Perfectionism and the Built Environment, by Rita Risser

Perfectionism is the view that there are objectively better and worse ways for humans to live. Further, we ought to identify these objective goods and implement them in bringing about the best life for humans. Perfectionism is generally constructive. However, it is also criticized for being utopian and at times paternalistic. I argue that despite its flaws, a moderate perfectionism is our best bet for a good built environment.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) is often considered to be the wellspring of perfectionist philosophy. Firstly, Aristotle is a eudaimonist, one who holds that happiness is the highest of all goods. The good life is a happy life. But this is a truism. We are still left with the question: what makes for happiness? Here Aristotle’s answer is perfectionist. He proposes that we humans are distinctively rational and moral creatures. Happiness comes about by perfecting and acting in accordance with our rational and moral nature. Importantly, for Aristotle a good life is one wherein we are actually able to perfect and act in accordance with our nature. Therefore the good life requires a certain social and political infrastructure, as well, some add, it requires a certain physical infrastructure. Starting with the Greeks, through the Enlightenment, notably in Rousseau, up the present day, for example in the work of Lewis Mumford, the argument is made that for better or worse the built environment shapes human nature and values. It behooves those interested in the good life to identify and manage the influences of the built environment on the lives of its inhabitants.

Two questions arise for perfectionism and the built environment. The first is focused on human perfection. It asks how the environment either contributes to or detracts from the project of human perfection. A second question looks at the perfection of the environment itself. It asks what are the typical and distinctive features of the built environment, and how are they perfected? In other words, how do we build an objectively good environment? I shall focus on the second question, however, it will turn out that the interplay of human perfection and the environment will be a relevant consideration in what makes for a good built environment. In particular I shall consider how civic deliberation contributes to both human perfection and a good environment.

An obstacle for perfectionism about the environment is that its claim for objectivity can be difficult to substantiate and to implement. Despite such obstacles, there is an indelible perfectionist streak to our thinking about the environment. For example, contemporary urban design and planning proceed on the assumption that there are better and worse cities. They are not mere accidents; they are distinctive social and aesthetic structures with their own set of organizing principles. A good city is one that functions well city. A skeptic about perfectionism doubts the possibility of identifying how either humans or environments, as a rule, turn out to be better or worse. I, however, shall argue for a moderate perfectionism about the environment.

Rita Risser, University of British Columbia, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Risser, R. (2012) Perfectionism and the Built Environment, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

2 thoughts on “Perfectionism and the Built Environment, by Rita Risser

  1. Pingback: Fostering the Right Environment | YOU DECIDE

  2. Pingback: The Ten Commandments of Perfectionism « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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