Perfectionism

Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) presents the broad outlines of a moral theory that goes by the name "perfectionism." The cornerstone of this theory has a high degree of initial plausibility. Justice, it is claimed, consists in giving to individuals what they are due, and those individuals whose character is morally better (more "perfect") than the character of others prima facie deserve more of what is good in life than do other, less good people. Aristotle's accounts of what makes people morally better and of "the good of man" have helped shape much of Western moral theory. Concerning the latter first, Aristotle accepts the commonplace notion that the good we humans seek is happiness, but he argues that the true happiness we seek is not wealth, fame, or even pleasure in abundance but, rather, the possession and exercise of those virtues (those "excellences") that are uniquely human. Thus happiness, in his view, is characterized as "an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue." Those are happiest who optimally express their humanity in how they live and, in doing so, take pleasure in being the human beings they are.

As for the moral virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and temperance), Aristotle characterizes each as a mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. A courageous person, for example, is neither foolhardy (an excess) nor cowardly (a deficiency); a courageous person has the right mix of the willingness to take risks and the fear of doing so. Among the intellectual virtues, a detached, contemplative wisdom, wherein one knows eternal truths and in this way shares in that knowledge possessed by the gods, is the highest. In the case of both the moral and the intellectual virtues, finally, the human capacity to reason plays a decisive role. For man is, in Aristotle's view, unique in being "a rational animal," and "the good of man" consists in actualizing, to the fullest extent possible, those unique potentialities that define what it is to be human. Thus, since those are happiest who optimally express their humanity in how they live, those are happiest who exercise their reason optimally.

Because it prescribes the distribution of what is good in life on the basis of one's possessing the favored virtues and, thus, on the basis of degrees of human perfection, perfectionism can—and in Aristotle's hands, does—sanction or require radically inegalitarian treatment of different individuals. In the case of nonhuman animals in particular, perfectionism provides no direct protection. Despite his teaching, in sharp contrast to Descartes's, that these animals share many of the same psychological capacities possessed by humans—including, for example, sensation and desire— Aristotle confidently denies that they share the capacity to reason. Moreover, because in his view the "lesser" exists to serve the interests or purposes of the "greater," Aristotle maintains that nonhuman animals exist for the purpose of advancing the good of human beings. He writes: "Other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments" (Aristotle, "Animals and Slavery," in Regan and Singer, 1976, p. 110; 1989, p. 5). There is no implication here that Aristotle's teachings permit the wanton infliction of pain on nonhuman animals for no good reason. What is clear is that because he recognizes no greater purpose for nonhuman animals than to serve the interests of human beings, Aristotle can recognize only indirect duties in their case. Finally, while many of today's more controversial practices involving human utilization of nonhuman animals, such as factory farming and animal-to-human organ transplants, were unknown in his day, all the available evidence seems to indicate that Aristotle was well disposed to the status quo with respect to the relevant practices current while he was alive.

It is not only nonhuman animals, however, that exist for the sake of those who are more perfect. In general, women do not measure up to Aristotle's standards of "the good of man." "The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior," he writes, "and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind" (ibid.). Moreover, some humans, whether male or female, lack the ability to grasp through reason those truths understood by the more virtuous among us; of such individuals Aristotle writes that they are "slave[s] by nature" (ibid.). And so it is that Aristotle affirms the obvious parallel, given the form perfectionism takes in his hands, between the moral status of human slaves and nonhuman animals: "The use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life" (ibid.). Those humans who, because of their superior rationality, are morally more perfect are entitled to make use of those, whether human or not, who lack the virtues defining human perfection.

Few today will publicly embrace Aristotle's perfectionism. Not only does his view of women offend the emancipated gender egalitarianism of our time, but the comfortable elitism and classism that enable him to pronounce some humans "slaves by nature" will find no home among the most basic precepts of contemporary moral, political, and legal thought. The practical implications for humans of the fundamental principle of Aristotelian perfectionism—that those who are lacking in reason exist to serve the interests of those who are most virtuous—is morally offensive. It is one thing to affirm that those people who are more perfect than others prima facie deserve more of what is good in life; it is quite another to maintain that those who are less perfected exist for the sole purpose of ministering to the more virtuous. Moreover, since we cannot rationally defend the exploitation of some humans on the grounds that "by nature" they lack the potential to acquire the virtues possessed by those who exploit them, we cannot rationally defend human exploitation of nonhuman animals by offering an analogous defense—cannot, that is, rationally defend such exploitation by claiming that nonhuman animals "by nature" lack the potential to acquire uniquely human virtues.

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