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Susan Wolf: “Moral Saints”. “…our values cannot be fully comprehended on the model of a hierarchical system with morality at the top” p. 232. What is a moral saint?. Wolf’s definition: Someone “whose every action is as morally good as possible.”

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Susan wolf moral saints

Susan Wolf: “Moral Saints”

“…our values cannot be fully comprehended on the model of a hierarchical system with morality at the top” p. 232

What is a moral saint
What is a moral saint?

  • Wolf’s definition: Someone “whose every action is as morally good as possible.”

  • “…moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model fo personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.” (p. 221)

2 kinds of moral saints
2 Kinds of Moral Saints

  • (1) The Loving Saint: Concern for others plays the role that is played in most of our lives by more selfish…less morally worthy concerns. (A utilitarian saint.) His/her happiness lies in others’ happiness.

  • (2) The Rational Saint: “Pays little or no attention to his own happiness in light of the overriding importance he gives to the wider concerns of morality.” (A Kantian saint.) p. 222

What the moral saint is like
What the moral saint is like

  • May be “more or less jovial, more or less garrulous, more or less athletic…but must have and cultivate those qualities which are apt to allow him to treat others as justly and kindly as possible…He will be patient, considerate, even-tempered, hospitable, charitable in thought as well as deed…” p. 222

  • Does this sound like a desirable way to be?

So what s the problem
So what’s the problem?

  • “…the moral virtues are…all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree” and so “are apt to crowd out the non-moral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy well-rounded, richly developed character…” (p. 222)

Why devotion to moral values crowds out non moral values
Why devotion to moral values crowds out non-moral values

  • Time pressures: “…if 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…”

  • Conflicts with morality: …a moral saint can’t cultivate a cynical or sarcastic wit, or a sense of humor that appreciates this kind of wit or attitude of resignation or pessimism…” Can’t enjoy Marx Bros. or G.B. Shaw

Ms misses out on non moral goods
MS misses out on non-moral goods

  • There are goods that are frivolous or use resources that morality might demand, e.g., gourmet cooking.

  • A moral saint will have to be very, very nice and therefore dull-witted, humorless and bland.

Supremacy of morality
Supremacy of morality

  • If moral values are supreme, then why would there be a reason to pursue something more than we pursue moral values?

  • Why would we “strive for Katherine Hepburn’s grace, Paul Newman’s ‘cool’…” (p. 223)

  • Less upright characters are often preferable…Father Brown to St. Francis.

Wolf s objection applied to utilitarianism
Wolf’s Objection Applied to Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarianism doesn’t want a world of moral saints but the utilitarian would ‘privately’ have a commitment to moral sainthood.

  • The amount of suffering one could alleviate by helping the ‘sick, the downtrodden, the starving, the homeless’ would dwarf whatever overall happiness is promoted by developing the interesting non-moral characteristics.

  • But W. says you’d have to hide your moral saintliness & value for non-moral is ‘one thought too many.’

Wolf s objection applied to kantian theory
Wolf’s Objection Applied to Kantian Theory

  • Kantian: Moral worth requires acting on the motive of duty and treating persons always as ends and never as means only.

  • Therefore, it is less demanding when it comes to every action.

  • However, duties ‘are unlimited in the degree to which they may dominate a life.’


  • “…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 morally good…” “…a person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral…’

  • Moral philosophers must “examine explicitly the range and nature of…non-moral values, and…ask how the acceptance of a moral theory is to be understood and acted upon…” p. 232

Moral point of view v personal excellence
Moral point of view v. Personal excellence

  • The point of view of individual perfection=the piont of view from which we consider what kinds of lives are good lives, and what kinds of persons it would be good for ourselves and others to be.

  • Gives us reasons independent of moral reasons to take up certain valuable activities, etc.