Course Notes – Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

I am currently teaching Ethics and Contemporary Issues, a course devoted to ethical theories and moral controversies that is part of the university’s General Education curriculum.  The opening unit is devoted to theory, and one of the essays we take up, towards the unit’s end, is Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints,” originally published in 1982.

Up until this point, we’ve been talking about Utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and Ross’s Intuitionism.  Students have been swimming in different theories of moral obligation for weeks.  A relevant question would seem to be: How big a role should morality play in your life?

The question is especially salient today, when public discourse on any number of issues has devolved into various “sides” engaging in moral condemnation of one another in the harshest possible terms.  Social media has facilitated and amplified this to the point that students find themselves in a world where moral duty and obligation seem to stalk them everywhere, at every moment of every day, shouting shrilly at them for every bite they take, every word they utter, every entertainment they pursue, etc.

In this environment, Wolf’s piece is especially welcome, for it provides a perspective from which to de-escalate.  Her question is whether we should strive to be moral in all the things we do, in every part of our lives, and her answer is that no, we categorically should not.

Susan Wolf’s characterizes such a person as a “moral saint,” which she defines as follows: “By moral saint I mean a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.” (1)

Wolf distinguishes between two types of moral saints: the Loving Saint, for whom always elevating moral considerations above all others is what he or she actually wants and the Rational Saint, who may want to pursue non-moral ends, but who recognizes the superior standing of moral considerations and always prioritizes them for that reason.  Broadly speaking, this distinction is meant to disambiguate utilitarian and Kantian versions of the moral saint.

Another way of thinking about this issue is from the perspective of reasons and actions. Should moral considerations always be overriding of all others, in every circumstance in which I act?  While Wolf observes that few think this during the day-to-day conduct of their lives, but when one is speaking or thinking within the moral frame of reference – and especially in the rarefied universe of moral philosophy – it is often thought that they should. Peter Singer, for example, has argued that every penny that you spend on something you don’t absolutely need for your survival is money that could have gone to help the poor and underprivileged instead and is therefore morally contemptible.

[W]e ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility – that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift. This would mean, of course, that one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee. It will be recalled that earlier I put forward both a strong and a moderate version of the principle of preventing bad occurrences. The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one. (2)

Wolf thinks that this is a mistake; that moral considerations should not always be overriding and that moral sainthood is neither a reasonable nor a compelling ideal.  Her argument is simple: In always elevating moral considerations above all others, one will fail to cultivate other virtues, interests and talents and this not only is not a reasonable or desirable aim for oneself, it is not something we would (or should) want to see in others either.

Perhaps what I have already said is enough to make some people begin to regard the absence of moral saints in their lives as a blessing.  For there comes a point in the listing of virtues that a moral saint is likely to have where one might naturally begin to wonder whether the moral saint isn’t, after all, too good – if not too good for his own good, at least too good for his own well-being.  For the moral virtues, given that they are, by hypothesis, all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.  (3)

The conflict between moral sainthood and the development of other, nonmoral virtues is due to three things.  The first has to do with the amount of free time a person has.

[I]f the moral saint is devoting all his time to feeding the hungry or healing the sick or raising money for Oxfam, then necessarily he is not reading Victorian novels, playing the oboe, or improving his backhand. (4)

The second has to do with the allocation of resources.

An interest in something like gourmet cooking will be…difficult for a moral saint to rest easy with.  For it seems to me that no plausible argument can justify the use of human resources involved in producing a pate de canard en croute against possible alternative beneficent ends to which these resources might be put.  (5)

And the third has to do with the necessity of certain personality traits for the development of certain non-moral virtues; traits which it would seem the moral saint must eschew.

[A] cynical or sarcastic wit, or a sense of humor that appreciates this kind of wit in others, requires that one take an attitude of resignation and pessimism toward the flaws and vices to be found in the world.  A moral saint, on the other hand, has reason to take an attitude in opposition to this – he should try to look for the best in people, give them the benefit of the doubt as long as possible, try to improve regrettable situations as long as there is any hope of success.  This suggests that, although a moral saint might well enjoy a good episode of Father Knows Best, he may not in good conscience be able to laugh at a Marx Brothers movie or enjoy a play by George Bernard Shaw. (6)

To hold something as an ideal is, at least in part, to wish that it would be ubiquitous.  To believe that moral sainthood is an ideal, then, is to wish that everyone would be a moral saint.  What Wolf is pointing out is that despite what people may say, no one actually believes this or should.  For a world in which there were only moral saints would be one in which there are no concert-grade musicians, no gourmet chefs, no Wimbledon-level athletes, no Pulitzer-worthy novelists, etc., and not only does no one really want this, it would be flat-out crazy to want it.

Wolf considers several objections to her argument, three of which I discussed in class.

First objection:  Perhaps the problem isn’t moral sainthood per se, but rather, singlemindedness taken more generally.  After all, is the moral saint any worse than the person who focuses single-mindedly on cooking or tennis or oboe playing or any of the other things we’ve mentioned?

The weakness of this objection lies in the fact that the moral saint’s obsession is all-encompassing, while the others are not.  Master Chefs and tennis players and oboists have families and friends and personal lives and clearly do things other than cook or play tennis or play the oboe.  But given that for virtually anything I do at any time in any place, there could be a morally superior alternative, moral sainthood is going to be totalizing in a way that other enthusiasms and specialties will not.

There is also the further point that moral sainthood seems to require that one have certain personality flaws or defects in  a way that is not the case with chefs, tennis players, or oboists.   The loving saint seems incapable of any number of types of joy, while the rational saint seems unduly afraid of them or even, perhaps, self-hating.

[W]hen one reflects…on the Loving Saint easily and gladly giving up his fishing trip or his stereo or his hot fudge sundae at the drop of the moral hat, one is apt to wonder not at how much he loves morality, but at how little he loves these other things.  One thinks that if he can give these up so easily, he does not know what it is to truly love them…The Loving Saint one might suspect of missing a piece of perceptual machinery, of being blind to…what the world has to offer.  The Rational Saint, who sees it but forgoes it, one suspects of having a different problem – a pathological fear of damnation, perhaps, or an extreme form of self-hatred that interferes with his ability to enjoy the enjoyable in life. (7)

Second Objection:  Perhaps our failure to find the moral saint admirable is due to a fault of ours, rather than his.  That we don’t find his life admirable or desirable may be a matter of our being ashamed of ourselves and is not an indicator of the worthiness of a life of moral sainthood.

This is actually quite an interesting objection and one that I could only discuss somewhat superficially with students, not only because of time constraints, but because of the subtlety and abstractness of the issues involved.  The question, here, is whether whatever we maintain is the good or flourishing life should also be one that we admire or find desirable, both in ourselves and others.  My own view is that the answer is “yes” and that there is something odd, even possibly “ungrammatical” (in the Wittgensteinian sense) about the statement “X is the life you ought to live and X is un-admirable/undesirable.”  I understand the thought that our craven, depraved natures may lead us to desire things that are un-admirable, while our reason may steer us rightly – indeed, it is a very Kantian thought – but it not only requires a separation of the faculties that I think is nothing more than a philosopher’s fiction, but it renders the good life, in a sense, unverifiable.  The admirable/desirable is our best indicator of the sort of life we ought to live.  Take that away and all we are left with is rationalistic philosophy, which I actually have less rather than more faith will give us an accurate answer.

Third Objection:  The last objection I took up with the class is one that stems from the Utilitarian defenders of moral sainthood.  The claim is that moral sainthood does not preclude the pursuit of other interests and the cultivation of other virtues, because the pursuit of one’s own interests and passions are conducive to one’s own happiness and this is essential if one is effectively to pursue moral virtue.

It is an odd objection, in that it essentially grants that moral sainthood should not be considered an ideal.  But beyond this, it also violates the Utilitarian’s own greatest happiness principle.  According to that principle, one is obligated to do that which maximizes happiness, and given the sheer amount of suffering in the world, it is hard to see a scenario in which a person, in attending to his own desires, creates more happiness overall, because the time and resources spent renders him a more effective altruist.  The Utilitarian, it would seem, has to be a moral saint, his own happiness be damned.

At the end of the class, I read the students the following, which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Wolf’s piece and why I find it so compelling:

[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.  It is misleading to insist that one is permitted to live a life in which the goals, relationships, activities, and interests that one pursues are not maximally moral good.  For our lives are not so comprehensively subject to the requirement that we apply for permission, and our nonmoral reasons for the goals we set ourselves are not excuses, but may rather be positive, good reasons which do not exist despite any reasons that might threaten to outweigh them.  In other words, a person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral. (8)


(1) Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints,” p. 419.

(2) Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”—-.htm

(3) “Moral Saints,” p. 421.

(4) Loc. Cit.

(5) Ibid., p. 422.

(6) Loc. Cit.

(7) Ibid., p. 424.

(8) Ibid., pp. 435-436.





50 responses to “Course Notes – Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints””

  1. s. wallerstein

    This is a bit of a strawman or straw-woman, since no one ever devotes 100% of their time to moral pursuits.

    However, I know a couple of people who dedicate a lot more time than most do to good causes. They are loving saints rather than rational ones, which makes a difference. A rational saint would be a bitter and resentful person, but if someone prefers good causes to what most people consider to be entertainment as the loving saint does according to the article, what’s the problem?

    The loving saints I know are great people to be around, true friends (that’s part of their loving saintliness), full of positive energy and certainly prefer the Marx brothers to Father Knows Best: that has to do with superior intelligence and good taste. Their taste is as good as one is going to generally find, but as the article points out, they spend their time on good causes rather than reading the latest novel or seeing lots of experimental movies.

    I agree that rational saints are impossible to be around: they are the kind of people Nietzsche criticizes in the Genealogy of Morality, but loving saints are some of the best people I know. They may not be fun to be around in the conventional sense of the word, but I for one have no interest in conventional fun.

  2. It clearly is not a strawman as Wolf makes clear that she is talking about moral sainthood as an ideal. There are in fact no moral saints and she knows that. As for your point re: the Loving Saint, it is unresponsive to the very specific arguments i described. The people you are talking about clearly are not examples of Loving Saints.

  3. s. wallerstein

    They seem to fit the definition of loving saint. They enjoy being moral, participating in good causes, more than they do fishing trips or hot fudge sundaes. They dedicate most of their spare time to good causes. It may be that Ms. Wolf’s description of them is not entirely accurate. Maybe I’ve spent more time around loving saints than she has and know them better. Certainly, they prefer the Marx Brothers to Father Knows Best, which is a sign of intelligence and aesthetic taste, since the Marx Brothers are classics and Father Knows Best was a rather a dull TV show from the 50’s.

  4. Again, this really doesn’t engage with the arguments, but OK.

  5. Corrado Russo

    If we are persuaded by Wolf’s conclusion that we should not aim to be moral in all the things we do, how would we then determine in what circumstances or to what degree we ought to aim to be moral? In other words, how moral is “moral enough”?

    A separate point: I think it is possible to imagine a Utilitarian objection to moral sainthood that does not violate the greatest happiness principle. If it is true that the same self-absorption and anti-social behavior that made Beethoven an unpleasant person was also causally linked to his greatness as a composer– in other words, if the quality of Beethoven’s artistic output was at least in part contingent on him prioritizing his art over his moral obligations– doesn’t the depth and breadth of happiness generated by his art outweigh the suffering caused by his failure to fulfill the obligations of familial piety?

  6. 1970scholar

    It has been a very long time since I read Wolf’s essay. I think it is one of the great essays in contemporary philosophy and i even enjoyed rereading it more with your commentary on it. I remember this very anachronistic vernacular phrase “goody two shoes” that i believe was trying to capture the quality of a certain kind of moralistic person. Wolf serves to remind us that human life is complex and cannot always be made to fit into a neat little whole.

  7. I agree. Indeed, i think it is one of about a dozen absolute classics of 20th century philosophy. And is particularly apt today in these sickeningly moralistic times.

  8. And all one has to do is look at the influence Singer has had to realize that what she is talking about isnt just some fringe view but is mainstream.

  9. s. wallerstein

    The problem with Singer isn’t that he’s moralistic, but that his morality is so narrow-minded and fanatical. For example, as I understand him, you are “obliged” to give money to charities which help starving people in the 3rd world (not that I’m against that) and you violate your moral “obligation” if you donate your money to help fund a string quartet in your town or to finance programs to bring speakers to your local library. Singer is totally puritanical and that is unpleasant.

  10. Yes, but it’s more than that. You ought to give your money away to poor people *until the point of marginal utility.* Meaning: until giving to them would make you worse off than they already are.

    So, I think the problem is both.

  11. s. wallerstein

    I agree. It’s good to be generous, it’s bad to be greedy, but it’s insane to give away all your money until you’re as poor as the poor are. There is no moral obligation to commit financial suicide, and in fact, if you have a bit of money, it’s good to leave some for your own kids. If you do have a strong obligation to someone in this world, it’s to your children, not to children in Africa.

  12. Yep. We agree entirely.

  13. s. wallerstein

    I wonder what Singer’s kids think of their father giving all his money away to Africa. In my experience, children are almost always skeptical of their parents’ ideological commitments and that skepticism is multiplied by at least 10 when that ideological commitment is costing them money.

  14. For some people, one of the great joys in life is making others feel miserable.

    Maybe you can’t convince someone that he shouldn’t be drinking that nice Trappist beer – he should give the money to some worthy cause! – but there’s always the option to make him feel miserable and turn the taste of the beer in his mouth into ashen.

    I personally believe that society is addicted to Entzauberung, and a side effect of Entzauberung often is disillusion and disappointment. You’re madly in love with that girl? Ha! Just the effect of a genetic accident and some brain chemistry? Ha, didn’t you know?

    The joy of making someone feel miserable!

    Entzauberung is usually associated with rationalism, a strictly rational and scientific approach to things. Unfortunately, science is difficult. But no problem, you can give people that same feeling of disillusion and disappointment by pointing out that they’re acting immorally. It’s easy. It’s Entzauberung for the poor, in a certain sense.

    There is a similarity between the trend to “scientify” and rationalize everything, and the trend to moralize everything. Both negate and ignore aspects of our lives that are important to us; and both converge to the sometimes almost sadistic urge to create disillusion.

  15. davidlduffy

    We have a concept of saintliness – generally we do not disapprove of people such as Gandhi, if everyone was like that, we agree the world would be a better place, but we personally would find it too hard. If we are sympathetic to socialism, we think that society could be reorganized such that most of us could still live our ordinary oboe playing lives but still abolish those things we regard as egregiously immoral without personally having to be too saintly. Say a 10% tithing and one do-gooder committee meeting a week, reversing Arendt to a banality of good. For many “conservative” ways of thinking, this is ridiculous.

    Last time we discussed this, I recommended Mervyn Peake’s _Mr Pye_ (plot spoilers Ho!)

  16. generally we do not disapprove of people such as Gandhi, if everyone was like that, we agree the world would be a better place,

    = = =

    Who is “we”? I disagree completely. I would hate living in a world with nothing but Ghandis. And I suspect Wolf is right that most would.

  17. J. Bogart

    On the other hand, there may not be much to morality if it never really demands much of anyone. Be good, unless you think it too inconvenient.

  18. davidlduffy

    Well if not everyone like Gandhi,at least more people like him. Unless you argue it would be better if there were fewer people saying stuff like “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”, and trying to do something about improving this?

  19. I dont see anything in Wolf that suggests otherwise.

  20. I dont see what this has to do with Wolfs essay. And Gandhi was hardly a moral saint by her account.

  21. I just love this! Thanks for introducing me to Wolf’s essay and for contributing a discussion of it!

    By coincidence I picked up Nagel’s ‘Mortal Questions’ later in the day and started reading ‘The fragmentation of value’. Some of what he is aiming at seems to align with what you and Wolf are suggesting. The ‘totalizing’ necessary for moral saints is one more example of trying to put a bow on things we are challenged by, shoehorning a solution where everything important fits perfectly.

    Nagel argues that values types come into conflict because the sources of value are fundamentally different. “Not all values represent the pursuit of some single good in a variety of settings”, he says. A loving saint will get some things in a way we might agree with in a particular context and a rational saint other things that appeal to us elsewhere for different reasons. “To look for a general theory of how to decide the right thing to do is like looking for a single theory of how to decide what to believe.”

    In other words, the loving or the rational moral saint can’t properly function as a whole human being because there is not only one single source of value to which they have to be attuned. The complexity of human life rules out the neat solutions. What one value gets right others miss. It would be like saying you are only going to take left hand turns, or face toward the sun. The tyranny of commitments mostly dehumanizes us.

    But you can’t even have a moral saint who is somehow attuned to all values equally, where each one fits, a super-moral saint. It is not, as Ben Frankiln said, “A place for everything, everything in its place.” There is no such place, so there is no such fit. Which also means you also can’t order them in priority once and for all. According to Nagel “The great division between personal and impersonal, or between agent-centered and outcome-centered, or subjective and objective reasons, is so basic that it renders implausible any reductive unification of ethics – let alone of practical reasoning in general.”

    If individual values are eventually in some sense incommensurable, if their instances call to us in fundamentally inconsistent ways, then acting so as to fully respect the possibility of value in our lives seemingly requires a sort of schizophrenia. We have to live with different means of assessing value, some useful in some contexts, others only in others. We are drawn in different directions, often at the same time. As Nagel says, “Just as the types of understanding available to us are distinct, even though they must all coexist and cooperate in our minds, so the values that move us are disparate, even though they must cooperate as well as they can in determining what we do.”

    Some values will be mute while others express themselves. The incommensurability simply means not every value is speaking to us all at once. Therefor, as Wolf says in the quote you gave us, “It is misleading to insist that one is permitted to live a life in which the goals, relationships, activities, and interests that one pursues are not maximally moral good. For our lives are not so comprehensively subject to the requirement that we apply for permission, and our nonmoral reasons for the goals we set ourselves are not excuses, but may rather be positive, good reasons which do not exist despite any reasons that might threaten to outweigh them.”

    That’s all I got!


  22. Yes the Nagel piece is another masterpiece and points in a similar direction.

  23. s. wallerstein

    George Orwell’s essay, Reflections on Gandhi, which begins with the memorable phrase: “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent”.

  24. The function of the handful of moral saints that many would agree to (maybe 5 or 6 in recorded history?) has been to provide a vocabulary for clarifying the boundaries of moral dilemmas, the unnoticed conflicts between opposing motivations and expected outcomes. “The meek shall inherit the earth” poetically pinions the humility rightfully expected by our peers, against the egocentric urge to increase of power. These saints have come along occasionally to remind us that much of what we desire is frivolous, and much that we find tiresome is necessary effort to maintain ourselves within our communities.

    An important problem with these saints has been that they have, for some, raised expectations concerning others’ behavior, and concerning our own motivations, that are unrealistic. Humility is a beneficial response to many of life’s challenges, even if doesn’t lead to inheriting any earth; but in exaggerated form it is mere inversion of pride and can lead to a kind of arrogance that is self-subverting.

    As a Buddhist, let me again remark (as I have been pressed to do so, occasionally, over several decades now), that the bizarre Hippie/New Age expectation that Buddhists are necessarily saintly, or always striving to be saintly, misconstrues the Buddha’s message, and the 2500 year traditions that developed out from that message and spread across the Eastern world. The Buddha may have been a moral saint and by all credible accounts of his life, he was. But if one could only follow the Buddha by being a Buddha, there would never have a been a Buddhism – certainly not one I would care to follow. The Buddha offered a set of tools for dealing with certain problems inevitable, given the human condition, and a path away from certain pains and disappointments inevitable, at least for some, in developing civilizations with complex demographics. Those following this path most rigorously have developed institutions and community services, some still functioning successfully after centuries of practice including various social and political crises. And whenever these institutions grew too rigid or complacent, there would come a counter-movement returning to the bare message itself. In such counter-movements, saints again seem possible and expectations raised unnecessarily; but in fact what is happening is simply further clarification of the real human condition institutions may obscure, and the real ethical choices confronting us in different real-time situations.

    Ultimately, the ground of any ethical choice is uncertain; the consequence not entirely predictable. Whatever choice we make, whatever the outcome, we live with it, because we must.

    I suppose that’s one reason people look for, hope for, or even make the disastrous effort to become, saints. Saints, presumably, are always making exactly the right choice with exactly the perfect outcome. But that’s not life; and I think even the real moral saints, if there ever were such, would find such over-reach amusing.

  25. Mike Valdman

    It’s been years since I’ve read Wolf’s essay, and your essay has convinced me that it’s not worth revisiting. It begins inauspiciously with a definition of moral sainthood that conflates the moral appraisal of acts with the moral appraisal of agents (“[b]y moral saint I mean a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.”). I can overlook that. But then the argument seems to proceed by describing what the life of a moral saint would involve in a way that’s certain to trigger our disgust reactions, as if those reactions offer insight into anything other than our evolutionary history and the particular culture that shaped us. Clearly most of us don’t want to be moral saints. They’d be unreliable partners, boring companions, and we wouldn’t want them dating our sons and daughters. But these are just preferences. I don’t see how they can serve as the ground for the kinds of judgments that Wolf wishes to make. I mean, it’s easy to read Wolf as saying something obvious, such as that Singer and his ilk are proposing that we live crimped, boring, and stressful lives. I just don’t see how to read her as saying something non-obvious and deep.

  26. Sorry you feel that way. Obviously i categorically disagree. And evolutionary history has exactly zero to do with it.

  27. And yes, our reactions are obviously relevant in determining whether a form of life is desirable, and that surely is relevant to thw question of whether it is a life we should hold up as ideal.

    As Mill says in Utilitarianism, “discussions of the good are discussions of what is desirable.” Or perhaps you think Utilitarianism “isnt worth reading” either. 🙄

  28. Mike Valdman

    Yeah, you don’t want to get me started on Mill’s “Utilitarianism”!

    But, on the larger point, I’m more suspicious of the view that practical reason is a system of categorical imperatives than a system of hypothetical ones. So I’m happy to say: “If you want to live a life of contentment, then, in light of the kind of creature you are and the culture in which you live, you should avoid a monomaniacal devotion to any one thing, be it morality, God, the state, bashing woke culture, cooking, philosophy, blogging, grass counting, or whatever.” But I demur in thinking that that which would produce contentment in creatures like us, or what we would judge such contentment to consist in, is automatically “desirable” or “the good.” After all, even if there were such a thing as the good, what are the odds that our wholly contingent, biologically and culturally shaped reactions would track it?

    Of course, such thoughts take me in a very skeptical direction. So how about a compromise? Surely you’d at least agree that our reactions aren’t infallible, that they’re not all bearers of moral and/or prudential wisdom, and that, if one is going to develop a theory of practical reason around them, an error theory will be required. But if you agree with all that, then you’d have to agree that Wolf has a lot more work to do, no? After all, I don’t recall her offering an error theory.

  29. I really don’t understand your approach to this cluster of questions. We are talking about the actual lives that actual people should live. It would be bizarre to suggest that such a life could be one that actual people would not find desirable. And yet, this is what much of modern moral philosophy tells us. Wolf’s essay is devoted to pointing this out.

    I don’t see what infallibility has to do with anything. Again, the question of the human good or the eudaimonic life is a fundamentally *practical* question about actual people and actual lives.

  30. I should also say that if a view of mine entails that a work like “Utilitarianism” is worthless or no good, the likelihood is very high that there is something wrong with my view, not with Mill’s book.

  31. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Wolf’s essay is brilliant, and your overview gets right to the heart of its key insights! As you say these points need to be made now more than ever as moral demands threaten to crowd out other values, and also to imperil morality itself by making it seem so unappealing and dour and creating a sense of despondency when we inevitably fall short of sainthood that makes it harder for us to keep to our least controversial obligations.
    Incidentally, the quote about human life not being so comprehensively subject to asking permission seems very similar to Dan T’s rejection of universal moral status.

  32. Don’t know if you saw it, but Dan T. and I did an entire BHTV dialogue on this subject.

  33. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    I also think the persistence of the ideal of the moral saint is a perfect example of how modern secular moral theorising is filled with hangovers of Christianity. funnily enough, I think Singer quotes Aquinas in ‘Famine, affluence and morality’ to show that his ideas about duty aren’t that radical or novel, as though he’s oblivious to the difference the religious framework makes.

  34. Singer could be the most mediocre intellect to have achieved as high a position and stature as he has that I can think of. I’ve always thought him nothing more than a hack. Not fit to shine the shoes of people like Bernard Williams or Alastair MacIntyre.

  35. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Yes, that’s what I was referring to! Great dialogue! It was actually an enormous relief for me to come across professional philosophers who shared my attitudes on this matter. When there’s as little of this kind of thinking in the culture and academia, you can start to feel very intellectually insecure about it.

  36. There’s a lot more of it than you think. As Oliver Traldi said in my most recent BHTV dialogue, there is a substantial “silent majority” that thinks this way. But most are cowered by the activists, who have demonstrated that there is no level to which they will not stoop to destroy those who engage in wrongthink.

  37. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Yeah, I’ve grown more optimistic about that in recent months. I’ve actually found that I can make a lot of these points to my ardently progressive friends and actually get considerable assent, although my carefulness with words probably helps.

  38. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Yeah, I’ve increasingly come to see him as an emperor without clothes. I believe Scruton has said that Singer seems far more interested in drawing out the radical implications of his theory in painstaking detail than he is in giving a rigorous defence of its underpinnings. He doesn’t even come close to offering a satisfactory Defense of the strong moral realism needed to justify such radical revision of our values, and his response to the issue of why be moral is a quite hand waving appeal to the psychological benefits of altruism.
    He’s built a grand moral edifice on foundations of sand, and I can’t understand how he isn’t more worried about just how insecure they are.

  39. He likely would be more worried if he didn’t have so many ardent followers in the ethical vegan and effective altruist movements.

  40. Mike Valdman

    I approach them in the way that you do, only with more distinctions and less deference to our reactions. What’s desired as an end may be our best evidence for what’s desirable, but, to me, that says more about our limitations than it does about intrinsic value. Basically, I operate from the premise that we are much less insightful and much more delusional than we are able to recognize or would care to admit — that our reason is susceptible to all manner of distortion — that we’re probably living through what future people will regard as their version of the dark ages. To me, the point of philosophy is to expose the delusions and distortions rather than sweep them under the rug.

    Regarding distinctions, neither you nor Wolf strike me as saying anything especially clear. Is she claiming merely that a morally good life could be prudentially bad? If so, then she isn’t saying anything interesting. Is she claiming that a life can be morally good only if it corresponds to what we would find desirable? That would be bizarre. Is she collapsing the distinction between moral and prudential value? Are you? You say: “It would be bizarre to suggest that such a life could be one that actual people would not find desirable.” To what kind of life are you referring? If you’re referring to a morally good life, then there’s nothing bizarre about it at all.

  41. Wolf is a paragon of clarity. That is one criticism i have never heard made of her essay.

    If you still don’t understand what the point is after these several go arounds, plus my essay — which is pretty much what i taught my undergraduates, who had no difficulty understanding it — i doubt there is anything more I could say that would clarify it. Im sorry you dont find Wolf as intersting and as important as I and others do. To each his own, I guess.

    One note about the beginning point: i think you completely misunderstand what the discussion of values is about. Value is fundamentally subjective, unless you tie it to a metaphysics like Aristotle’s. We’ve known this at least since Anscombe and probably since Hume. Thus, the discussion of the human good just is the discussion of whats valuable. Arguments re: doubt and fallibility that apply to empirical judgments — which are about objective states of affairs — are inapt. And skeptical doubts of the sort that arise from freudian considerstions — which i take up in my essay “The Special Standing of Moral Skepticism — while strong, do not point in the direction that you seem to want and in my view do not get to the very practical, “surfacey” point that Wolf is making, which is simply that many of our most prominent moral philosophies idealize forms of life that no person in his or her right mind would idealize.

  42. Mike Valdman


    I think that Singer and others like him are well aware that they are presenting a conception of morality that the typical person will find strange. If that is all that Wolf is saying, then she isn’t saying anything interesting. But perhaps she’s saying more, in which case I invite you to state her thesis. But please, when doing so, could you take into account the standard distinctions that one has to make in this context — such as between a life’s moral, prudential, aesthetic, and perfectionist value — so that we don’t end up talking past each other or confuse ambiguity with depth?

  43. Wolf’s essay was published in the Journal of Philosophy, literally one of the three best philosophy journals in the world, and has had an enormous significance in the discussion on ethics in the philosophical literature. That to me is sufficient to grant it significance, well beyond anyone’s subjective perception of what is “interesting,” which are a dime a dozen.

    And again, there is nothing ambiguous in what she wrote or in my account of it. My undergraduate freshmen had no difficulty with it.

    At this point, I think you are being deliberately obtuse because you disagree with Wolf. It’s fine to disagree, but don’t pretend that the problem is Wolf’s lack of clarity or “interestingness.” That’s just rhetoric and frankly, cheap.

  44. Mike Valdman


    Your petulance is unbecoming. If Electric Agora is an ideas blog and not a vanity project, you should welcome dissent. You should not attempt to quash it with bizarre appeals to what your undergraduates found compelling or the prestige of the journal in which the essay in question appeared. You have repeatedly asserted that Wolf’s thesis is clear. All I’m asking for is a statement of that thesis that is sensitive to the standard distinctions that philosophers draw in discussions of a life’s value (i.e. between a life’s prudential, moral, aesthetic, and perfectionist value). I suspect that any attempt to state her thesis clearly — i.e. in light of the aforementioned distinctions — will expose its vacuousness. And I suspect that your stubborn refusal to provide any such statement is a tacit admission that I’m right.

  45. The course notes *is* the restatement of the thesis. It is how I taught the essay to my undergraduates. That is the point of the entire series: to present to the public some of the key texts that I am teaching to my students. And you and I have already gone around the question several times in this discussion thread.

    Not being willing to go around and around with you over and over again, on the same territory, in perpetuity, is not “stubborn refusal.” It’s the good sense of knowing that you aren’t going to come to an agreement and choosing to step back. Far from being “petulant,” it’s how adults behave. Asking “But why? why? why?” is not how adults behave, but how children do.

    But contrary to every sensible instinct, I will try this one more time:

    1. In the modern framework, where we do not have access to an axiologically thick conception of nature or appeal to a divinity and its intentions, our ideals as to how we should live/what constitutes human flourishing are a reflection of what we take to be the most admirable forms of life.

    2. Many of our most prominent moral philosophies directly imply that we should idealize the life of moral sainthood, as described by Wolf.

    3. We do not normally consider the life of a moral saint admirable, nor should we, for the reasons Wolf describes. (And she also responds to myriad potential counterarguments.)

    4. Moral sainthood is not and should not be idealized or considered defining of human flourishing.

  46. And how can EA be a “vanity project”? It isn’t a blog, but a magazine, with a stable of writers, many of whom disagree with me on any number of issues and who write essays that contradict my own views.

    This is a matter of how one conducts debates in a limited medium like this, not a matter of the merits of Wolf’s article, which, as already mentioned need not justify its significance anymore at this point, as it has been well demonstrated. That some disagree with it does not change that fact. You can think an influential essay wrong, but to suggest as you have that it is insignificant or uninteresting is vanity on your part, not anyone elses.

  47. I’m sorry I didn’t reply to this, but for some reason it got stuck in the spam folder. Having just liberated it, let me consider your question, before I answer.

  48. Mike Valdman

    I didn’t ask for an argument; I asked for a thesis statement that was sensitive to a set of distinctions. But hey, at least you’re lot lecturing me about the wisdom of your students or about journal prestige, so I’ll take it. Now, if I may, let me present a less pompous (but actually valid) version of what you take to be her argument:

    (1) What we ought to do depends entirely upon what the typical person would find admirable.
    (2) The typical person would not find a life dedicated to morality to be admirable.
    (3) Therefore, we ought not dedicate our lives to morality.

    First, premise (1), aside from being undefended, absurd, and regressive (would the typical person find such an account of the practical ought admirable, or is the theoretical ought to receive a different analysis?) is not even part of Wolf’s argument. Second, none of her targets would reject (2). And so the entire argument hinges on a highly dubious, undefended premise. But hey, it was published in J Phil, and Kaufman’s students lapped it up, so maybe I’m just not squinting hard enough.

    As to the “vanity project” accusation, consider two dialogues:

    V: Wolf’s argument is uninteresting and unclear.
    K: That’s not a typical view. Why do you think so?

    V: Wolf’s argument is uninteresting and unclear.
    K: I’m sorry you feel that way. Did your mother drop you on head too many times a child? You know it was published in J Phil, right? And my students thought it was abundantly clear.

    Dialogue 2 exhibits the kind of prickliness that is typical of someone who finds dissent offensive and a challenge to their authority. It’s characteristic of someone who is seeking validation rather than truth. I am not saying that you are that person. I’m just saying that you’re acting like one.

    You may be tempted to respond with even more exasperation, but an apology would be so much better. And if I’ve offended I’ll happily consider the same.

  49. Okay, Mike. As I said, I’ve learned after many years doing this — and BloggingHeads — not to get into endless backs and forths, when there is no chance of coming to agreement, and certainly not to solicit and trade apologies for things that simply don’t matter that much. Sorry you don’t like Wolf’s piece. I and many many others find it an important landmark. Best, –Dan K.

  50. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Mike, it’s all very well and good to question the ability of subjective human valuation to track objective moral truth, but what’s the alternative? As far as I can tell, you have to either put your trust in intuition or reject moral realism, and either way you can’t say anything against Wolf’s reliance on our judgments of admirability. Perhaps you think that practical reason can be derived from pure reason, and if that’s so then I’d be curious to see how you can back that up, because I don’t think it can be done. Wolf’s way of evaluating ideals is the most obvious one that doesn’t require a theistic framework, and it’s not absurd, it’s how people actually think about morality. Indeed, I think that if people were to put these considerations to one side when doing ethics, they would end up with judgments that had little force for them and morality would cease to serve us practically.
    Further, how would you cash out your moral realism? Moorean realism would seem to favour Wolf due to its commonsenseism, and as Dan has pointed out naturalist moral realism doesn’t work without teleology.
    For all your complaints about Wolf’s lack of clarity, your criticism of her seems to amount to your dismissing the way morality actually works in the modern world as absurd, and insufficiently rational and adopting a vague realist posture. If that’s all you can say against Wolf’s argument, then her scepticism about moral sainthood seems well-founded to me.