Volume 45, Issue 2, April 2019
Liberalism and Meaningfulness
Common Ground in the Perfectionism Debate
The contemporary debate between perfectionists and anti-perfectionists is at an impasse. This paper does not take sides in this long-standing debate, but finds common ground between both groups in the notion of “meaningfulness,” as developed recently by philosopher Susan Wolf and psychologist Roy Baumeister. This notion is distinct from the good life in that meaningfulness describes formal qualities of a good life, but not its basis and substance. Accordingly, I argue, we can expect far less fundamental disagreement about meaningfulness than about the good life, giving perfectionists a good reason to focus on meaningfulness. In addition, I contend that meaningfulness is a necessary condition for the exercise of our liberty, giving political liberals a good reason to embrace it as well. Finding this common ground, both sides would hold that a legitimate function of government is to foster meaningful options for individual self-determination.