 1967 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, Vintage Books, New York

Sidgwick, H. 1981 The Methods of Ethics, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis