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The Impossibility of Perfection by Michael Slote

Stephen Anderson asks Michael Slote if you really must be perfect to be moral.

Virtue ethics is arguably the hottest current trend in ethics, especially in North America. It holds that the best approach to take to ethics is to cultivate virtues and virtuous behavior (as opposed for instance to trying decide in every case what action creates the most benefit). Its popularity is partly due to the rise in the perceived need for public morality and moral education, partly a product of the interminable nature of the disputes between the two traditional major ethical oppositions of deontology and consequentialism, and partly the failure of various forms of popular pragmatism to yield clear ethical points of reference for things like education, technology, medicine, law and public policy. In the wake of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1984 After Virtue, virtue ethics emerged as a seemingly new option. Yet virtue ethics is not new: it hails all the way back to Aristotle. It only seems new because it has been off the table for so long.

Anyway, it’s back on the menu. A recent contribution to its revival is Michael Slote’s The Impossibility of Perfection (2011). Slote is a Professor of Ethics at the University of Miami. A self-proclaimed feminist, his recent work has been primarily in the virtue ethics subfield called ‘care ethics’. Care ethicists claim a primary place for the value of interpersonal caring in their ethical judgments, and tend to view things like analytical philosophy, formal logic, and even reason itself as unfortunately masculine or patriarchial. Slote himself claims ‘moral sentimentalism’ as his preferred epistemological strategy, meaning that he relies on his moral feelings too.

The point of The Impossibility of Perfection is to debunk a particular ‘patriarchial’ notion – the idea that perfect moral standards are necessary. Slote wants to disabuse virtue ethics in particular of what he sees as an unfortunate dependence on moral perfectionism. Slote claims that Aristotle’s ethics requires all the virtues to be had by a particular moral agent in their full perfection. But, Slote says, certain virtues cannot be had in perfect measure, since their increase always involves a loss with regard to some opposite thing that we also regard highly as a virtue (he gives the examples ‘tact/frankness’, ‘prudence/adventurousness’, and ‘sexual pleasure/commitment’). He concludes that this shows that such virtues are inevitably ‘dependent’ and only ‘partial’, not perfect virtues. Consequently, our idea of what a virtue is has to become more modest and balanced, at least in the particular cases he points out, and presumably in others as well. Slote believes that by showing the necessary imperfections of various virtues, and the impossibility of having them all at once, he can eliminate moral philosophy’s unfortunate tendency to be oriented only to perfectionist standards, and can thus create space for a more balanced, realistic set of virtues.

An Imperfect Book

The author has some useful things to say about virtue ethics, but most of them pertain to the kind of discussion that goes on only amongst virtue ethicists. His chapter outlining current matters of controversy among care ethicists provides an interesting introduction for outsiders, but most of the time it is unclear whether there are any particular persons or ethical views to which Slote’s critiques are well-targeted. Who is it, we wonder, who actually holds to the sort of view Slote is decrying here?

At first, it might seem to be neo-Aristotelian care ethicists in particular. He implies that; but I’m not sure he has them properly lined up in his sights, and they might not recognize themselves in his characterization of them. In at least three respects they could accuse him of having misunderstood them, or of having failed to present a full-blooded portrait of their views. First, Slote says nothing at all about how Aristotle’s concept of ‘The Golden Mean’ in personal behavior relates to his own virtue pairings such as tact/frankness, and any Aristotelian would expect something on that. Second, while he says a few things about ‘prudence’ as a virtue, he says nothing at all about the core virtue of phronesis or ‘wise [moral] judgment’, which is the key mediating capacity in Aristotelian ethics. Third, and perhaps most important, is Slote’s indictment of perfectionism as not leading to happiness. Slote appears to understand eudaimonia (Aristotle’s word for happiness) along the lines of ‘pleasure’. But Aristotle understood it as long-term ‘blessedness’ or ‘ultimate well-being’ – the sort of thing which could only be had over “a complete life[time].” (Nichomachian Ethics 1:7) Aristotle knew that temporary setbacks in happiness, and collisions among the virtues, were inevitable, and set out some ways to deal with that. So virtue ethics proponents could accuse Slote of having underrepresented Aristotle.

Whoever the moral perfectionists really are, we never really get a clear look at them. In fact, the book doesn’t bring its key term, ‘perfectionism’, into precise focus at all. ‘Perfect’ can mean ‘utterly flawless’; and this is how Slote seems to understand it. But it can also mean ‘complete’ or ‘completed’, and in such cases, perfection even presupposes an earlier state of incompleteness (as when one has perfected a skill). Or it can mean ‘situational perfection’ – in which a thing is said to be perfect for a particular purpose or context, but not necessarily for all purposes (as when one says, “These shoes are perfect”). Slote only understands the word as meaning ‘absolutely without defect’, and he then goes on to show that such perfection is impossible. But this seems a very obvious point to make at such great length. Really, it’s not a point that many ‘perfectionist’ ethicists might bother to debate.

Impossibly Valuable

Slote denigrates this undefined perfectionism most particularly on the basis that its standards are absolutely unattainable in practice. He seems to hold that unattainable standards are useless, especially because human beings invariably fail to live up to them. Yet their uselessness does not follow logically at all. In spite of the world’s imperfection – or even more strongly, because of it – a perfect standard is precisely the kind of reference point we may need, in the same way that ancient navigators realized that following the North Star was terribly useful, even though none of them held the faintest hope of reaching it. And if it is true that we always fall short of our ideals, then surely we shall fall short even if we embrace lower ideals. So ethical perfectionism may still have its use. In any case, there’s no straight line between unattainability and uselessness, at least in regard to moral ideals.

Those who already buy in to moral perfectionism, and those who are interested in it from the outside, will find Slote’s chapter on the current flaws and fault-lines in that position useful and interesting. On the other hand, neo-Aristotelians and other proponents of more nuanced perfectionist views will be annoyed by what they will doubtless see as oversights and misrepresentations of their position. Some readers will also chafe at the author’s continual negative association of perfectionism with things male or patriarchial, and his association of things like caring, intuition, and moral sentimentalism with feminism.

Overall, this book could have benefitted from closer and more charitable attention to the views the author is seeking to critique, as one ought to defeat one’s opponent’s argument in its best, not in its weakest or most confused form. In the absence of that, the book may only give answers to questions that no one in the debate is really asking.

© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2013

Stephen Anderson is a philosophy teacher in London, Ontario.

The Impossibility of Perfection: Aristotle, Feminism, and the Complexities of Ethics, by Michael Slote, OUP USA, 2011, $45 hb, 184pp.

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