A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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First of all, it is true, we have the impression that perfection is attributed the greatest of values. As Lavelle puts it: Perfection is the extreme peak of value 1.

However, we realise that the concept of perfection has a completely different meaning: when we say that something or other is perfect, it is most often to affirm that this thing has achieved the greatest value of which it is capable.

For example, a perfect coffee would be one that combines the right aroma, bitterness and temperature for the drinker. A perfect circle is a figure whose radii are all really equidistant from the centre. However, no one has ever claimed that the perfect coffee tasted or the perfect circle drawn is of supreme value. In fact, what we mean when we say that something is perfect is not the concept of an absolute and supreme value, but of a relative and limited value: the circle is perfect, but its value is limited to the fact that its rays are all equal; it has no other value. On the other hand, it only has value in relation to other geometric figures that we can clumsily draw on a blackboard.

The concept of perfection is therefore not, as it now seems, the "extreme point of value"; on the contrary, it designates a degraded and inferior form of value: relative value.

We could even go further and argue that the concept of perfection does not refer to any consideration of value. Indeed, to say that something is perfect is often to say that it has become everything it could be. As Misrahi puts it: Traditionally, perfection is the completed fullness of a being, but this fullness is given only as an essence or idea 2.

In this sense, we would say that a horse is perfect, because it has all the attributes of a horse: speed, long mane, muscularity, and so on. Or a perfect radiator would be one that radiates gentle heat and never breaks down, etc., in short, one that has all the attributes we expect of a radiator.

However, this meaning empties the concept of perfection of any relation to value, by shifting it entirely to the side of essence: to be perfect is to be all that one can be, to reach the fullness of one's essence, to be in act all that one can be in potential. This is an ontological determination, not an axiological one. Or it is when the reality of a thing corresponds to its concept. The value of this thing (or this concept) remains entirely to be determined. In other words: the perfection of a thing characterises its essence, not its value.

This will become apparent if we consider the very interesting concept of "perfect evil", which designates an action of such darkness that it corresponds to the very concept of evil. It allows evil to unfold in all its potential: this is evil in all its fullness. We can see that in this sense, the concept of perfection no longer has anything to do with the concept of value, and especially not of supreme value, but designates the relationship of a concrete fact to its essence or concept.

Now we see that the concept of perfection cannot be used to pose the problem of values, because it betrays this problem, by posing the question of absolute values with a term that can only be used to pose questions of essence, or at best the question of relative values.

This shows the ineffectiveness of Descartes' first argument for conferring supreme value on God. While we can admit that perfection is part of the very definition of God, we cannot allow him to surreptitiously attribute supreme value to God, because value and perfection are not synonymous (value is not the very definition of perfection), but because the question always arises of whether or not perfection has value.

1. Traité des Valeurs, tome 1
2. Qu'est-ce que l'éthique ?