There is a thought among many that morality is the most important thing in one’s decision-making processes. Suppose that you have to decide between doing the moral thing and the practical thing in some scenario, what should you do? For example, you promised to attend your niece’s birthday but you also have the option to work more hours and get overtime pay. The latter may be more practical, but of course you should keep your promise. In this way, your moral reason — promise-keeping — overrides your practical reason; getting overtime.

The idea that morality is always overriding in this way — that it always defeats or outweighs other reasons — is precisely what Susan Wolf aims, in part, to argue against in her seminal paper Moral Saints. Utilitarians and Deontologists both hold that morality is overriding (always maximize happiness, never treat someone as a means to an end…). 

The idea is that if moral saints are unattractive, and morality does not require us to be them, then moral reasons cannot be overriding. Since the saint has perfect moral motivations which always outweigh other motivations, showing the shortcomings of the saints shows the shortcomings of the overridingness view.

“I wish to examine the notion of a moral saint, first, to understand what a moral saint would be like and why such a being would be unattractive…”

A moral saint is someone who is just perfect, morally speaking. They always do the right thing whenever they can, and aim at doing the right thing at all times. Wolf wants to say that being this morally ideal is not, actually, a good thing, because it makes the agent the sort of person we don’t like, and also is bad for the saint. As a result, she concludes that it can’t be a requirement of morality that one be a moral saint. Common sense would dictate against it. Part of her project is simply to remind us that there is simply more to life than just being morally good.

I.

Wolf draws a distinction between two kinds of Saints. The first is what she calls the loving saint, and the second is the rational saint. The difference between them is understood by their differing motivations for being ideal moral agents. The loving saint is morally perfect out of an enjoyment of helping others. She enjoys sacrificing for the needy, gets pleasure from giving money to the homeless man on the corner, and never passes up the opportunity to volunteer for a good political cause. She does all of this because she likes to help others just as much as, or more than, she enjoys helping herself.

The rational saint is not so enthusiastic about moral goodness, but rather does everything perfectly out of duty to the moral law. This saint you might call the ideal deontologist, for he does what he does out of a sense of obligation to do the right thing. He does all the same things that the loving saint does, but trudges along with difficulty, having to force himself to do what is right. 

Here are two questions to ask yourself right off the bat: 

(1) Would you want to be a moral saint? 

(2) Would you admire a moral saint?

Wolf says in the first lines of her essay, “I don’t know if there are any moral saints, but if there are, I’m glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them (p. 419).” 

Many of us, I think, will be inclined to say that we wouldn’t want to be a moral saint, either.

Think about what it would imply about you if you were a moral saint. We all enjoy a fine meal with our family every once in awhile, a trip to an amusement park, a visit to the museums, playing sports, practicing a musical instrument, or going to the theatre. All of these aesthetic, athletic, and musical aspects of life could not be enjoyed by the saint, for there is always some other moral project that he could — and should — be working on.

Additionally, certain personality traits that we enjoy seem incompatible with the saint. How can you make sarcastic jokes or have a cynical outlook every once in awhile if doing so would bring others displeasure, or violate some duty to the moral law? The moral saint, then, is undesirable both in terms of the life he would lead but also in terms of the personality he would have. The moral saint does nothing fun, and isn’t funny. As Emmett Brown says in Back to the Future III, “What kind of a life is that?!”

The reasons why many of us wouldn’t want to be a saint, then, are (1)  because it would mean that we forego all non-moral goods in life, which we think are important for a life well lived and (2) we would sacrifice an enjoyable and lively personality, which would seem to make us bland people. Our lives would be worse off, and people wouldn’t really like us that much. These jointly seem like good reasons for not wanting to be the saint.

But there is something else to be said about the issue, which is that if everyone were saints, the world would also be bland. Imagine if there were no concert pianists, no museums, and no sports games simply because everyone were trying to do the right thing all the time. They are constantly trying to ensure fairness, help the needy, and enforce moral law. Such a world would be as boring as the saints themselves. Surely such a world is undesirable.

II.

But would we admire the moral saint? You might think that, despite their being difficult to be around, and themselves having a life devoid of non-moral goods, that there is something to respect in them, such that our admiration is warranted. Ask yourself, first, whether you’d admire the saint.

Wolf wants to say no, we wouldn’t admire the saint, and the reasons are similar to those we mentioned earlier, but she does have different reasons she offers for why we wouldn’t admire the loving saint or the rational one.

The loving saint, as previously mentioned, is the one who enjoys being moral, such that she foregoes all of the non-moral goods in her life. Wolf points out there is something odd about this saint — she too easily gives up the non-moral goods which most of us enjoy.

Since she appears to us to be enjoying her life of moral santhood, this would suggest, for Wolf, that she doesn’t really have the right appreciation for those things we all hold dear in the non-moral domain. How could you give up sports or literature so easily such that you don’t feel any void in your life, when carrying on your moral projects. In this way, Wolf says that the vice the saint exhibits is that her moral goodness subsumes or devours the non-moral goods. This seems prima facie problematic.

The rational saint, on the other hand, has a different problem. He may recognize the value in non-moral goods that the loving saint doesn’t, but he intentionally removes those from his life. This is why, you might think, the rational saint is said to be moved by duty — he foregoes the “worldly” pleasures in order to abide by the moral law. This is something which causes him some grief.

This suppression of the non-moral goods in life, for Wolf, seems to suggest some sort of pathological self-hatred, or an excessive fear of damnation. Why else would someone be so bound by the moral law other than a decision to self-flagellate, in some sense, or because they are afraid of what would happen if they didn’t perform their duty all of the time? Non-moral goods are devoured by the loving saint, and they are suppressed by the rational saint. In both cases, this seems problematic, and gives us cause to hold back our admiration for them.

So, moral saints aren’t worthy targets of our admiration, the world would be worse off if we were all a saint, and the saint would be undesirable both to be and for us to be around. Common sense dictates, then, that sainthood wouldn’t be a good thing. This suggests, for Wolf, that a constraint on morality is not that one be a moral saint. If the point of morality is to live an excellent life, and being a moral saint would make such a life impossible, then morality doesn’t dictate that one be a saint. There is just more to life than being moral, and Wolf’s essay reminds us that we would all be better off to ourselves remember that fact.

Susan Wolf’s Moral Saints:

http://www.rationalites-contemporaines.paris-sorbonne.fr/IMG/pdf/Wolf1.pdf

(Note that this summary is of the first part of her essay only, on common sense and sainthood. In the second half she uses the idea of moral saints to criticize Utilitarianism and Deontology)

25 thoughts on “Moral Saints

  1. Does anyone, anywhere in the world actually believe in the kind of moral sainthood described by Susan Wolf? What she describes more resembles a fetish or a vice to which she has applied the label moral saint so that she may use extreme examples to attack a broad concept. Perhaps we would be better off consulting an expert on sainthood, such as Pope Francis, who has many times spoken of everyday sainthood in the small things of life.

    He has said we must learn to “see holiness in the patient people of God”, because it is often hidden and almost imperceptible. In this regard, he spoke about parents who bring up their children with so much love, in the men and women who work to bring bread home, in the sick, in the elderly religious who continue to smile. “This is so often the holiness ‘of the next door’, of those who live close to us and are a reflection of the presence of God.”

    He has many time lauded these saints of daily life saying “Even these hidden saints are still sinners, because we all are, he observed, saying that when a good Christian sometimes falls and commits a grave sin but is penitent and asks forgiveness, it is a good thing“.

    He has said that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, “the artisans of the common good.”

    Small deeds, he said, “express concretely love for the city … without giving speeches, without publicity, but with a style of practical civic education for daily life.”

    We are urged to become everyday saints in the small things of life, to become artisans of the common good. It is important to understand that these forms of behaviour are not the denial of a normal life but rather the perfection of a normal life.

    Many rebuttals of Susan Wolfe’s paper have been published. For the sake of completeness and a more rounded essay, you should also reference these papers and summarize their arguments.

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  2. Pope Francis also said
    However, one of you might ask me: “Father, can one be a Saint in everyday life?” Yes, one can. “But does this mean that we have to pray the whole day?” No, it means that one must do one’s duty the whole day: pray, go to work, look after the children. However, everything must be done with the heart open to God, so that work – also in sickness and in suffering, also in difficulties – is open to God, and thus we can become Saints. May the Lord give us the hope of being Saints. We must not think it is something difficult“.

    Pope Francis does not describe a sombre, joyless life of self sacrifice and self-abegnation. What he describes is a normal productive, fulfilled life with all its joys, pleasures, triumphs, setbacks and disappointments. These everyday saints, these artisans of the common good, are people with “… an enjoyable and lively personality” who enjoy “sports and literature” and you will even find “violin players” among them.

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  3. Dan,

    Enjoyed your essay, helped me get a better idea where I stand. I’m also sympathetic to some of Peter’s points in his comments.

    I think the way our actions can affect others and the way we can influence each other, in the present and over time, can bring about not only moral good in the present but also moral good down the road we may not be able, or immediately able, to quantify.

    In that context I don’t think it’s possible to say for example that a dinner with friends is less morally valuable than spending an evening working at a food bank.

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  4. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for stopping by to comment. Just to let you and Peter know, these essays fall under the category of “Digital Student Resources,” which means that they are written as easily digestible starter essays for the class(es) I’m teaching. So, they are written to be short and sweet.

    “In that context I don’t think it’s possible to say for example that a dinner with friends is less morally valuable than spending an evening working at a food bank.”

    You’re right that perhaps dinner with friends is more morally valuable than spending an evening working at the food bank. But there are two points that Wolf might draw your attention to, in reply.

    The first is that there is always something more morally important than dinner with friends, if you’re a moral saint. Isn’t saving a dying person more important, morally, than dinner with friends? There are plenty of people around the world who are dying for no particularly good reason other than that nobody really cares about them (like starving people in “developing” countries.

    The second is that the dinner with friends, for both types of Saints, is done *for the wrong reasons.* The loving saint goes to dinner because she enjoys doing the right thing, not because she likes her friends. The rational saint goes to dinner because it is his duty, not because he values the friendships *qua* friendships. So, both saints are still unattractive, and that is what matters for her argument — that we wouldn’t want to be around, nor be ourselves, moral saints. This shows that common sense dictates that the moral overridingness thesis is false.

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  5. Hey Peter,

    “Does anyone, anywhere in the world actually believe in the kind of moral sainthood described by Susan Wolf? What she describes more resembles a fetish or a vice to which she has applied the label moral saint so that she may use extreme examples to attack a broad concept. ”

    Wolf says in the first line of her essay that she “isn’t sure if there are any moral saints.” So she would agree with your skepticism about whether anyone is a saint. But she isn’t using the idea of saints as a strawman, she’s using it to show that there is more to life than morality, and that the overridingness thesis — that moral reasons always outweigh non-moral reasons — is false. Her saints are supposed to be the two different ways someone could manifest the overridingness thesis, and she points out that neither individual would be attractive.

    Thanks for the advice re linking more response papers to Moral Saints. You’re right, that is important.

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  6. Just to let you and Peter know, these essays fall under the category of “Digital Student Resources,” which means that they are written as easily digestible starter essays for the class(es) I’m teaching. So, they are written to be short and sweet.

    Ah, now I understand!

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  7. But she isn’t using the idea of saints as a strawman, she’s using it to show that there is more to life than morality, and that the overridingness thesis — that moral reasons always outweigh non-moral reasons — is false.

    I am afraid I must disagree. There is no doubt that it is a strawman argument and others, Dan-K notably, latch on to this. Dan-K repeatedly refers to Susan Wolf’s paper.

    The heart of the problem is that Dan-K and Susan Wolf depend on a false depiction of morality so that they can attack morality in general, weakening the force of its demands on us.

    From the foreword of Christian Smith’s book Moral Believing Animals
    Smith suggests that human beings have a peculiar set of capacities and proclivities that distinguishes them significantly from other animals on this planet. Despite the vast differences in humanity between cultures and across history, no matter how differently people narrate their lives and histories, there remains an underlying structure of human personhood that helps to order human culture, history, and narration. Drawing on important recent insights in moral philosophy, epistemology, and narrative studies, Smith argues that humans are animals with an inescapable moral and spiritual dimension. They cannot avoid a fundamental moral orientation in life, and this, says Smith, has profound consequences for how sociology must study human beings.

    He concludes:
    Human culture, I have suggested, is always moral order, and human cultures are everywhere moral orders. Human persons, I have claimed, are nearly inescapably moral agents, human actions necessarily morally constituted and propelled practices, and human institutions inevitably morally infused configurations of rules and resources.
    Building on this model, in the foregoing pages I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which constitutes, directs, and makes significant human life itself. This book has argued that human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. The relational ties that hold human lives together, the conversations that occupy people’s mental lives, the routines and intentions that shape their actions, the institutions within which they live and work, the emotions they feel every day—I have suggested that all of these and more are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations. There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order, no way to be human except through moral order.

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  8. We are intensely social animals, deeply embedded in a thick web of social interactions. Every single one of these social interactions has a strong moral dimension. This is where Susan Wolf and Dan-K begin to go wrong. They refuse to recognise this fact. We are inextricably embedded in a web of moral responsibilities that place complex and conflicting demands on us. Wolf and Dan-K make it seem so simple because their strawman(strawwoman) argument depends on that fact. They reduce the situation to an absurd set of alternatives and then crow “I told you so”. I find it very surprising and disappointing that people with their training in philosophy can resort to such simplistic arguments.

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  9. The problem with Susan Wolf’s paper starts with her use of the word “saint” in the title since her usage defies normal understanding of the word, which was the point I was making by quoting Pope Francis. What she described could be more accurately called Rigid, inflexible, narrow-minded, bigoted morality.

    But who would have been interested in such a paper? Everyone would have yawned and said “Yeah, right, of course, now what’s your point? Why bother?”

    Her paper derives its force by deliberately invoking comparisons with Christian, and especially, Catholic saints. She is harnessing the anti-religious bigotry that comes naturally to so many philosophers and they fall eagerly on her paper since it confirms their anti-religious prejudices. I find it ironic that people who trumpet loudly about the evils of logical fallacies fall so quickly for confirmation bias.

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  10. Hi Peter,

    Thanks so much for all your feedback, it makes creating this site worth it.

    “We are inextricably embedded in a web of moral responsibilities that place complex and conflicting demands on us. Wolf and Dan-K make it seem so simple because their strawman(strawwoman) argument depends on that fact. ”

    Its so interesting you say this because I am working, right now, on a summary of W.D Ross’s “The Right and the Good,” and he says almost exactly what you say. Here’s Ross: “When I am in a situation, as perhaps I always am, in which more than one of these prima facie duties is incumbent on me…” Ross goes on to argue that we have a number of duties that conflict, and all we can do, according to Ross, is look at the situation as a whole and make a decision about which duties are the most salient in the situation.

    I am also interested in your point about Wolf’s use of “Saint” as a play on anti-religious bigotry. Do you think her argument would fail to work if she changed the name/title to “moral ideals,” or “moral perfects?”

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  11. Do you think her argument would fail to work if she changed the name/title to “moral ideals,” or “moral perfects?”

    Maybe she could call it “Extreme Moral Perfectionism”. But it would lose its emotional force, which I think is what lies behind the paper. Think of the phrase, which might be thrown at one on the school playground – “goody two-shoes” as a disparaging term. No one likes this kind of person. Her moral saint terminology invokes this idea and automatically arouses our distaste for that kind of person. I think Wolf is making more of an emotional argument than a rational argument.

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  12. Hmm, if she called them “extreme moral perfectionism” then she’d be building it into the name that the agent is problematic (extreme just means too far in one direction).

    And you’re right, she is making an emotion-laden argument, but she’d prefer to call it an argument from common sense. Of course, if you don’t share the sense in common with her, then her argument in the first part of the paper falls away.

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  13. This shows that common sense dictates that the moral overridingness thesis is false.

    This is where I disagree. I think that the moral overridingness thesis is valid and always applies, just not in the way that Wolf and others describe it. The choice is not whether to act in accordance with moral norms or outside them, which is the way Wolf poses it. We are always required to act within moral norms, because we are, as Christian Smith says, so densely enmeshed in a web of moral demands. But which ones, and how do we reconcile the conflicting demands on us?

    Consider your example.
    The dinner with friends:
    1) helps cement the web of trust that maintains our society in good order.
    2) it helps maintain my emotional health so that I continue to contribute productively to society.

    1 and 2 help generate a productive surplus that can be used to aid the destitute and dying.

    But I may also choose to use some of my productive surplus to directly help others. But what of my children’s education costs? I must be prudent and attend to that need as well so that they in turn may take their place in society and continue to enable a society that generates productive surpluses so that the unfortunate can be helped.

    Helping others is predicated on a healthy economy that generates productive surpluses that can support aid organisations, paying their salaries, operating costs and giving direct aid.

    A healthy society is one with high social capital and things like dinners, operas, museums, etc, etc all go towards building social capital. Where there is a high social capital societies start to look outwards to others more, away from their internal concerns. And looking outward they begin to attend more to the concerns and needs of others.

    In a healthy economy and a society with high social capital, generating surpluses that can be used to aid the unfortunate, everyone that contributes to the economy and the social capital is contributing also to the work that others do to use the surplus to aid the suffering.

    When I obey the traffic laws on my way to work I am performing a moral duty that enables the safe flow of traffic. By arriving on time at work I am also performing a moral duty so that the company can function more efficiently. The conscientious way I perform my duties at work is another example of a moral duty since there are many others who are dependent on my conscientiousness. Then later in the day I must fill in a travel claim and later make an insurance claim, honestly. After lunch I am called on to adjudicate in a disciplinary hearing, fairly, justly and balanced with compassion because the subject’s family of four young children will be devastated if I dismiss their main breadwinner. Before the end of the day I must counsel a subordinate who is performing poorly. This requires all the wisdom and understanding that I can marshall. When I get home I must carefully attend to the needs of my terminally ill wife with the utmost compassion. Then I must give my children my full, undivided attention so that I can absorb the details of their day, listening, consoling, congratulating and guiding.

    What part of my day does not have moral dimensions? How are these moral dimensions not overriding?

    Susan Wolf’s simplistic essay sweeps all these complex considerations under the carpet as if they never existed.

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  14. Hmm, if she called them “extreme moral perfectionism” then she’d be building it into the name that the agent is problematic (extreme just means too far in one direction).

    Yes indeed, that is true!

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  15. “The dinner with friends:
    1) helps cement the web of trust that maintains our society in good order.
    2) it helps maintain my emotional health so that I continue to contribute productively to society.

    1 and 2 help generate a productive surplus that can be used to aid the destitute and dying.”

    But Wolf would say what’s problematic about the “moral ideals” that that they do things for the wrong reason, which is vicious. The loving saint goes to the dinner *because* she enjoys doing good, as opposed to just hang out with her friends. The rational saint goes out of duty to the moral law. Neither of these agents has common sense motivations for going to dinner with one’s friends, viz. to hang and show them you care about *them* in particular.

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  16. loving saint” and “rational saint” are artificial categories that just do not make sense to a virtue ethicist.

    The idea of a Saint does make sense to a virtue ethicist since that is a moral exemplar along one or more moral dimensions in the universe of virtues.

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  17. Let me give you an example of a moral exemplar, that of Fr. Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest. He was executed during the Cristero War in Mexico 1927. This is the photo of his execution

    He first knelt to pray and then stood to take the form of a cross, blessed his executioners and was shot.

    He was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

    He is an exemplar of great courage and steadfastness under conditions of extreme danger. He is an exemplar of forgiveness and serenity in the face of certain death. These are three dimensions in the universe of virtues.

    The purpose of beatification is to hold up these people as exemplars that serve us as guides and inspire us when we make our own moral choices.

    For the most part we will not be called upon to face death in the defence of our beliefs but most of us will be subjected to wrongs, some of them severe. Following Fr Miguel Pro’s example, we can face these wrongs with courage, endure them serenely and forgive our oppressors.

    And if so, the world becomes a better place. In that sad, dusty rural village square, filled with the malevolence of those soldiers, none could have imagined that this photo would circulate around the world and that a humble country priest would inspire so many hundreds of thousands of people. We are made better by the noble example of his sacrifice.

    We need moral exemplars to inspire us and motivate us. Some people call them Saints. But Susan Wolf’s misuse of the term is a gross distortion of the concept that bears no resemblance to the truth.

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  18. The link to my photo has been replace by a tiny icon, but clicking on this little icon does take one to the photo.

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  19. Dan,

    “Thanks for stopping by to comment. Just to let you and Peter know, these essays fall under the category of “Digital Student Resources,” which means that they are written as easily digestible starter essays for the class(es) I’m teaching. So, they are written to be short and sweet.”

    Thanks, I was wondering about the digital services logo, and I like short and sweet, I have some reading comprehension issues.

    “You’re right that perhaps dinner with friends is more morally valuable than spending an evening working at the food bank. But there are two points that Wolf might draw your attention to, in reply …”

    Before I comment further I’ll read up a bit more on ‘moral’ and etymologically related terminology cause I’m not comfortable with how I used those terms in my comment. In fact it’s long overdue, as much as I like the term ethics and different forms I’ve always felt uncomfortable with those related to morality.

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  20. Hi Dan,

    I’ve been working on my overview of ethics and morality, but I’m still taking notes more than anything else. I’m finding the whole thing somewhat confusing to say the least. There’s both a lot I find interesting and a lot I find in some way groundless or counter productive, and my negative reactions often seem to be more emotional than rational. Wolf’s paper is no different, I might comment more on that.

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  21. Hi Dan,

    I’ve been going over a lot about Wolf’s paper, ethics, and your reply in the past week so I’ll break my reply into 3 separate comments.

    “You’re right that perhaps dinner with friends is more morally valuable than spending an evening working at the food bank. But there are two points that Wolf might draw your attention to, in reply.”

    I wouldn’t say it’s more valuable, it all depends on so much unstated factors particular to the circumstances, but if Wolf is saying that we can’t devise a simple and reliable system to cover all situations and direct our behavior, I tend to agree.

    “The first is that there is always something more morally important than dinner with friends, if you’re a moral saint. Isn’t saving a dying person more important, morally, than dinner with friends? There are plenty of people around the world who are dying for no particularly good reason other than that nobody really cares about them (like starving people in “developing” countries.”

    I think I agree. What if the dinner is to organize a trip to save 10 dying persons. Is there really any behavior that’s *just* having dinner with friends. How can we decide or just be without becoming detached or dismissing some other’s suffering.

    “The second is that the dinner with friends, for both types of Saints, is done *for the wrong reasons.* The loving saint goes to dinner because she enjoys doing the right thing, not because she likes her friends. The rational saint goes to dinner because it is his duty, not because he values the friendships *qua* friendships. So, both saints are still unattractive, and that is what matters for her argument — that we wouldn’t want to be around, nor be ourselves, moral saints. This shows that common sense dictates that the moral overridingness thesis is false.

    I agree the “moral overridingness thesis is false” but not because of Wolf’s use of ‘moral saints’. And I’m still uncertain about the relevance of arguments that refer to ‘the thing or act in itself’ like “friendships *qua* friendships”, and also uncertain how the distinction between happiness as a general or abstract mesure and happiness as the product of a particular act done by a particular person fits in.

    To illustrate further, while reading up on moral philosophy I came across this argument for virtue ethics:

    “Imagine being visited in hospital by a friend; if the friend comes because she is compassionate, judges that it is the right thing to do and wants to visit, is this not more pleasing for you than if she comes purely because it is her duty?”

    Which leaves me ambiguous: Imagine being visited in hospital by a friend; if the friend comes because she is a caring person, one who believes deeply in her duty towards others, to be by her friends, to be there and be able to show her love, is this not more pleasing for you than if she wants to visit you purely because she judges that in the circumstances it’s the right thing to do?

    cont’d

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  22. From Wolf’s paper, starting with a quote from her conclusion.

    “In pointing out the regrettable features and the necessary absence of some desirable features in a moral saint, I have not meant to condemn the moral saint or the person who aspires to become one. Rather, I have meant to insist that the ideal of moral sainthood should not be held as a standard against which any other ideal must be judged or justified, and that the posture we take in response to the recognition that our lives are not as morally good as they might be need not be defensive.”

    That passage seems to make her definition of ‘moral saint’ the only definition, or at least the definition that must take precedence. In a manner of speaking she’s imposing her conceptual frame on those who think differently, those who’s definition doesn’t agree with her’s , or doesn’t imply a judgement of others.

    “Some will object that I am being unfair to “common-sense morality” –that it does not really require a moral saint to be either a disgusting goody-goody or an obsessive ascetic” […] With enough imagination, we can always contrive a suitable history and set of circumstances that will embrace such characteristics in one or another specific fictional story of a perfect moral saint.”

    She seems aware there may be issues with her narrative, but seems to trivialize them by implying her position is on higher ground won by ‘fair’ competition, all the while not acknowledging that her narrative is also to a large extent ‘just so’ and that her characterizations and definitions of moral saints are to a large extent based on stories, stereotypes, on appeals to imagined majorities, on unpleasant fictional characters, negative emotions, ideas of someone who negatively renounces parts of themselves, acts for the wrong reasons, over does things, unduly judges other, or risks losing their sanity as suggested by Wolf when she writes “there may be psychological limits to the extent to which a person can devote himself to such things without going crazy”.

    I may be overstating myself but I find the underlying slights disturbing.

    cont’d

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  23. From her introduction:

    “I believe that moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive”

    In the end I might have preferred a more direct discussion of moral perfection and why it doesn’t constitute a viable model. Maybe something like ‘Utilitarian and Deontological Morality : On Aiming for Perfection’. However, once I got over what I found distracting or emotionally disturbing with her arguments and depictions of moral saints, there was a lot I found very interesting, e.g.:

    “From that point of view [utilitarian], it is not because they produce happiness that these activities are valuable; it is because these activities are valuable in more direct and specific ways that they produce happiness.”

    “The considerations of this paper suggest, at any rate, that the answer is not [of moral perfection] “as much as possible” […] This is not to say that moral value should not be an important, even the most important, kind of value we attend to in evaluating and improving ourselves and our world. It is to say that our values cannot be fully comprehended on the model of a hierarchical system with morality at the top.”

    “This suggests that, at some point, both in our philosophizing and in our lives, we must be willing to raise normative questions from a perspective that is unattached to a commitment to any particular well-ordered system of values.”

    One alternative that stood out for me, as I think Peter also pointed out, is a perspective where activities are not necessarily classified as either one or the other, moral or non-moral.

    —–

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment and I look forward to reading your next essays.

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  24. Hi Dan,

    When I responded to your reply:

    “The first is that there is always something more morally important than dinner with friends, if you’re a moral saint. Isn’t saving a dying person more important, morally, than dinner with friends? There are plenty of people around the world who are dying for no particularly good reason other than that nobody really cares about them (like starving people in “developing” countries.”

    I think I agree. What if the dinner is to organize a trip to save 10 dying persons. Is there really any behavior that’s *just* having dinner with friends. How can we decide or just be without becoming detached or dismissing some other’s suffering.

    It wasn’t well thought out, and I lost at least a sentence in there somewhere. I’ll leave it at that, just wanted to add that I do agree with Wolf when she writes that systems of thought that purport to be the standard we should mesure up to are not, and recognizing we could improve doesn’t imply we need to justify ourselves or be defensive about our current situation.

    Like

  25. Hi Daniel

    I’ve been thinking about ethics in general on and off since my last comment here … I find meta-ethics and descriptive ethics, of interest, and applied ethics much so, but when it comes to a lot of normative ethics, moral psychology, and thought experiments I find things often can get unhinged.

    You asked me the following:

    “But there are two points that Wolf might draw your attention to, in reply…” “…The first is that there is always something more morally important than dinner with friends, if you’re a moral saint. Isn’t saving a dying person more important, morally, than dinner with friends?”

    I’m unsure how those levels of generalizations can be useful, or if it’s possible to have reliable enough reasonings or valid enough terms to make, what read Danial Kaufman refer to, a ‘moral calculus’ possible.

    “…The second is that the dinner with friends, for both types of Saints, is done *for the wrong reasons.*”

    I follow the reasoning but I think there are too many loose assumptions and I’m left uncomfortable with the conclusion’s valence. I also have the impression it’s possible to make just as credible arguments where *dinner with friends* for the *right reasons* is made to sound just as suspect.

    Maybe in a way I get the motivation behind Wolf’s arguments but I think I doubt the means and conclusions.

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