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date: 17 April 2024



  • Franz MangFranz MangDepartment of Philosophy, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  •  and Joseph ChanJoseph ChanUniversity Center for Human Values, Princeton University


In contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy, perfectionism is widely understood as the idea that the state may, or should, promote valuable conceptions of the good life and discourage conceptions that are worthless or bad. As such, debates over perfectionism occupy a central place in contemporary political philosophy because political philosophers are deeply concerned about whether or not a liberal state is permitted to promote any particular ethical or religious doctrine or impose it on its citizens.

In general, contemporary perfectionists do not argue for the state’s pursuit of any religious doctrine. They only maintain that the state is permitted to make a wide range of public policies with the aim of promoting the good life. These policies, commonly found in liberal democratic societies, may include subsidizing museums and art galleries, preserving cultural heritage, setting up public libraries and providing free access to reading materials, encouraging athletic excellence, conserving nature and biodiversity, and educating citizens about the harm of recreational drugs. Nevertheless, perfectionism remains controversial among philosophers and political scientists.

It might be beneficial to take a sympathetic view of perfectionism and consider how perfectionists might defend their position against some of the common objections. These objections mainly include: (a) that the state does not possess legitimate authority to make decisions about the good life and seek to promote it; (b) that perfectionist policies are generally illiberal and paternalistic; and (c) that conceptions of the good life are objects of reasonable disagreement and hence cannot legitimately be promoted by the state. In addition, the nature and importance of perfectionist policies and politics will be discussed.


  • Political Philosophy
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies

Perfectionism in Political Philosophy

Perfectionism as a political ideal—unlike many other social and political ideals, such as liberalism and feminism—may appear strange, if not distasteful, if one takes the concept literally. Yet, in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy, perfectionism is generally understood as the view that the state may, or should, promote valuable conceptions of the good life and discourage conceptions that are inferior or worthless.1 Thus understood, perfectionism concerns some of the most fundamental normative issues in politics, including the aims and purposes of collective life, the relationship between the state and individual citizens, the extent and limits of personal liberty, and the basic moral principles that govern the exercise of political power. Plato, Aristotle, Karl Marx, and T. H. Green from the West, and Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, and Mozi from the East, can all be regarded as perfectionist philosophers. For, despite their differing stances on ethics and politics, they share the view that some ideas about the good life are sound, and that political authorities should seek to promote the good life by the prudent use of political power.

But since the appearance of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), many political philosophers have raised serious doubts about the compatibility of perfectionism with the ideals of freedom and equality. Rawls is one of the leading antiperfectionists, and he has argued that perfectionism can cause suppression of individuals’ basic liberties (1971, p. 327). Many philosophers have also rejected perfectionism on the grounds of basic liberties or moral equality (e.g., Barry, 1995; Dworkin, 1978; Gaus, 2003; Larmore, 1996; Nussbaum, 2011; Quong, 2011; Waldron, 1989). Nevertheless, there has been no shortage of philosophers advocating perfectionism as a major approach to contemporary political morality (Arneson, 2000; Chan, 2000; Haksar, 1979; Hurka, 1993; Kramer, 2017; Raz, 1986; Sher, 1997; Wall, 1998). In this way, the debate over perfectionism has occupied a central place in Anglo-American political philosophy.

This article will take a sympathetic view on perfectionism and discuss some of the major criticisms of it. To start with, it is necessary to clear up a couple of misunderstandings. One enduring impression is that perfectionism is glaringly elitist and illiberal; that it aims for social or human perfection, and that to accomplish this, the basic liberties and welfare of many people—particularly those whose endowments or abilities are in some sense mediocre—must be sacrificed for the good of those who are most talented. This line of reasoning is obvious in Rawls’s criticism of Nietzsche (Rawls, 1971, p. 327).

In response, perfectionists can illustrate that the perfectionist theories endorsed by Nietzsche, Hastings Rashdall (1907), and some other scholars of earlier generations have found little support among contemporary perfectionists; contemporary perfectionists generally hold the view that the state should nurture each and every citizen’s opportunities for leading a good life, regardless of their endowments and talents. In fact, perfectionist philosophers nowadays commonly affirm the moral value of basic liberties and social equality. Some even think that the importance of personal autonomy and social equality can only be fully understood through considerations of the good life (Hurka, 1993; Raz, 1986).

In addition, while many perfectionists use “perfect” (usually as a verb) and “perfection” in their arguments, few seriously advocate for state pursuit of human or social perfection, in general arguing more broadly for state promotion of the good life—human flourishing, well-being, moral virtues and excellences. More specifically, contemporary perfectionists generally think that many ideals and forms of life are valuable, and as such, the state should seek to provide a wide range of opportunities for people to lead a good life. Importantly, a good life, or a good human being, need not be a perfect one (Kraut, 2007, p. 136 n. 4). So, while we can reasonably be skeptical about the possibility of living a perfect human life, and about the desirability of creating perfect human beings, we do not have to be equally skeptical about the possibility or desirability of living a good human life. In short, to avoid some of the common misunderstandings of perfectionism, we can simply see it as a doctrine concerning state promotion of the good life, rather than any particular type of perfection.

Some criticisms of perfectionism are more difficult to address. For example, one sustaining criticism, pursued in different ways by political liberals (e.g., Larmore, 1996; Quong, 2011; Rawls, 2005) is that as people have deep and reasonable disagreements about what constitutes the good life, any political authority that coercively promotes a particular conception of the good life has failed to treat its people respectfully. So, more generally, any person who exercises political power (during voting, for example) should base his or her view on beliefs that are acceptable to all reasonable persons, rather than appealing to any particular conception of the good life.

To respond, perfectionists can endorse either comprehensive or moderate perfectionism. Briefly, comprehensive perfectionism claims that, in order to be convincing, perfectionism must be based on a particular comprehensive doctrine of political morality, such as Aristotle’s doctrine of politics. Generally, a comprehensive doctrine of political morality elucidates how ethics and politics are interrelated, what constitutes the good life, and what constraints apply to the practice of perfectionism.

In contrast, moderate perfectionism claims that perfectionism does not have to be based on any particular comprehensive doctrine of political morality, and that since people have intractable disagreements about what constitutes the good life, the state should refrain from promoting any comprehensive moral doctrine. Note that comprehensive and moderate perfectionism are two categories of political theory, not two specific political theories; comprehensive perfectionist theories can differ depending on which comprehensive doctrine of political morality a comprehensive perfectionist endorses, and moderate perfectionist theories can differ depending on their concrete features.

In addition, let us also take note of the distinction between edificatory perfectionism and aspirational perfectionism, which has been drawn by Matthew Kramer (2017). In Kramer’s view, most proponents of perfectionism endorse edificatory perfectionism, since they share the view that “governments are sometimes morally permitted and morally obligated to steer people toward ways of life that are more flourishing or upright or wholesome or successful” (p. 34). Believing that edificatory perfectionism is illiberal and disrespectful, Kramer advocates what he calls “aspirational perfectionism.” According to aspirational perfectionism, the state should, within certain constraints, pursue a wide range of policies that are typically associated with perfectionism, but for the reason that “the attainment of excellence by a society through the emergence of impressive feats within it is a necessary condition for the warrantedness of a robust sense of self-respect on the part of each individual who belongs to that society” (p. 36).

This version of perfectionism deserves serious academic attention, but partly for reasons of space, it will not be examined here.2 Our focus will be on what Kramer calls edificatory perfectionism, and, for the sake of simplicity, we will usually drop the qualification “edificatory.” In what follows, we first discuss why the state should be allowed to make decisions about the good life and seek to promote it. Then, we consider the criticism that perfectionist policies are, in general, illiberal and paternalistic. Next, we compare comprehensive and moderate perfectionism. At the end, we discuss the nature and significance of perfectionist politics and policies.

The Authority of the Perfectionist State

Perfectionists maintain that the state may promote valuable conceptions of the good life, and that it is wrong to categorically exclude the promotion of the good life from the state’s legitimate tasks. Some perfectionists go so far as to claim that it is a primary task of the state to promote the good life. This perfectionist view is as much about the state as it is about the good life. Citizens may, as we can agree, freely pursue their conceptions of the good life in their personal lives and civil society, but why should the state be allowed to make decisions about the good life and promote a particular ideal?

Contemporary perfectionists have employed both negative and positive strategies to defend the perfectionist view of the state. The negative strategy, commonly found in the liberalism vs. perfectionism debate, rebuts the liberal charges (some of which will be examined later) that perfectionism violates the values of respect, autonomy, fairness, and so forth. Rather than establish the authority of the perfectionist state, this strategy establishes that perfectionism need not violate fundamental liberal values and therefore is not morally impermissible as far as the liberal values in question are concerned.

The positive strategy, by contrast, seeks to make a case for the authority of the perfectionist state. One type of argument employing this strategy can be called conditional justification. As this type of argument justifies perfectionism through liberal arguments in support of state authority, its validity is conditional upon the validity of the liberal argument being used. For example, Joseph Chan (2000) turns Thomas Nagel’s higher-order unanimity or agreement argument for state authority into a justification for the authority of state perfectionism. Nagel’s argument is that the state may make disputable policy decisions on a certain matter such as national defense if (at a higher level) there can be reasonable agreement on the need for a unified state policy on that matter. Chan argues that there is reason to believe that such higher-order unanimity is possible with regard to matters about the good life, too, provided that certain conditions are met.

One can also give a direct, independent argument for the authority of the perfectionist state (independent justification). Among the very few perfectionists who have offered an independent justification for perfectionism, Joseph Raz’s “naturalness” argument is the most influential (Raz, 1986, 1989). The fact that few perfectionists have taken the trouble to offer an independent justification can perhaps be explained by Raz’s claim that the perfectionist view of the state is simply naturally appealing. Raz’s argument runs like this: If something is valuable or good for people, there is a reason to bring it about. And if a reason for action applies to citizens, it applies to the state as well, for the state’s task is precisely to help citizens to act on reasons that apply to them. Since citizens have a reason to pursue valuable goods and ways of life (call it a perfectionist reason), it follows that the state has a perfectionist reason to guide its own actions to help citizens pursue valuable goods and ways of life.

Raz makes it clear that the state’s perfectionist reason can be overridden by other reasons. One such reason is that individual action by citizens is more effective than state action in pursuing the desired good. Another reason is that citizens care more about making decisions for themselves than acting effectively to get the desired good (such as choosing suitable marriage partners). Perfectionism is thus constrained by reasons of effectiveness and personal autonomy. However, Raz maintains that these reasons do not justify a blanket exclusion of perfectionist goals. As a matter of fact, many valuable goods can be better promoted by collective action led by the state than by the effort of individual citizens, and, when the goal in question is less personal (such as the promotion of arts), there seems no reason that people must prefer individual action to state action to achieve it.

Central to Raz’s naturalness argument for perfectionism is a specific view of the rationale of the authority of the state. According to this view, the existence of the state is to help people act in accordance with reasons for action (or practical reasons) that apply to them. Thus, the practical reasons that apply to people become the reasons for state action and for its authority. Jonathan Quong (2011, chap. 4) has raised an important objection against this “practical reason model” of authority. Briefly, according to this model, the state would have authority to guide people if doing so can help them better conform to practical reason than they would without the state’s guidance. Yet, Quong argues that better conformity with practical reason does not provide any reason for authority. For example, the fact that I have a reason to go on a trip to Peru does not imply that any experienced, trustworthy travel agent can claim authority over me as to what I should do about the trip.

Quong endorses a justice-based conception of authority: A person has authority over me with regard to a certain domain of issues only if I am in the first place under a duty of justice to others regarding that domain. People have a prior duty of justice to others with regard to issues of individual rights and basic liberties, and therefore the state has authority to enforce policies of justice. Quong asks: “[I]f, prior to the authority’s demands, I owed no one any duties, to whom do I owe the duties that the authority imposes on me?” (2011, p. 116) He further argues that, as people have no prior duty of justice to promote the well-being of others, the state has no authority with regard to the domain of the good life, even if the state can help people better pursue the good life.

As a matter of fact, Raz (2006) recognizes that a person’s ability to help people better conform to practical reasons is insufficient to establish the authority of that person. Raz writes: “No one is a prime minister or a teacher just in virtue of the fact that they can perform the task well. Something else has to happen to give them the task, to make it their task.” (Raz, 2006, p. 1032) So, unlike theoretical authority, which alone cannot impose duties on others, practical authority has normative powers over people and imposes duties on them. Practical authority has to be recognized by the people subjected to it. This recognition is generally achieved through established institutional arrangements (such as elections and appointments) and conventions (such as inaugural ceremonies). Without such recognition, a person’s ability to pursue a particular task is insufficient in itself to establish that the person has any normative powers over others. Raz has pointed out that for a person to have authority, the person has to have de facto authority to command others, and to be a de facto authority, namely, to be known, recognized, and have their guidance complied with by others (Raz, 2006, p. 1036; also Raz, 1986, p. 59).

One can go further by viewing practical authority as primarily an institutional or practice-based phenomenon (Chan, 2012; Hershovitz, 2011; Marmor, 2011).3 A stand-alone travel agent who does not operate within a power-granting institution does not possess de facto authority over travelers—the travel agent simply lacks recognized normative powers to direct people’s travel plans. To be sure, this is not to suggest that if the travel agent did in fact operate with power-conferring institutional norms that granted de facto authority such authority would necessarily be legitimate, because any power-conferring norm can be morally problematic.

As Scott Hershovitz and Andrei Marmor separately suggest, the institutional or practice-based perspective takes a two-step approach to the question of legitimate authority. First, we have to determine whether an agent possesses de facto authority with regard to a certain domain of issues conferred by institutional norms. These norms specify at once the power to command and the duty to obey. If an agent does possess de facto authority, then he or she has institutional rights or powers to command participants within the institution regarding that domain of issues, and participants have corresponding institutional duties to obey the decisions made by the agent. Second, we ask whether these institutional norms can be morally justified to these participants. If they can be morally justified, then the agent possesses legitimate authority.

Based on this two-step approach, it should be clear that no stand-alone private individual can claim to have authority over others with regard to the pursuit of the good life. Such authority can only be generated in a society-wide institution that possesses de facto authority to make decisions in a broad range of areas related to the common life of the participants within that institution. In a modern society, the state seems to be the only society-wide institution that fits this description. Now, if a certain perfectionist state carries de facto authority to make policies and laws, including perfectionist laws, we should ask: Is there any reason that can justify power-conferring norms in the domain of the good life, as well as in other domains such as education, environment, public health, and the economy?

Perfectionists can argue that the reason that justifies these norms is exactly the reason that people live together in a complex society, namely, to pursue a better life in material, social, psychological, and cultural terms. In pursuing better lives, no doubt people should observe justice—there should be laws and practices that protect people’s physical security and liberties, safeguard their basic rights, and distribute opportunities and resources fairly. But we should not lose sight of the fundamental point that people cooperate not merely for the sake of fairness or justice, but for mutual benefit in the largest sense of the term, that is, the good life.

As the agency of its citizens, the state—and the larger political community—exists to help citizens pursue better lives. For this reason it seems natural that the state should help them by promoting valuable conceptions of the good life, just as it should support their livelihood by creating a sound economy, offering quality education and health services, and protecting the green environment. These pursuits require a common authority to coordinate individual actions, and pull resources together through institutional frameworks and public policies. Only an institution like the state has the capacity to carry out tasks of this complexity.

The institutional approach to authority can be resisted in various ways. One can argue, as Quong does, that a person’s moral right to issue and enforce commands does not depend on whether this person is in fact recognized as possessing authority. In other words, de facto authority is not a necessary condition for legitimate authority, and if it is, then, counterintuitively, “the alleged subjects of an authority can, simply by wrongfully disregarding the alleged authority’s claims to authority, make it the case that the alleged authority is not legitimate” (Quong, 2012, p. 70). And if de facto authority were a necessary condition for legitimate authority, then, it can be argued, officials from a racial minority could not enjoy legitimate authority in a racist society. In short, the institutional approach to authority seems to make legitimate authority overly contingent and relativistic, making legitimate authority depend on facts in ways it should not.

The disagreement between the justice-based approach and the institutional approach to the authority of the state runs deep. It raises difficult questions about whether the basis of practical authority, and even that of justice and morality, is in some sense “fact-sensitive” (Quong, 2012, pp. 71–72). At this point, it might be useful to consider Marmor’s distinction between the abstract view and the institutional view of authority. On the abstract view, authority is determined by objective moral reasons; whether or not these reasons are supported by any power-conferring norm and recognized by people who are subject to the alleged authority are simply irrelevant. On the institutional view, however, legitimate authority presupposes de facto authority, one which is recognized and supported by power-conferring norms. The legitimacy of de facto authority is then determined by the moral justifiability of those norms (Marmor, 2011, pp. 246–247).

Quong’s understanding of legitimate authority coheres well with the abstract view. He writes: “I do not believe that de facto authority is a necessary condition for legitimate authority, provided the term legitimate authority is used the way I use it in my book, that is, to describe the moral right of one agent to issue and enforce commands over some other person or group” (Quong, 2012, p. 70). For Quong, legitimate authority is understood as the moral right to rule. Just as the existence of people’s basic moral rights does not depend on legal recognition or enforcement, so the existence of the moral right to rule does not depend on institutional recognition or enforcement. However, according to the institutional view of authority, legitimate authority is not equivalent to the moral right to rule (Marmor, 2011, p. 247). If a person has a moral right to rule but has no power conferred by any institutional norm, she does not yet have any authority; at most, she only has a moral claim to have the power to rule. In a few words: legitimate authority should mean morally justified rule, not merely the moral right to rule.

As such, a person from the racial minority might have a moral claim to rule in a racist society. But according to the institutional view of authority, such a moral claim is not tantamount to the possession of legitimate authority. It is true that racist norms are morally unjustifiable, and should be recognized as such and overturned. However, until this actually happens, those who are excluded from political participation by racist norms do not yet have authority, whereas those who are in power as conferred by these unjustifiable norms have authority of an illegitimate kind.

The core idea of the institutional view is that authority is a practice concept—it is not only a moral right, but a moral right whose existence and exercise depend on morally justifiable power-conferring norms. The present short analysis of the two different views of authority may not settle the disagreement between Quong and perfectionists concerning the authority of the perfectionist state. In any case, even if the institutional approach is convincing, it does not follow that the perfectionist state is legitimate. It is important to weigh carefully the pros and cons of having the perfectionist state. The rest of this entry will examine some of the considerations.

Must Perfectionism Be Illiberal?

Perfectionism appears to conflict with personal autonomy. Critics of perfectionism can argue that if the state has authority to promote the good life, then it may prevent its subjects from pursuing ways of life it deems morally bad or worthless, as well as coerce them to live in ways that it deems valuable or noble. Yet, it should be made clear that to most contemporary perfectionists, the state should, on the grounds of personal autonomy, in most cases refrain from adopting coercive measures for promoting the good life (Chan, 2000, 15 n. 21; Hurka, 1993, pp. 147–160; Raz, 1986, pp. 418–419; Sher, 1997, chap. 3; Wall, 1998, pp. 133–135). Joseph Raz (1986) even holds the view that the state should promote personal autonomy by means of perfectionist policy-making. These views have drawn criticisms from antiperfectionists. For example, Jonathan Quong (2011) and Matthew Kramer (2017) have argued that perfectionist theories generally have illiberal implications. This part will briefly discuss their arguments.

Note first that perfectionists, in general, do not endorse a blanket rejection of coercive measures for state promotion of the good life, but they adopt a very cautious attitude toward these measures. In Raz’s view (1986), the pursuit of morally bad options is not endowed with value merely by being an autonomous choice and cannot be defended from coercive interference on such grounds (p. 418). Nevertheless, he believes that coercive interference usually violates the autonomy of those it affects, for two main reasons. First, coercive interference violates a person’s independence and expresses a relation of domination as well as an attitude of disrespect for them. To Raz, independence is a condition of autonomy; an autonomous person is not subject to the will of another, and one is a part author of one’s own world “only if one is not merely serving the will of another” (p. 155). Thus, coercion and manipulation generally violate a person’s independence and undermine a person’s autonomy. Second, state coercion by criminal penalties is “a global and indiscriminate invasion of autonomy” (p. 418). Imprisoning a person prevents this person from almost all autonomous pursuits. Other forms of coercion may not have the same impact on an individual, but they “all invade autonomy,” and, importantly, “there is no practical way of ensuring that the coercion will restrict the victims’ choice of morally bad options but will not interfere with their other choices” (pp. 418–419).

Raz is fully aware that his argument may not convince all liberal philosophers. “What if,” he asks, “it became possible to coerce people to avoid immoral but harmless conduct without restricting them in any other way” (1986, p. 419)? Yet, he thinks that this scenario diverges from “anything we have experience of sufficiently to make it impossible for us to say how the change would affect the merits of the issue” (p. 419). Thus he maintains that “it is an advantage of my argument that it does depend on contingent features of our world,” and that “the temptation to make abstract a priori principles yield concrete practical policies is responsible for many bad arguments” (p. 419).

Some critics still find Raz’s argument unpersuasive. Quong and Kramer have both pointed out that Raz, as a perfectionist, would have to agree that the state may, and even should, systematically coerce people to improve their decision-making if there were a practical way of ensuring that the coercion restricts a person’s choice of morally bad options without interfering with their other choices. More specifically, Quong (2011) has argued: “Suppose technological advances have made it possible to precisely control people’s preferences and impulses via a chip implanted in the brain,” and “so long as we are going to make valuable choices, the chip remains inactive,” but “if the chip senses we are going to make an unworthy choice, the chip prevents us from doing so” (p. 55). Quong explains: “[T]here is something wrong with preventing people from choosing badly, even when this can be done without limiting their ability to choose valuable options” (p. 55). So, “if an argument entails that one should be committed, if possible, to making the world a place where coercive paternalism toward adult citizens is both possible and morally desirable, that suffices to show that the argument in question is significantly illiberal” (p. 60).

Kramer (2017) endorses Quong’s criticism (p. 246). To Kramer, Raz’s perfectionism would permit mind-control technologies if technologies existed that could enhance rather than undermine personal autonomy (pp. 234–236, 246–248). Kramer thinks that unless Raz condemns such technologies, even if currently unavailable, he “lacks any principled commitment to the values of liberalism” (p. 247).

Nevertheless, it seems that Raz can be defended on at least two grounds. First, brain implants, or other potential forms of mind-control technology, are unusual forms of bodily invasion. For this reason, it would hard to morally justify their use without the consent of all citizens, which would, in all likelihood, be extremely difficult to obtain. Quong has suggested that Raz could modify his example by talking about a different kind of technology, such as “giant strobe lights” (2011, p. 55 n. 33), which can have the same mind-control effect as brain implants but do not involve a bodily invasion. Yet the use of giant strobe lights could be seen as being equally invasive—albeit in a different way—and, importantly, would probably require coercion to enforce: Those opposed to the technology might attempt to destroy or remove the relevant facilities, or at least try to escape the effects by hiding themselves or leaving their country. To ensure that citizens “benefit” from the technology, it is conceivable that the state would need to use coercive measures, such as the threat of imprisonment and similar. However, as mentioned, for Raz and many other perfectionists, coercive measures seriously violate personal autonomy and are generally undesirable.

Additionally, in making his illiberality charge, Quong has ignored Raz’s distinction between an “ideal liberal state” and a “nonideal state” (Raz, 1986). Briefly, in an ideal liberal state, people have “adequate rights of political participation.” An ideal state is guided by “a public morality expressing concern for individual autonomy,” whereas a nonideal state is one that lacks these features (pp. 156–157). As such, a perfectionist can point out that nonideal states should not use mind-control technologies or other highly intrusive measures because of the risk of abuse, and if what is in question is an ideal liberal state, then it must seek people’s consent before trying to adopt any of these measures.

Let us turn to consider other perfectionist measures, such as: (a) direct subsidies, e.g., subsidies to public sports facilities and public libraries; (b) indirect subsidies, e.g., subsidies to NGOs that promote artistic creation; and (c) “nudges”—i.e., policies or arrangements that seek to influence or incentivize people to make particular choices or perform particular actions. These measures do not appear to coerce or force people to live in any particular way, although normally they are supported by regular taxation, which is coercive. An antiperfectionist might argue that the state has no legitimate authority to coerce people to pay taxes for the making of perfectionist policies. But as the previous part (“The Authority of the Perfectionist State”) has already discussed issues concerning legitimate authority, we will not go into questions about the legitimacy of taxation here.

Nevertheless, antiperfectionists can argue that while those measures are not directly coercive, they are paternalistic and disrespectful since they deny or denigrate individual citizens’ abilities to pursue the good life by themselves (Lecce, 2008, pp. 122–123; Quong, 2011, pp. 84–107; Waldron, 1989, pp. 1145–1146). In response, perfectionists can maintain that even if every perfectionist policy is paternalistic and thus undesirable to some extent, it does not follow that perfectionism is morally unjustified, since the great benefits of perfectionist policies may outweigh the pro tanto wrongness of paternalism.

However, perfectionists would want to argue that many typical perfectionist policies are not even pro tanto wrong. Let us consider one such response, which concerns the importance of perfectionist policies for creating or shaping favorable social and natural environments for citizens to lead flourishing lives.4

Perfectionists can argue that many perfectionist policies such as public funding of art and of nature conservation do not have to aim at inducing citizens to love fine art, to embrace nature, etc. Rather, these policies are crucial for creating or shaping favorable social and natural environments for the whole citizenry, and the whole citizenry can benefit from these environments in all sorts of ways. After all, no person can escape the great influence of both their social and natural environments, and the quality of their environments can become better or worse in the sense that they always affect, positively or negatively, the level of well-being of individual citizens and the opportunities they have for living flourishing lives. So understood, perfectionist policy-making is crucial for creating or maintaining favorable social and natural environments for citizens to live well.5

Antiperfectionists might challenge: Why think that the state would do a better job of shaping the social and natural environments than would citizens themselves? Isn’t perfectionism, after all, based on the problematic assumption that citizens are not able to pursue the good life by themselves?

To reply, it might be useful to think about the preservation of monuments. Suppose that on the grounds of cultural value, historic monuments deserve protection and maintenance. Perfectionists, then, can argue that it is entirely appropriate for the state to craft long-term cultural policies for monument preservation, rather than letting citizens to decide on a case-by-case basis via some majoritarian, nonperfectionist procedure whether or not a particular historic monument should be preserved.6 The spontaneous efforts of individuals, while useful and reliable in some cases, can hardly provide adequate protection for every historic monument, given that monument preservation is very costly and time-consuming. Different cases of perfectionist policy-making will raise issues of different kinds, but the point about the vital importance of long-term cultural, environmental, and social policies for promoting the good life is applicable generally. There is little reason to think that the spontaneous efforts of individuals would always do a better job than the state of shaping the social and natural environments. Note that perfectionists can concede that in cases where individuals’ spontaneous efforts are sufficient for doing a particular task well, perfectionist state intervention would be unnecessary. However, these cases do not show that the state should ignore how the social and natural environments affect individual citizens’ well-being or that long-term perfectionist policies are unimportant.

Finally, antiperfectionists might claim that perfectionist policy-making necessarily involves officials’ imposition of their views of the good life on the whole citizenry. But why should that be the case? Ordinary citizens can certainly participate in the making of perfectionist policies through public discussions, the election of representatives, and even citizen-initiated referenda. Furthermore, different forms of collaboration can occur between citizens, officials, corporations, expert groups, and NGOs. In short, it is not clear that perfectionism must be paternalistic and disrespectful.

Reasonable Disagreement and Perfectionism

People have deep and pervasive disagreements about what constitutes the good life, many of which are sensible and reasonable. To explain how reasonable disagreements over a wide range of ethical, moral, religious, and political issues might come about, Rawls (2005) has appealed to what he calls the burdens of judgment. These burdens are “the many hazards involved in the correct (and conscientious) exercise of our powers of reason and judgment in the ordinary course of political life” (p. 56). To Rawls, there are at least six burdens of judgment: (a) the evidence bearing on the case is conflicting and complex; (b) even where we agree fully about the kinds of considerations that are relevant, we may disagree about their weight; (c) moral and political concepts are vague and subject to hard cases; (d) in complex modern societies, our total experience, which shapes how we assess evidence and weigh values, is likely to differ widely from person to person; (e) different kinds of normative considerations are involved on both sides of an issue, making overall assessment difficult; and (f) being forced to select among cherished values, we face great difficulty in setting priorities (pp. 56–57).

Many philosophers endorse Rawls’s account of reasonable disagreement, and, as a matter of fact, one sustaining antiperfectionist argument is based on this idea (Larmore, 1996; Nagel, 1987; Rawls, 2005). The argument goes something like the following:

P1: People can have reasonable disagreements about the good life.

P2: The state—state officials, judges, and even ordinary citizens—should give due respect to all citizens in public political discussions when the justification of the exercise of political power is at issue.

P3: The state is not permitted to appeal to any conception of the good life in public political discussions when the justification of the exercise of political power is at issue, at least when constitutional essentials or basic matters of justice are at stake. (By P1 and P2)

P4: Perfectionist policymaking normally appeals to some conception(s) of the good life.

C: The state is not permitted to make perfectionist policies, at least when constitutional essentials or basic matters of justice are at stake. (By P3 and P4)

This argument can be challenged in various ways. One can claim that if there can be reasonable disagreements about the good life, there can also be reasonable disagreements about social justice, but if this is the case, then why is the state permitted to make decisions about social justice but not about matters of the good life? (Caney, 1998; Chan, 2000; Fowler and Stemplowska, 2015) Chan (2000, pp. 24–25) considers that the antiperfectionist argument faces the following dilemma: Either citizens’ reasonable disagreements in politics are so deep that the state should refrain from making decisions about national defense and education, as well as about the good life; or there can be a higher-order reasonable agreement on the need for a unified state policy in the area in question, such as national defense and matters of the good life. The first horn of the dilemma is obviously unacceptable to antiperfectionists, unless they are anarchists of some sort in the first place. How about the second horn of the dilemma? That is, can there be a higher-order reasonable agreement on the need for a unified state policy in the area in question, such as national defense and matters of the good life?

Chan (2000) believes that there can be reasonable agreement on the need for the state to make policies that promote the good life. In addition, a perfectionist can argue that while reasonable disagreements can exist over Rawlsian comprehensive doctrines (Rawls, 2005, pp. 13, 175), there are many judgments about the good life that are convincing, widely shared among citizens, and, importantly, not tied to any specific comprehensive doctrine (Caney, 1998; Chan, 2000; Mang, 2013). So, a moderate perfectionist argues, the state may appeal to these moderate judgments about the good life in its public policy-making and legislation. Let us look more closely at moderate perfectionism.

Consider the following judgments about the good life: “deep personal relations contribute to a person’s good life”; “aesthetic experience contributes to a person’s good life”; and “courage constitutes the good life.” These value judgments, as compared to Rawls’s comprehensive doctrines, are piecemeal as they do not cover the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a systematic and coherent way. In addition, people living in contemporary liberal societies—who do not belong to any particular tradition or school of thought—seem to widely accept them. It is thus plausible to say that these judgments about the good life are freestanding from comprehensive doctrines. Call them moderate perfectionist judgments. Many moderate perfectionist judgments seem to be epistemically sound. For instance, it seems very difficult to deny that aesthetic experience contributes to a person’s good life. The same can be said about the values of deep personal relations, human understanding, courage, moral integrity, and so on.

Let us, then, distinguish between extreme perfectionism and moderate perfectionism. Extreme perfectionism calls for the state’s imposition of some comprehensive doctrine(s) on its people. In contrast, moderate perfectionism appeals to moderate perfectionist judgments that are convincing and widely shared by people who affirm different and conflicting comprehensive doctrines. In addition, for reasons of personal autonomy and effectiveness, moderate perfectionism favors noncoercive over coercive measures in promoting the good life.7

Some might argue that as far as a comprehensive doctrine is true, then it isn’t clear why the state should not seek to promote it for the good of citizens. As a matter of fact, some critics of the public justification principle, notably Raz (1998), have argued that in justifying the use of political power, what genuinely matters is the soundness of beliefs—such as the soundness of a conception of the good—but not the reasonable acceptability of beliefs. If they are correct, then it seems that the reasonable rejectibility of a comprehensive doctrine does not indicate that the state should refrain from promoting it.

To moderate perfectionists, however, the state’s pursuit of any comprehensive doctrine will easily damage civility. Civility is the attitude of fellow citizens toward each other that shows a concern for the common bond despite differing opinions or conflicts of interest (Chan, 2014, p. 201). Given the fact of moral diversity, civility requires citizens to care for each other’s sense of self-worth and to justify their views in a way that others can reasonably accept. Therefore, moderate perfectionism does not seek to impose any comprehensive doctrine on citizens (Chan, 2014, p. 204).8

The great importance of civility also helps to explain why officials and ordinary citizens may appeal to moderate perfectionist judgments in the process of political justification. Moderate perfectionist judgments are not tied to any particular comprehensive doctrine, and many of them are widely shared by people who affirm different comprehensive religious and moral doctrines. So, it is reasonable to think that in public political discussions officials and citizens can preserve civility, and need not cause hostility, in appealing to moderate perfectionist judgments.

Here, one might challenge: If civility is all that matters, then maybe all officials and citizens have to do in public political discussions is to appeal to those values, claims, and judgments (perfectionist or not) that are widely shared by the citizenry, regardless of their soundness or truth value. But if this is the case, then moderate perfectionists are more like politicians or pragmatists of some kind than philosophical perfectionists who are supposed to care about the intrinsic merits of the perfectionist judgments or conceptions of the good life that they consider important.

We think that moderate perfectionists should make it clear that the soundness of perfectionist judgments certainly matters; for example, in the process of public policy-making, officials would indeed fail to respect citizens as rational, moral beings if they appeal to widely shared yet false views.9 To moderate perfectionists, both the soundness and wide acceptability of perfectionist judgments are important, because both respect for persons and civility are essential for political morality.

Let us discuss some of the comments on moderate perfectionism. Steven Wall (2014) considers that comprehensive theories of political morality need not be rigid, uncivil, hostile to compromise, and averse to pluralism. In his view, one can present (for example) comprehensive Confucianism in a favorable light as a comprehensive perfectionist doctrine that takes seriously the value of civility and refrains from pursuing the whole truth and the attendant uncivil policies. And if that is the case, then there may be no significant difference between comprehensive and moderate perfectionism at the end of the theoretical day, since comprehensive perfectionism can explain why civility matters and why it is generally inappropriate for the perfectionist state to appeal to the whole truth in its public policy-making.

In response, moderate perfectionists can point out that there is one important difference between comprehensive and moderate perfectionism, which is that while comprehensive perfectionism is based on some comprehensive political morality, moderate perfectionism need not be based on any such theory. A comprehensive political morality (CPM) can be understood as a theory that addresses a broad range of fundamental moral, epistemological, and metaphysical issues, and thereby indicates what kinds of politics and public policies are morally desirable. For instance, Ronald Dworkin’s theory of justice in Justice for Hedgehogs (Dworkin, 2011) is a CPM. Note that a CPM can be perfectionist or antiperfectionist in its policy recommendations. Dworkin’s theory is largely antiperfectionist in its policy recommendations. By contrast, Aristotle’s theory of politics is obviously perfectionist in both its justifications and policy recommendations.

Moderate perfectionists can also compare moderate perfectionism with what can be called nonmoderate comprehensive perfectionism. Any nonmoderate comprehensive perfectionism is a CPM; additionally, a nonmoderate doctrine of comprehensive perfectionism typically claims that even if it is highly controversial among citizens, it should be enforced by the state. As such, many premodern political doctrines can be properly regarded as nonmoderate comprehensive perfectionisms.

Pulling this together, moderate perfectionists can explain more clearly how moderate perfectionism differs from comprehensive perfectionism. First of all, unlike comprehensive perfectionism, moderate perfectionism is not based on any particular CPM. In addition, moderate perfectionism is antithetical to nonmoderate comprehensive perfectionism, since moderate perfectionism, on the grounds of civility and of the effectiveness of the promotion of the good life, does not seek to enforce any CPM within a political community.

Here, one might challenge: Shouldn’t moderate perfectionism rest on some CPM in order to be justified? Think about the value of civility. Moderate perfectionists emphasize the importance of civility. It appears that if moderate perfectionists are to provide a complete philosophical justification for civility, they must also appeal to some CPM (say, an Aristotelian ethical theory).

In response, moderate perfectionists can clarify that they refrain from pursuing a complete philosophical justification for the value of civility (and for moderate perfectionist judgments).10 For as long as there are sufficient freestanding reasons—reasons that are not tied to any particular CPM or comprehensive doctrine—that show that civility is vital to politics and to public political discussions, it would be unnecessary for moderate perfectionists, as well as citizens, to provide a full justification for civility by addressing a wide range of fundamental questions in ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.

Furthermore, as said, civility requires citizens to care for each other’s sense of self-worth and to justify their political stances in a way that others can reasonably accept. While this view appears to be similar to Rawls’s political liberalism (which also requires citizens to justify their views in terms that fellow citizens might reasonably accept), moderate perfectionists, unlike political liberals, need not draw a sharp distinction between views that are in a specific sense (or in Rawls’s sense) reasonable and those that are in a specific sense unreasonable. To explain this point more clearly, let us briefly discuss Collis Tahzib’s (2019) argument about political perfectionism.

Tahzib largely agrees with the general moderate perfectionist approach adopted by Caney, Chan, and Mang—in particular, the idea that state perfectionism does not have to be based on any particular comprehensive doctrine. Yet, Tahzib considers that moderate perfectionists could respond more effectively to the challenge from political liberals, who are generally antiperfectionists, by arguing that many perfectionist judgments related to moral, intellectual, and artistic excellence cannot be reasonably rejected. In other words, he believes that moderate perfectionism can in some way fit into the broad framework of political liberalism—and hence, becomes political perfectionism. To this end, he proposes what might be called the perfectionist idealization of citizens: Just as one can see freedom, fairness, and equality as core liberal axioms in Rawls’s political liberalism, one can see moral, intellectual, and artistic excellence as perfectionist axioms—which citizens must endorse in order to be regarded as reasonable (Tahzib, 2019, pp. 166–167). So, perfectionist policies such as state subsidies for art galleries would be “expected to pass the test of public justification,” because “a person who rejects the intrinsic value of artistic excellence would count as unreasonable” (Tahzib, 2019, p. 167). And the same, Tahzib thinks, can be said for many other perfectionist policies.

Indeed, moderate perfectionists have used the “reasonable” concept in various ways to talk about the epistemic reasonableness of citizens as well as the epistemic soundness of perfectionist views (Caney, 1998; Chan, 2000; Mang, 2013). Nevertheless, they have not idealized citizens such that citizens must accept certain perfectionist views in order to be regarded as reasonable. The perfectionist idealization of citizens may run the risk of making a circular argument—namely, should only those who endorse certain perfectionist views be regarded as reasonable? Moderate perfectionists may say that perfectionists, after all, must provide some philosophical justification for perfectionist judgments about moral, intellectual, and artistic excellence; it may not be useful to stipulate that all reasonable citizens endorse these perfectionist judgments.11

As a matter of fact, Tahzib has given some justification for the value of artistic, moral, and intellectual excellence (Tahzib, 2019, pp. 169–70). The question for moderate perfectionists, then, would be the following: Are all perfectionist judgments regarding artistic, moral, and intellectual excellence highly controversial to the degree that citizens’ appeals to them in public political discussions must damage civility? Moderate perfectionists would answer in the negative. As argued, citizens, as well as officials, can preserve civility in appealing to judgments about the good life that are moderate and noncomprehensive.

In short, as a response to the “reasonable disagreement” argument by antiperfectionists, moderate perfectionism seems to have good prospects. But this version of perfectionism is still open to criticism.12

Perfectionist Politics and Policies

This entry has already examined a few major critiques of perfectionism and explored possible responses. Both the critiques and responses are pitched at a somewhat abstract level, leaving many practical issues unexplored. So, this part will discuss perfectionist politics and policies. On perfectionist policies, the state’s support for art, culture, and work will be discussed. On perfectionist politics, issues about policy-making processes and mechanisms will be briefly explored.

There seems no shortage of policies to illustrate the practical implications of perfectionism. Richard Kraut has argued that liberal democratic governments have implemented many policies supporting art and culture and liberal education in schools, policies securing freedom and autonomous ways of life, policies providing tax breaks for churches and religious organizations, and so forth, and the best explanation for these policies is a straightforward perfectionist one. Consider, for example, governments’ use of tax money to support classes in drama, music, and literature in public schools at all levels, from primary schools to state universities. The underlying assumption of such support, Kraut argues, is that “it is good to develop a love of these subjects . . . The state endorses this conception of a good life by approving and funding the curriculum of public schools” (Kraut, 1999, p. 323). Liberal teachers are expected by schools to instill appreciation and love of these subjects in their students, and good teachers are precisely those who succeed in doing so.

Similarly, Kwame Anthony Appiah has claimed that liberal college education serves “as a source of enrichment for people in their private lives,” “for the whole of life,” as well as a preparation for work and civic responsibility (Appiah, 2021, p. 7, 19). “Playing and listening to music, reading literature, writing and reciting poetry, painting, sculpting, visiting art museums, learning history and social science, even following the sciences of their day . . . is what Mill meant when he talked about individual development” (Appiah, 2021, p. 5). Liberal education is thus best explained and justified by (a) the idea of human flourishing, which holds that the good life consists of the development of human capabilities and sensibilities, including aesthetic and intellectual ones, as well as (b) the fact that appreciation and enjoyment of the arts contribute to a person’s good life. Liberal education “does not provide all-purpose means that will be used regardless of the kind of life students later choose as adults; rather, it encourages the development of certain ends” (Kraut, 1999, p. 323, italics added).

In view of these time-honored government policies enabling citizens to pursue the good life, the onus of proof seems to lie less on the perfectionists than on the antiperfectionists. Antiperfectionists have to show either that these policies can be justified in a way consistent with the neutrality constraint and therefore are not perfectionist, or that these policies have to be rejected (as explored in previous sections). Ronald Dworkin has made an influential argument that state promotion of the arts can be justified without violating the neutrality constraint. He invites us to consider the arts as a public good that enriches the cultural structure of a society and enlarges its cultural options for everyone. The arts, Dworkin argues, provides complex, innovative forms of aesthetic tools and values that ultimately benefit every level of culture and everyone living under that culture. However, these higher forms of culture may not survive or flourish in a free cultural marketplace, thus the need for government support for the arts (Dworkin, 1985).

Several challenges can be raised against this argument. First, the argument lacks sufficient empirical determinacy to demonstrate that higher, innovative forms of arts can benefit every level of culture. This is especially true in the case of the avant-garde: its benefits to culture simply cannot be predicted (Brighouse, 1995, pp. 52–55). Second, one may ask, why “can’t almost anything, fine arts or otherwise, add to the ‘structural richness’ of the culture” (Nathan, 1994, p. 143). From a neutralist point of view, it seems that “structural richness” should be understood in a value-neutral way. But if so, then why should fine arts be privileged for government support, while vulgar or gross games, movies or other forms of expression that are in short supply in the market should not? Don’t the latter also add to the structural richness of a culture by extending the culture’s range of possibilities as understood in a value-neutral way? Third, and most important, perfectionists can argue that the richness of a culture depends not just on the sheer number of options but on their quality (Nathan, 1994, p. 149). In selecting forms of arts for support, a responsible government should select those that are valuable rather than those that are worthless or degrading.

Perfectionism has distinctive implications in some other policy areas, too. Consider the case of work. Work in modern society has a central role in our lives; for most people, it is not only a source of income, but also a source of meaningful relationships and of identity and significance (Appiah, 2021). Since meaningful work makes important contributions to people’s good lives, perfectionism supports public policies and practices that enhance the quality and meaningfulness of work.

To be sure, many liberal antiperfectionists are also concerned about work, but they focus their attention on distributive justice and equality. They think that exploitation, domination, and coercion in the workplace should be condemned. Yet, as long as distributive justice and equality are fully realized, they would claim that the government should respect people’s occupational choices, and that the state should not take sides on what constitutes meaningful jobs.

From the perspective of perfectionism, however, we have compelling reason to care about the quality of work, over and above concerns about justice or equality. James Murphy (1993) has argued that the “government should be concerned with the distribution of meaningful work . . . simply because meaningful work is so fundamental to human happiness and well-being” (p. 288). If mind-numbing labor is bad, then the government should ensure that fewer and fewer jobs fall into that category, and if such jobs are inevitable, then job rotation and compensation policies should be made available to workers. In addition, because family life is essential to human happiness, the government should make policies discouraging long work hours.

Admittedly, it is not easy to propose, let alone implement, work-related policies, for they are complex matters requiring the balancing of many factors. What perfectionists maintain is merely that people’s quality of life is one important factor among others. Just as any land development project requires an environmental impact assessment, any major work-related public policy should require a well-being impact assessment. “How does work fit into making a good life, advance eudaimonia, help humans flourish” (Appiah, 2021, p. 10)? This kind of assessment is an ethical one, and not free from controversies. But it need not, and should not, be treated as an exercise of pure speculative philosophy; as Appiah argues, it is a necessarily historical inquiry, requiring us to “draw on our own social experience and on reports—in history, sociology, anthropology, and imaginative literature—of the experience of others” (p. 10).

Perfectionists can even go one step further: A perfectionist kind of policy assessment is not only desirable but also unavoidable. As far as the government provides a legal foundation for a social or economic system, the government cannot simply focus on justice and efficiency and pay no attention to how the system influences people’s living standards and even their life prospects. If the government chooses to ignore that completely, it demonstrates that the government holds the view, implicitly or explicitly, that the question about the good life is not as important as efficiency and justice. Such a view, however, is a specific value judgment, and it is worth noting that “state neutrality”, in this sense, usually opts for ways of life favored by the prevailing social or economic system, rather than contributing to fair opportunities for human flourishing (Chan, 2000, pp. 38–41).

Perfectionist politics, like its policies, is nothing mysterious. Other things being equal, it seems better for the state to delegate its policy-making powers with regard to support for the good life to arms-length committees consisting largely of experts and group representatives and a few ex-officials. These committees should conduct their businesses as transparently as possible. Quality deliberation and democratic participation are essential to the legitimacy of the decision-making process and its outcomes. To ensure more procedural fairness, the representatives of groups can be chosen by democratic election within those groups. Further, the members of these committees may change from time to time, say every three years, so that each interest group or opinion group may have a fair chance to influence the decision-making process over time.

Such a portrait of the perfectionist policy-making process gives us grounds to believe that reasonable views about the good life would have a fair chance to be heard and supported by state funding in the long run. This expected long-term outcome, together with its deliberative democratic process, lends support to the view that perfectionist politics can be a legitimate one. No doubt mistakes could be made about the good life under this approach, and minor injustices could occur around decision-making and implementation. But this is true of all human institutions and processes, and, in a decent democracy, these problems will have a chance to be exposed and corrected over time. It seems, therefore, against the spirit of civility to disallow the making of perfectionist policies simply on the grounds of institutional imperfections. It also seems irrational to do so, for the consequence would be that people lose many opportunities to experience worthwhile ways of life and valuable goods.


The writing of this entry was funded by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (Project number: 21614021). We also thank the editors of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics and anonymous referees for their incisive comments and patient guidance.


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  • 1. A conception of the good life can be defined as a more or less systematic view of what constitutes a good life and how it pertains to a person’s well-being, virtue, quality of life, and so on.

  • 2. See the recent symposium on Kramer’s Liberalism with Excellence with his replies to critics in the American Journal of Jurisprudence, 63 (2018). We must also await Kramer’s announced work-in-progress sequel, A Stoical Theory of Justice (see his remark in Kramer, 2018, p. 173), for a better understanding of aspirational perfectionism.

  • 3. The following discussion draws upon Chan (2012).

  • 4. See Wall (2021) for more responses to the paternalism charge from the perfectionist perspective. Additionally, see Tahzib (2022, chap. 9) for an up-to-date discussion of the paternalism charge.

  • 5. If this is the case, then there may even be a moral duty for each citizen to support the creation and maintenance of favorable social and natural environments for the whole citizenry.

  • 6. Quong (2011, pp. 93–94) has proposed this kind of procedure for determining whether or not a particular historic monument should be preserved.

  • 7. Moderate perfectionism has other moderate aspects, e.g., it adopts a multicentered approach to the promotion of the good life, recognizing that voluntary associations in many cases can take the primary role in promoting valuable goods (Chan, 2000, pp. 15–16).

  • 8. The idea of civility being discussed here differs from Rawls’s duty of civility. To Rawls, all citizens living in liberal democracies are under a moral duty of civility to explain to their fellow citizens how the political stances that “they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason” (Rawls, 2005, p. 217). The political values of public reason, in Rawls’s view, are not perfectionist values, and citizens are not expected to accept any perfectionist value in the process of political justification.

  • 9. For relevant discussion, see Raz (1998, pp. 40–43).

  • 10. For related discussion, see Mang (2021, pp. 9–11).

  • 11. We cannot examine political perfectionism further here. For more details about political perfectionism, see Tahzib (2022, chap. 7).

  • 12. For other criticisms of moderate perfectionism, see, e.g., Billingham (2017), Kugelberg (2022), and Li (2020).