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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2014

Douglas J. Den Uyl
Educational Programs, Liberty Fund, Philosophy, St. John's University
Douglas B. Rasmussen
Educational Programs, Liberty Fund, Philosophy, St. John's University


This essay asks whether what is good for someone is distinct from her self-perfection, and whether it makes sense to understand either her good or her self-perfection in terms of the other. The essay adopts a traditional naturalistic understanding of perfection. It argues, however, that the conception of human nature that underlies the perfectionist view must be more individualistic than it is often taken to be. It goes on to distinguish individuative from generic features of human nature; because the account includes both types of characteristics, the concluding vision of human nature, and hence human perfection, is deeply individualized. What is good for an individual is linked to the exercise of her nature rather than to desires individuals simply happen to have.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2013 

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We would like to thank the other contributors to this volume for their helpful comments and questions as well as the editors of this journal for their assistance. Special thanks go to an anonymous reviewer and especially to Daniel C. Russell for his careful and constructive commentary on our work. Of course, the usual caveats apply.


1 Norton, David L., Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 13Google Scholar.

2 See these excellent works: Haybron, Daniel M., The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; McDowell, John, “Two Sorts of Ethical Naturalism” in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, ed. Hurshouse, Rosalind, Lawrence, Gavin, and Quinn, Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1995), 149–79Google Scholar; LeBar, Mark, “Aristotelian Constructivism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 25, no. 1 (2008): 182214CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Russell, Daniel C., Happiness For Humans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Despite their differences, they all seem to want in various ways to have the notions of well-being or human flourishing wear the trousers when it comes to understanding self-perfection and not the other way round, as we will argue.

3 See Rasmussen, Douglas B., “Perfectionism,” in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, ed. Chadwick, Ruth (San Diego: Academic Press, 2012) 2d ed., vol. 3: 395403. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-373932-2.00213-1CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Some sentences in this paragraph are taken from this entry.

4 See Daniel C. Russell, Happiness for Humans, 36–64; and Russell, Daniel C. and LeBar, Mark, “Well-Being and Eudaimonia: A Reply to Haybron” in Aristotelian Ethics in Contemporary Perspective, ed. Peters, Julia (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 5268Google Scholar.

5 Human good is always and necessarily good for some individual or other. See discussion of the individualized and “agent-relative” character of human flourishing in Rasmussen, Douglas B. and Den Uyl, Douglas J., Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics [hereafter NOL] (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 132–38Google Scholar.

6 We are thinking here of such basic (sometimes called “generic”) goods as, for example, knowledge, health, friendship, pleasure and such virtues as integrity, temperance, courage, and justice. We take these examples from Aristotle's Rhetoric, bk. 1, chap. 6, 1362b10-28 (trans. Roberts, W. Rhys) in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. McKeon, Richard (New York: Random House, 1968), 1344Google Scholar. But there have been other similar lists from Aquinas to John Rawls to John Finnis. We do not assume that such a list is exhaustive or immune to revision. Further, these goods are best understood as activities that are constituents or expressions of the overall human good or ways of living known as human flourishing. See Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, NOL, 129–32; Den Uyl, Douglas J., “Prudence and the Individual,” in The Virtue of Prudence (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), chap. 8, pp. 187223Google Scholar; and Rasmussen, Douglas B., “Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature,” Social Philosophy and Policy 16, no. 1 (1999): 143CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 See Glassen, P., “A Fallacy in Aristotle's Function Argument about the Good,” Philosophical Quarterly 7, no. 29 (1957): 319–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sumner, L. W., Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 7879Google Scholar; Hardcastle, Valerie Gray, “On the Normativity of Functions” in Functions: New Essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology, ed. Ariew, André, Cummins, Robert, and Perlman, Mark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 143–56Google Scholar; and Daniel M. Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, 155–75. This problem also may go as far back as Sidgwick, see Brewer, Talbot, The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 194ff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Glassen, “A Fallacy in Aristotle's Function Argument,” 320.

9 Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, 174–75.

10 Daniel C. Russell, Happiness for Humans, 47. Russell is summarizing Haybron here in this statement of the problem. But he too sees this problem as real or legitimate when perfectionism is understood as Haybron describes it. Russell calls Haybron's account of perfectionism: “‘Perfectionism’ (with a capital P).” (Ibid., 46; see below.)

11 For other discussions of this distinction, or more generally the distinction between “good” and “good for,” see Brewer, Talbot, The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), “Against Modern Dualism about the Good,” chap. 6, pp. 192235CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ronow-Rasmussen, Toni, “Mo(o)re Objections,” in Personal Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), chap. 7, pp. 95108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Foot, Philippa, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. She also states: “‘Natural’ goodness, as I define it, which is attributable only to living things themselves and to their parts, characteristics, and operations, is intrinsic or “autonomous” goodness in that it depends directly on the relation of an individual to the “life-form” of its species” (ibid., 26–27). However, Foot is not concerned with “the good of a species, as if a species were itself a gradually developing, one-off organism, whose life might stretch for millions of years,” but rather she is concerned with the goodness that can be attributed to individual living things (as well as to their parts, characteristics, and operations) “that belong to a species at a certain time” (ibid., 32 n. 10). Also, Rand, Aynnotes that “it is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action.”The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964), 17Google Scholar.

13 Some of what is presented in this section is adapted from Rasmussen and Den Uyl, NOL, 153–58.

14 See in this connection Kenny, Anthony, The Metaphysics of Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 134Google Scholar.

15 Aquinas, , Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Two: , trans. Anderson, James F. (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), chap. 75, p. 234Google Scholar.

16 See Aquinas, , On Being and Essence, 2d ed. rev., trans. Mauer, Armand (Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968), 42–43 and 47Google Scholar. See also translator's note 15, p. 39.

17 Veatch, Henry B., “Ethical Egoism New Style: Should Its Trademark Be Aristotelian or Libertarian?” in Swimming Against the Current in Contemporary Philosophy (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 194Google Scholar.

18 Let us say that values, reasons, and rankings, V1, for a person, P1, are individualized, and further let us say the same holds true, respectively, for values, reasons, and rankings V2-Vn for persons P2-Pn. Conduct based on such individualized values, reasons, and rankings can be universalized as follows: if V1 provides a basis for P1 to act, so does V2 provide a basis for P2 to act as well as Vn for Pn. One cannot claim that V1 provides P1 with a legitimate reason to act without acknowledging that V2 provides P2 with a legitimate reason to act, and so on. See note 5.

19 Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, 169.

21 Ibid. It might be suggested that Haybron's point could be made another way: the type of well-being that one finds in performance value is not the type of well-being that one finds in success value. This point is fine so far as it goes, but we choose not to frame the issue in these terms, because we are dubious of how far one can really get with some intuitive understanding of well-being or human flourishing. Our concern is more basic—namely, we are interested in what shapes our understanding of well-being or human flourishing in the first place.

23 Ibid, 177–79.

24 Ibid, 178.

25 Ibid. 193.

26 We take this to be the basic point of Russell's excellent argument in his use of the “Crumb” example in chapter two of Happiness for Humans, op cit.

27 Berlin, Isaiah, “The Pursuit of the Ideal” and “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in History of Ideas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 11 and 80Google Scholar respectively.

28 Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, 161–62.

29 Ibid., 162–63.

30 Ibid., 162.

31 Ibid., 163.

32 See note 16.

33 Veatch, Henry B., Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003), 40Google Scholar.

34 Wilkes, Kathryn V., “The Good Man and the Good For Man,” Mind 87 (1978): 568Google Scholar.

35 Rasmussen and Den Uyl, NOL, 144.

36 See Rasmussen and Den Uyl, NOL, 143–52 and The Virtue of Prudence, 187–223.

37 See note 6.

38 See note 10.

39 Russell, Happiness for Humans, 46–47

40 Ibid., 42.

41 John McDowell, “Two Sorts of Ethical Naturalism,” 149–79.

42 Russell, Happiness for Humans, 43.

43 It might be objected that this move is too quick. One may have the capacity to ride a unicycle, for instance: if one tried, one could learn to do it. Yet, does one have a reason to exercise that capacity? Maybe—but if one does, it is not in virtue of the sheer logical structure of that capacity. That is to say, it is true that one can understand one's capacity only in terms of a certain kind of exercise of it, but one can still ask whether focusing on developing that capacity is a very good way of working toward one's well-being. But this objection misses the point and ignores the teleological context of this discussion. We are talking about certain kinds of capacities here—namely, generic human dispositions. Riding a unicycle is not one of them. Generic human dispositions are capacities that define the life-form of the being in question. As such they are inherently reason giving because they are part of what defines valuable for that kind of thing. Pleasure and maintaining one's balance might be such generic human capacities; riding a unicycle is not, though it may be a function of these other two.

44 Russell, Happiness for Humans, 43.

45 It should be noted that we take normative judgments to be more “open-ended” than might suit some moral theories. That is, for us the training in reflecting upon choices, the development of virtues, and the assessment of circumstances disinclines us to suppose that there must always be a “right answer” or particularized rule that should define the solution to any given ethical situation and that it is the philosopher's job to find such “answers.”

46 Russell, Happiness for Humans, 44.

47 As our discussion of Angela revealed, our view of perfectionism rejects the idea that developing talents is ipso facto the same thing as self-perfection and that such perfection can develop apart from the life of practical wisdom.

48 For a defense of the claim that individual beings have a nature and can be classified in terms of natural kinds, see Oderberg, David S., Real Essentialism (New York and London: Routledge, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially chap. 9, “Species, Biological and Metaphysical,” 201–40. See also, Rasmussen, Douglas B., “Quine and Aristotelian EssentialismThe New Scholasticism 58 (1984): 316–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 “Ultimate” refers to that end which gives rise to and explains the need for the actualization of certain potentialities by a thing. Such an end is only ultimate in relation to the thing in question—its ultimacy is not based on some alleged hierarchy (or structure) of existence or some chronological ordering.

50 Foot, Natural Goodness, 43.

51 However, it would be wrong to assume from this that one could determine the good of any kind of living thing or the good of any individual living thing of a certain kind merely from understanding that the processes by which living things actualize themselves must involve activities that are good for them. There is a difference between explaining the basis in “first nature” for why it is valuable for living things to actualize their basic potentialities and giving an account of what such actualization involves for a living thing.

52 Annas, Julia, “Virtue Ethics: What Kind of Naturalism?” in Virtue Ethics Old and New, ed. Gardiner, Stephen M. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press 2005), 17Google Scholar.

53 Foot, Natural Goodness, 51, (emphasis added).

54 See André Ariew, “Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments,” in Functions, op. cit., 7–32; and Lennox, James G., “Teleology,” in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, ed. Keller's, Evelyn Fox and Lloyd's, Elisabeth A. (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 324–33Google Scholar.

55 Thompson, Michael, Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 2008), 7879CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 See Gotthelf, Allan, “Aristotle's Conception of Final Causality” and “Postscript 1986,” Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle's Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 344CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also see Miller, Fred D. Jr., Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 336–46Google Scholar. See also note 55.

57 Cameron, Richard, “How To Be a Realist About Sui Generis Teleology Yet Feel At Home In The 21st Century,” The Monist 87, no. 1 (2004): 7295CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 See Delbrück, Max, “Aristotle-totle-totle,” in Of Microbes and Life, ed. Monad, Jacques and Borek, Ernest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 5455Google Scholar.

59 For a fuller discussion of this matter in connection with certain forms of optimization, see Den Uyl, Douglas J., “Homo Moralis,” Review of Austrian Economics 22 (2009): 379–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Our view is no doubt within the camp of what Julia Annas calls the “stronger relation between our rationality and our human nature” (op cit. pp. 22ff) where human nature is the “material” with which rationality works. It is not clear from her own discussion of this stronger relation, however, whether human nature puts any constraints upon our rationality, whether rationality is limited to working only on human nature or also on what human nature confronts, and whether rationality is treated like a “second nature” that is bringing norms to the “first nature materials.” In this regard, we would tend not to speak of virtues as ways of achieving or providing flourishing as Annas seems willing to do, but rather of virtues as generalized descriptions of flourishing activities themselves, thus indicating more directly the unity between flourishing and virtue and avoiding the temptation to speak of first and second natures. Finally, it is likely that our understanding of the life-form is more individualistic than Annas's account of the stronger relation. Nevertheless, Annas certainly provides one of the more useful analyses of what needs to be considered when tying ethical value to human nature.

61 There are eighty-eight keys on a piano, which also “limit” what one can do, but one's musical options are hardly thereby restricted. Aristotelianism is associated with some type of essentialism which, in the broadest terms, means that things have natures. Hence there are certainly conceptual limits to what qualifies as a good human life built right into the structure of an ontology that says there is a human nature. But exactly how “limiting” those ontological commitments are seems to us a very open question.

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