On Thursday evening’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss one of my favorite articles in academic philosophy, namely Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints.” I disagree with major elements of the article — as I’ll explain on the show — yet it’s a masterful dissection of the practical meaning of being a consistent practitioner of Kantian ethics or utilitarian ethics. (That’s what is meant by a “moral saint.”)
The article begins:
I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them. 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. Though I shall in a moment acknowledge the variety of types of person that might be thought to satisfy this description, it seems to me that none of these types serve as unequivocally compelling personal ideals. In other words, I believe that moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would he particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.
Outside the context of moral discussion, this will strike many as an obvious point. But, within that context, the point, if it be granted, will be granted with some discomfort. For within that context it is generally assumed that one ought to be as morally good as possible and that what limits there are to morality’s hold on us are set by features of human nature of which we ought not to be proud. If, as I believe, the ideals that are derivable from common sense and philosophically popular moral theories do not support these assumptions, then something has to change. Either we must change our moral theories in ways that will make them yield more palatable ideals, or, as I shall argue, we must change our conception of what is involved in affirming a moral theory.
In this paper, 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, and, second, to raise some questions about the significance of this paradoxical figure in moral philosophy. I shall look first at the model(s) of moral sainthood that might be extrapolated from the morality or moralities of common sense. The I shall consider what relations these have to conclusions that can be drawn from utilitarian and Kantian moral theories. Finally, I shall speculate on the implications of the considerations for moral philosophy.
If you’d like to read the article in advance — and I think you’ll get more out of my discussion if you do — you’ll find the PDF here: “Moral Saints” by Susan Wolf.