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Moral Perfectionism and Justice


Critical Remarks on Stanley Cavell's Ethics of Self-Realization


B.Contestabile   First Version 2006   Last Version 2016





Table of Contents




1.     On the Philosophy of Stanley Cavell

2.     Perfecting the Individual

2.1  Definition

2.2  Process Description

2.3  Prerequisites

3.   Perfecting the Society

3.1  Definition

3.2  Process Description

3.3  Prerequisites










Starting point

The moral perfectionism of Stanley Cavell calls Socrates and Plato as forerunners. It differs, however, in important ways from theories of justice such as those of John Rawls, which emerged from Socratic thought processes and feature a Platonic character.



Type of problem

This essay attempts to question Cavell’s moral perfectionisms in Socratic terms. It focuses on the following questions:

- Is the individual at the center of ethics or society?

- Is there a Platonic ideal in ethics or is ethics something relative, ever-changing?



Perfecting the individual

Moral perfectionism combats suffering insofar, as it strives for the liberation of the individual from mental imprisonment and immaturity. Other causes of suffering, however, are out of consideration.


Moral perfectionism represents a specific form of philosophical therapy, where the mediation of knowledge – through a "more perfect" person – plays an important role. Other forms of therapy for the relief of mental suffering are not mentioned.


Moral perfectionism concentrates on the therapeutic processes of change. Character traits such as spontaneity, creativity, autonomy, etc. receive an immediate moral value. In a group (family, working group, etc.) however, individuals who compensate, stabilize, and provide continuity are needed as well.


Most people are not only victims, but also perpetrators, i.e. self-realization is in a difficult relationship with self-restriction. In order to justify self-restriction, however, one must dispose of a concept of justice.



Perfecting society

Moral perfectionism is actually not a moral doctrine, but a method to develop an individual morality and defend it within society.


Moral perfectionism diagnoses the present moral condition of the world as disappointing and ascribes this state of affairs to a lack of knowledge and critical thinking. Perfectionism strives to promote ethical knowledge and to initiate a competition of ideas. Its knowledge base, however, is somewhat one-sided because it largely ignores current science and the philosophical knowledge in the East.


It is inconsequent to diagnose the moral state of the world as disappointing if there is no criterion for such a valuation. Moral perfectionism is challenged by the following thesis: Opinion formation processes within a rationally arguing society do not lead to an undefined progress, but (with a certain probability in terms of number of people) to concepts like that of John Rawls. The City of Words (Utopia) possibly has a structure.






1. On the Philosophy of Stanley Cavell


The central theme of Stanley Cavell's philosophy is the search for autonomy and freedom. Three phases of his work can be distinguished:


In his early work, Cavell was mainly concerned with the investigation of language, especially with Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s ordinary language philosophy. According to Cavell, these authors bring the human voice back into philosophy and thus react to a false perfectionism that was widespread in philosophy at the latest since Descartes. In this phase, Cavell is primarily concerned with assessing the requirements for a language. Wittgenstein's ideal of returning to the ordinary language can be interpreted as a certain form of conversation, which is characterized by mutual recognition, and which allows developing autonomous meanings.


In a second phase of his work, Cavell is concerned with American transcendentalism, especially with Emerson and Thoreau. Therewith he turns to the issue of conformism and alienation and develops a reaction in the form of social autonomy. Social autonomy can be developed, among other things, by the above-mentioned form of conversation, where one's own experiences and convictions are acknowledged (but not necessarily shared) by an empathically tuned person.


In his late work Cavell developed the concept of moral perfectionism, which is examined below. The development thus begins with the individual language and ends with the relationship between the individual and society. It appears that for Cavell the development of individual autonomy precedes the concern for society. Cavell understands a conversation about the norms, principles, and institutions of society as a conversation between individuals, which cannot be detached from individual perspectives [Hofer, 9-11].





In Cities of Words (2004) Cavell traces the history of moral perfectionism.

City of Words is what Socrates calls his ideal state at the end of Book IX of the Republic.




2. Perfecting the Individual



2.1 Definition


Moral perfectionism at the individual level goes back to Nietzsche and Emerson and can be described as an ethics of self-realization [Zerm, 247]. Self-realization is an open process that leads to the core of personality. This process is experienced as liberation and as an increase in self-control:

-      “Liberate a soul which is trapped in confusion and darkness” [Lotter, 4].

-      “Freedom is exercising control over one's life” [Zerm, XVII].


In the case of Cavell, the process of self-realization is characterized by the following features:

-      The quest for authenticity: “Having the courage to be yourself, being true to your heart[Saito].

-      A gradual, undirected progress: “A process of moving to, and from, nexts” [Saito].


For the process to start, the following conditions must be satisfied:

-      Spontaneity, the ability to engage in new perceptions.

-      Self-criticism, the insight into one's own imperfection.

-      Trust in an intermediary.


In the subsequent chapters, the above-mentioned terms are explained in more detail and supplemented with a critical comment. Unless otherwise stated, perfectionism always means moral perfectionism according to Stanley Cavell.




2.2 Process Description




Cavell suggests that finding one's voice is finding "your language, your own names, for what strikes you as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome," and he associates it with Emerson's phrase, "the courage to be what you are" Having the courage to be yourself, being true to your heart, is the essence of morality for Cavell and Emerson [Saito].[Cavell 2006].


In moral perfectionism, authenticity is the foundation of morality. But what is the real or true self ?

David Hume wrote that his search for himself reminded him of peeling an onion: He found perceptions, memories, and everything else, but nothing that he could call “himself” [Rethorst].


1.     A possible interpretation of the true self would be the natural in man. In essence, humans are biological beings with primary biological needs. To choose with the heart would then mean to be guided by unadulterated, natural feelings. For people who were educated under the constraints of sublimation, the effort for authenticity would be the attempt to reveal (respectively remember) the unconscious motives. An argument This interpretation is supported by Cavell's reference to psychoanalysis [Cavell 2004 and 2006]. The call to become what you are can be interpreted as an invitation to enforce one’s natural needs. This goal, however, would be somewhat one-sided. CCulture is (among others) a solution to the conflicts which are caused by natural needs.


2.     A different interpretation of the true self would be the realistic assessment of one's strengths and weaknesses. Self-realization would then mean:

-      to find, within a given culture, the position for which one is best suited for or

-      to choose a culture for which one is best suited for or

-      to change, as far as possible, a culture according to one’s interests.

In this case authenticity corresponds to a self-chosen solution for the conflict between biological and cultural demands. An argument for this interpretation is Cavell’s biography: He was able to enforce his interest in philosophy against the wishes of his parents.



Gradual, undirected progress

The highlight of Cavell's Emersonian Moral Perfectionism is Emerson's notion of the "unattained but attainable self". By "perfectionism" in the Emersonian sense, Cavell does not mean perfection as the final goal, as envisioned by Plato's image of climbing the ladder upward, but his focus is on the process of perfecting. He illustrates this by saying that it is "a process of moving to, and from, nexts" [Saito].


The openness of the process is plausible because the internal and external conditions, i.e. the relationship between chances and risks, are constantly changing. The individual is looking for solutions in always newly emerging situations of moral conflict. In perfectionism there is no inter-subjective, rational concept of justice, which could be applied to the resolution of these conflicts.




2.3 Prerequisites




-      Why is the open-ended present moment crucial for one's growth? A key to this question is the notion of unpredictability as the essence of growth in circles. Emerson calls himself "an endless seeker, "an experimenter" (...). To live in unpredictability is to live in surprise, as he says." And "life is rather a question of wonder than of didactics." In an anti-moralistic tone, he also says that "the heart refuses to be imprisoned" [Saito].

-      Cavell's rejection of a pre-fixed moral ideal constitutes his Emersonian anti-moralism, namely, the "enforcement of morality, or moral code, by immoral means," or fixation on the "presence of ideals in one's culture" [Saito]

-      The ideal of self-development is connected with the rejection of normative influence on others [Cavell 2006].


Moral norms are often perceived as foreign if their meaning cannot be deduced from one’s own experience. The hope that one can discover the meaning of all ethical norms by experimenting and spontaneous experiences is too optimistic, however. The transfer of cultural experiences is not in any case negative, and the question arises whether Cavell's resort to antiquity and to the tradition of Hollywood does not make use of cultural ideals as well, and if it does not represent a form of normative influence.




-      Cavell implies that the driving force for the self's journey towards its better possibilities (the "unattained" or "attainable" self) is not given by any prefigured moral ideal. Rather, it is self-criticism with a sense of shame for its state of conformity (the "attained" self) [Saito]

-      An essential aspect of perfectionism is the constant effort or willingness to assess oneself in the present situation and risk a change of perception [Cavell 2006]


Self-criticism is in a difficult relationship to the goal of liberation. Dissatisfaction with oneself can lead to a new form of captivity. The external norms, which oppress the individual, are replaced by self-imposed perfectionist requirements (by an inner authority). The complex question of whether one is already "oneself" or whether one is still "oneself" then becomes an obstacle on the path to inner freedom and morality.



Trust in an intermediary

The discovery of one's own identity cannot be achieved directly, for example through

an immediate self-consciousness, but requires mediation by another person. Cavell

suggests that it is by absorption and emulation of other “higher” minds that we

discover our “further, next, unattained but attainable, self.” Or, as Emerson himself

similarly puts it in “Representative Men”, “other men are lenses through which we

read our own minds…But they must be related to us, and our lives receive from them

some promise of explanation” [Cavell 2006].


The concept of mediation stands in a certain contradiction to the search for authenticity. Cavell presents this problem for debate as follows:

If we are dependent on role models (...), how do we know at all that we will not simply imitate this example, but "become what we are"? [Cavell 2006]

Unlike the philosophy of Enlightenment was thinking or hoping, there seems to be no general methodological recipe for this problem [Lotter, 15].


According to Emerson and Nietzsche, a person is recognized as authentic when he/she corresponds to one 's own better self, that is, to the self-image which one targets unconsciously [Lotter, 15]. How can this thesis be tested? Similar questions can be found in the psychology of partner selection. The recourse to intuition or the unconscious, however, is problematic. It is, for example, fairly evident that the unconscious mechanisms do not necessarily select a partner who liberates the psyche [Willi].




3. Perfecting the Society



3.1 Definition


Moral perfectionism at the society level is the ethics of democracy [Cavell 2006].

Democracy is understood as an open process that leads to the authentic character of society. This process is perceived as liberation and as an increase in control over the fate of society.


The ethics of democracy can be characterized by the following characteristics:

-      The aspiration for the authenticity of opinions

-      A gradual, undirected progress


For the process to start, the following conditions must be satisfied:

-      The aspiration for a common language

-      The quest for communication

-      Spontaneity, the ability to open up to new perceptions

-      Critical thinking, insight into one’s own moral imperfection

-      The mediation of knowledge by a moral elite

In the following chapters, the above-mentioned terms are explained in more detail and supplemented with a critical comment.




3.2 Process Description




Stephen Mulhall argues that in Cavell's moral perfectionism, what is at stake is whether an individual can be said to have her own experience, to have a life to lead, and so whether she can have a genuine or authentic self...these issues must be determined before questions of the self's duties to others can intelligibly be raised. After all, if a moral agent must (in Kantian terms) live in accordance with a self-originating and self-given law, she must first have a self from which that law can emerge and to which it can apply [Rethorst].


-      From the point of view of perfectionism, authenticity is the prerequisite for morality in the same sense, as e.g. mental normality is the prerequisite for guilt. But how far-reaching is this authenticity? Is there no moral society without psychoanalysis?

-      In the case of psychically stable and materially catered people, the basic moral question is to what extent they should deny their own (authentic) needs to create justice. John Rawls concept is a proposal to solve this conflict.


Cavell suggests that social transformation and self-transformation require each other. In this sense, he calls Emersonian Perfectionism the "prize" of democracy. In the passage of growth in circles "from the inmost to the outmost," the self is becoming a critical participant for the construction of a genuine democratic society by raising "my voice" rather than relying on any pre-existing common ends [Saito].


-      The Kantian vision of democracy presupposes a mature citizen as well. In Kantian ethics the mature citizen recognizes the law him-/herself (it is not imposed from the outside) and raises his/her voice.

-      Perfectionism is based on communication because one’s own perfection (according to Cavell) can only be found in a constant exchange of opinions with the others. For this communication to be realized, however, certain conditions such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and fair access to the media must be guaranteed. The survival of perfectionism is only guaranteed if these ethical norms are not at disposition for each generation but have the character of pre-existing common ends.



Gradual, undirected progress

The term non-directional progress means that perfectionism does not pursue a given moral ideal.

-      The rules, which Rawls calls defining rules, determine what one has to do in order to participate in the game (...). In The Claim of Reason, I argue that there are no such defining rules in morality [Cavell 2006]

-      For Cavell, "there is no ultimate rule or principle that governs the whole of what can be of value in human life" (...). This is where Cavell's link to the continental tradition is exposed: Nietzsche is the philosopher par excellence whose ethical formulations entailed individuality with no reference to an overarching moral principle [Tkach].


Cavell’s view is challenged by the following thesis:

Opinion formation processes within a rationally arguing society do not lead to an undefined progress, but (with a certain probability in terms of number of people) to concepts like that of


John Rawls. On this basis the following structures can, for example, be declared as ethical progress:

-      The rule of law (no one stands above the law)

-      The separation of powers (legislative, executive, justice)

-      The separation of church and state (a prerequisite for the freedom of thought)

-      Human rights, including the freedom of thought and the freedom of speech

-      State monopoly on violence (as long as the state respects human rights)


In a dynamic environment the claim for universality must be questioned from time to time. But subtle and well-justified adaptations are far from arbitrariness. Examples:

-      The discussion about the limits of free speech on freespeechdebate.com and the corresponding theory [Ash].

-      The discussion about democracy theory [Brennan].


The present state of the world is perceived as disappointing, a state which is neither natural nor necessary, but changeable. The individual person realizes that he/she must carry out this change first and foremost on him-/herself. This does not result in a morality theory with a universal claim [Lotter, 4]


-      What are the criteria for diagnosing the state of the world as disappointing if there is no universal moral theory? Lacking such a theory a consequent version of above statement could only be: "The state of the world is disappointing to me ".

-      If the state of the world is disappointing to me, it does not necessarily follow that I must change myself first. I can be disappointed by the behavior of others.




3.3 Prerequisites



The common language

It is at bottom the commonalties shared by all of us as users of language in a community that gives us the criteria by which to judge decisions about action [Tkach].


Language is linked to a kind of thinking and a world view. The Socratic way of thinking and a science-orientated world view are characteristic for a society who looks for inter-subjectively verifiable statements. The endeavor for inter-subjectivity has a normative effect on language. Standardization, however, is not synonymous with the search for formal languages or mathematical structures. The form should merely support the content that is being communicated. In the communication of feelings formal languages are misplaced just as well as lyrical expressions are misplaced in mathematics.


Cavell can explain complex ideas in a compellingly succinct way. However, most of the time the reader is confronted by seemingly endless, comma-ridden sentences that require a map and a compass to get through [Alford].


Cavell's language is a mystery if one considers that he pursues a therapeutic goal. By what kind of people would Cavell like to be understood? By the democratic average citizen [Cavell 2006]? A better example for supporting the therapeutic goal by an adequate language is, for example, the prose of Sigmund Freud.



The quest for communication

-      Each individual's life is considered ethical by acknowledgement from others as a good life to lead, thus extending the concept of `good life' to include the way of life under question [Tkach].

-      Cavell argues against epistemological scepticism, stating that ethics develops over time through actual social practice. Moral action follows rules, and these rules are determined by the interaction between individuals. Cavell is thus applying the Wittgensteinian notion of a language-game to the problem of ethics [Tkach].


Ethics arises from social practice indeed, but the question is whether one must be content with merely describing the phenomena. If one defines the morally good by means of the current social practice only, then one basically forgoes normative ethics.


Cavell rejects the rule-based theories of utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant. Instead, he says that we arrive at the best ideas about the Good Life largely through conversation between friends, a notion originated in Aristotle's doctrine of friendship as the model for the moral life [Alford]


Rule-utilitarianism is only a tool for ethical decisions in cases with lacking time for reflection, or in cases where deep ethical research has already been done. It is questionable if the conversation between friends leads to a better result.




As Gilman says, most of us lack Emerson's conviction that if the truth-seeker continues to report his impressions as they really are he need not worry about the proportion or congruency of the aggregate. But perhaps we are shackled by our theories of knowledge. Emerson's epistemology was not that of the scientist or philosopher; it was that of the poet and prophet. "The faith," he wrote, "is the evidence." If so, it is a kind of evidence difficult to present in a moral argument [Rethorst].


The question is how far Cavell is willing to follow his mastermind Emerson. The belief that it is always appropriate to communicate individual needs and beliefs to others is quite optimistic. Open and direct communication does not only solve problems but also creates conflicts. This potential for conflict has led to the development of separate communication spaces in society (public, family, therapy, etc.). Not every fellow man reacts like an understanding pastor.



Critical thinking

The Emersonian self is engaged in criticism of the present state of democracy by

examining his heart with the sense of shame and despair over his state of conformity,

namely, the loss of his voice. This process is what Cavell calls "criticism of democracy

from within" and "aversive thinking," which he says is open to anyone and in each one

of us [Saito]. Cavell is outraged by the lack of criticism and the docility of the people

[Cavell 2006].


Where do shame and despair regarding the state of democracy come from, if there is no inter-subjective measure of morality? A similarly general (and accordingly inconsistent) evaluation can also be found in the following passage:


Perfectionism’s tuition (…) will tend to portray its vision as social misery less in terms of poverty than in terms of imprisonment, or voicelessness [Cavell 1988, XXXI] [Zerm, Einleitung XVII].



Social misery is diagnosed here as depressive misery. Giving higher priority to mental suffering than to physical suffering, however, is only plausible for certain environments. On a global scale, ethical priorities are the subject of a controversial discussion. A prominent voice, for example, is that of Thomas Pogge:


The so far most serious crime against humanity is behind us. The biggest crime, however, takes place today: World poverty. It is (today) as it was (in the past) – we know (what is happening) and look away [Pogge].


Perfectionism at first sight only strives for a method of opinion formation, but then nevertheless gets entangled in general evaluations. Furthermore, it strikes that perfectionism scarcely refers to science. The reference to antiquity and psychoanalysis suggests indeed that the critical thinking of perfectionism is also directed against the dogmas of the revealed religions (history of creation, salvation, the beyond, etc.) and the principles of morality derived from them. But scientific knowledge in the fields of psychology, sociology, evolutionary theory, etc. is hardly addressed, although the Socratic way of thinking – with certain inevitability – leads to a science-oriented worldview.



The moral elite

The idea of a moral elite dates to Plato and Nietzsche:

Future masters of the earth are philosophers and (at the same time) violent, artistic, and tyrannical. They represent aristocracy, based on the toughest self-imposed rules. Masters of their self, not slaves of their passion. Great politics, like Plato's Politeia, is antidemocratic [Zerm, 287]


Statements of this kind led Rawls to criticize the perfectionism of Plato and Nietzsche as elitist. Cavell goes on distance to elitist perfectionism by calling it uninteresting [Cavell 2006]. His own version of elitism is much more modest than Nietzsche’s:


To emphasize perfectionism means that one must be able to withstand self-criticism (...). Well, this is not everyone's concern, in that sense it may be elitist [Cavell 2006].


This version of elitism is not in conflict with Rawl's theory of justice, but it is not the version against which Rawls competed. Cavell issued a different version in the Platonian interpretation of perfectionism in Cities of Words [Cavell 2004, 446]. There he speaks of the desirable transformation of society into a kind of aristocracy:


Each self is drawn on a journey of ascent to a further state of itself (…). It is a transformation of the self which finds expression in the imagination of a transformation of society into something like an aristocracy.


As long as the perfectionist aristocracy is limited to the world of ideas, there is no conflict with Rawls theory. As soon as it becomes politically active, however, it must accept democratic principles. Example: If aristocrats ask for major state-funded cultural projects, then the people have the right to vote on the approval and funding of these projects [Rawls, 317].


Reading Cavell, one might think that Nietzsche was something like a democratic individualist, a truly idealistic American. The question then arises as to why he can be misunderstood as someone who justifies social inequality and even slavery for the sake of art [Lotter, 16].


A moral theory, which refers to Nietzsche, always runs the risk of being burdened with the known historical effects of his thoughts. The attempt to interpret Nietzsche democratically is less plausible than to portray him as a multi-layered thinker taking several perspectives. The latter approach allows adopting certain of his thoughts and distancing oneself from others.






1. Alford, Steven E. (2006), Philosopher shares thoughts Hollywood-style

2. Ash Timothy Garton (2016), Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, Yale University Press

3. Brennan Jason (2016), Against Democracy, Princeton University Press

4. Cavell Stanley (1988), The Carus Lectures, Chicago

5. Cavell Stanley (2004), Cities of Words, Cambridge

6. Cavell Stanley (2006), This is not America, Stanley Cavell im Gespräch mit Wolfram Eilenberger, in Nach Feierabend, 201-206, Diaphanes, Zürich. available from www.diaphanes.de/titel/this-is-not-america-686

7. Hofer Urs (2016), Auf der Suche nach der eigenen Stimme, Diss. ETH Zürich, Chronos Verlag, Zürich

8. Lotter Maria-Sibylla (2006), Nietzsche in Amerika, Über menschlichen und unmenschlichen Perfektionismus”, in: Nach Feierabend. Zürcher Jahrbuch für Wissensgeschichte 2. Die Suche nach der eigenen Stimme, hrsg. David Gugerli et. al., Zürich, S. 35-54

9. Pogge Thomas (2007), Weltarmut: Erklärung und Verantwortung, Vortrag und Workshop vom 23.Mai, Philosophie an der Universität München

10.  Rethorst John (2006), Emerson: A Powerful Voice for Moral Authenticity, Cornell University

11.  Saito Naoko (1998), On the Education of the Heart: The Idea of Growth in Emerson and Cavell for Contemporary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

12.  Rawls John (1979), Eine Theorie der Gerechtigkeit, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, Original „A Theory of Justice“, Cambridge, 1971

13.  Tkach David (2003), Book Review: Stanley Cavell, edited by Richard Eldridge, Cambridge University Press

14.  Willi Jürg (1975), Die Zweierbeziehung, Rowohlt, Hamburg, Germany

15.  Zerm Stephanie (2005), Moral als Selbsterschaffung, Eine Untersuchung zum moralischen Perfektionismus in der Philosophie Friedrich Nietzsches, Diss. Universität Hannover



Further information on Cavell’s moral perfectionism and Rawls’ theory can be found at