A book on ethics and philosophy of values

(Note: this is a non-professional translation of the original text in French. Help improve this translation: please report any mistake!)


But if we look closer, we see that the concept of perfection has a quite different meaning: when we contend that something is perfect, we generally mean that this thing has reached the stage of the greatest value that it is likely to have.
For example: a perfect coffee is one which combines a flavor, a bitterness and a temperature that best suit he who drinks it. A perfect circle is a figure whose radius are all of them really equal in length to the center of the circle. However, no one has ever pretended that the perfect coffee or the perfect circle have the supreme value.

In fact, when we say that this or that thing is perfect, we do not refer to 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 radius are all equal, it has no other value. And it has only a value compared to other geometric figures that we may clumsily draw on a board.

Now it appears that the concept of perfection is not the “extreme peak of value” but, on the opposite, denotes a degraded and inferior form of value: the relative value.


We could even go further and claim that the concept of perfection has nothing to do with any consideration of value. Indeed, to say that something is perfect amounts to no more than saying that it has become all that it is likely to be. Thus R. Misrahi: traditionally, perfection is the completed fullness of a being, but this fulfilment is only given as an essence or idea 1. In that sense, a horse is called perfect when it possesses all of the attributes of a horse: rapidity, long mane, muscle structure, etc. Another example: a perfect radiator is one which diffuses a pleasant warmth and never breaks down, etc., possessing all characteristics that we expect from a radiator.

But we see now that this deprives the concept of perfection of all relations with the value; in fact, it deals with the essence of something. Indeed, for a given thing, being perfect is nothing but being all that it can be, and achieving the fullness of its essence, being in act all that it can be in potentiality. So it is an ontological determination, not an axiological one. In other words, something is perfect when its reality corresponds to its concept. But the value of this thing (or of this concept) remains to be determined. Consequently, the perfection of a thing characterizes its essence, and not its value.

This becomes more evident when we examine the very interesting concept of “perfect evil”, denoting an action which is so bad that it corresponds to the very concept of evil. This action enables evil to develop itself in all it can be: it is evil, in its completion. We see that in that sense, the concept of perfection has nothing to do with the concept of value, even less with that of supreme value, but denotes the relation of a concrete fact to its essence or concept.

It is obvious now that the concept of perfection cannot be used to raise the problem of values, since it betrays this problem: in doing so, we raise the question of the absolute values with a term which allows us only to raise the question of essence, or at best of relative values.

Now we understand why the first argument of Descartes, when he intends to prove that God has the supreme value, is wrong. I can admit that perfection appertains to the very definition of God, but it is not a reason to attribute him surreptitiously the supreme value, for value and perfection are not synonyms (value is not the very definition of perfection), and the question remains of whether perfection has or has not a value.

1. What is Ethics?