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.”
(3) “Moral Saints,” p. 421.
(4) Loc. Cit.
(5) Ibid., p. 422.
(6) Loc. Cit.
(7) Ibid., p. 424.
(8) Ibid., pp. 435-436.