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After a brief clarification in terms, I would like to approach Susan Wolf’s essay “Moral Saints” in two ways. First, I will discuss her ‘dethronement’ of ethics as the sole, or primary, determinant of the choices we make. Wolf believes that moral goals are not necessarily the only goals towards which it is reasonable to strive. Second, however, I would like to disagree with Wolf’s contention “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” (377). It seems to me that there are ways in which striving towards moral saintliness does not necessarily contradict living a life that even Wolf would agree was well lived. In effect, my argument will be that if we accept Wolf’s claims about the situation of morality as one-among-many human pursuits then we can, indeed, reasonably strive toward the goal of moral saintliness without an undue lack of social, intellectual and cultural cultivation.

First however, I think it is important to define precisely what I mean by a ‘moral saint’. As Louis Pojman notes in his response to Wolf’s essay, Wolf puts forth a number of subtly different definitions of what constitutes ‘moral saintliness’. Pojman states that

Wolf seems to equivocate on exactly what constitutes moral saints. At various times she defines the concept in terms of actions… at other times in terms of character and virtue... and at still other times in terms of motivation. Although she seems to think that these definitions are equivalent, they are not (for example, our motives may be pure but the act that results may not be the best possible; nor need it be the case that someone who is as morally worthy as possible always does the very best act) (Pojman, 390).
Due to the brief nature of this writeup, I will consider the term ‘moral saint’ to refer solely to “a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be” (Wolf, 377). Thus I will be conceiving of the goal of moral saintliness as a goal which points towards correct moral action, rather than the cultivation of an Aristotelian virtuous ‘style’ of living.

Terminological considerations out of the way, I would like to move on to a discussion of how Susan Wolf sees morality in relation to other modes of thought and living (aesthetic, athletic, etc.). She states that:

The role morality plays in the development of our characters and the shape of our practical deliberations need be neither that of a universal medium into which all the other values must be translated nor that of an ever present filter through which all other values must pass. 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 (387).
So Wolf sees morality as one system of valuation among many. Thus, morality should not (necessarily) supercede, for example, aesthetic values in the consideration of whether or not to purchase a painting. Though morality may come into the equation, it may even always inform our deliberations, it does not of necessity veto non-moral considerations.

The problem with such a conception is that it is difficult to see how one might determine which system of valuation (moral, aesthetic, economic…) should be given priority in a particular case; how do we decide between the moral or aesthetic side of a question if neither is preeminent? She poses the question “What then, is at the top—or, if there is no top, how are we to decide when and how much to be moral?” (387). Philosophically, we would expect the answer to be provided in some form of “meta… moral theory that will give us principles, or at least, informal directives on the basis of which we can develop and evaluate more comprehensive personal ideals” (387). Thus, in order to ground the dethronement of morality-as-trump, we seem to require a new trump, a meta-moral theory of some kind, in which we can ground our decisions between systems of valuation. Wolf, however, disagrees. She advocates the view 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. It must be admitted that, in doing so, we run the risk of finding normative answers that diverge from the answers given by whatever moral theory one accepts” (387). She refers to this belief as “a form of intuitionism which is not intended to take the place of more rigorous systematically developed, moral theories—rather it is intended to put these more rigorous and systematic moral theories in their place” (387-388). In essence, Wolf seems to be indicating that philosophy (as systematized thought) can only bring us so far; ultimately its valuations and judgments offer no consolation and rely upon Wolf’s ‘healthy intuitionism’.

This ‘intuitionism’ recalls a comment of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s that “in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.—But such a sound is an expression only as it occurs in a particular language-game, which should now be described” (Wittgenstein, Section 261, 93e). That is to say, all the rigorous shoring up of definitions and terminological clarity we can accomplish can never get us outside of the further need to describe, define and contextualize (for Wittgenstein it was the attempt to define words or expressions, for Wolf it is the need to define the priority of particular theoretical system with respect to particular situations). Thus, for Wolf, no appeal to meta-theoretical principles can be made that will absolutely decide for us whether moral or non-moral considerations are more important in a particular instance; only the consolation of intuition is available.

This inability to appeal to absolutely definitive meta-theoretical principles in order to decide which system of valuation to apply in a certain case provides, I think, a basis for subverting Wolf’s own objections to the use of ‘moral saintliness’ as a desirable or reasonable goal. Pojman objects that Wolf’s characterization of the moral saint as a necessarily boring person is an entirely subjective position. He states that:

My wife finds football exceedingly dull, whereas I find it exhilarating. Albert Einstein might seem boring to a group of basketball fanatics, whereas Bobby Knight might not be the most intriguing guest at a conference on astronomical research. Alas, even Wolf’s article, which excites most philosophers, leaves some students bored to tears. … I, for one, confess to admiring an underweight, ugly, unathletic, wizened old saint like Gandhi far more than the heroes wolf says evince our ideals… It is not that people never admire the nonmoral virtues (or those that possess them)… Pojman, 392.
Pojman’s position is that while Wolf herself might find moral saints to be boring, even repellant figures, for many (and I think Pojman would say most) people this is simply not the case. Thus, though Wolf states that “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” 377, this position is made untenable by her very subscription to ‘healthy intuitionism’. There is no non-subjective ground upon which Wolf can say that someone is being too moral, aesthetic or athletic. Rather her predilection toward ‘well-roundedness’ must necessarily remain within the realm of the subjective. That is, until such a time as her doubts, about the possibility of constructing a meta-theoretical framework within which her position would “not be subject to considerations parallel to those which seem inherently to limit the appropriateness of regarding moral theories as ultimate comprehensive guides for action,” 387 are allayed.

So, it seems that not only is Wolf’s intuitionism incompatible with her belief in moral saintliness as an unreasonable goal but that precisely the opposite conclusion can be drawn from this intuitionism. Even if we grant that there may be “a limit to how much morality we can stand” (379) (though that limit is indefinable) and that moral saints might not appeal to our particular sensibilities, it does not follow that moral saintliness is an unreasonable goal. Rather, I would argue that for Wolf, while moral saintliness does not constitute a complete model for personal well being (because such a complete model is theoretically untenable), it is, indeed, one competing goal to which one might aspire. Even though achieving this goal may be undesirable in itself, striving towards it, in tandem with our other non moral goals, can do nothing but moral good. Simply striving towards this other goal, if we accept that there are other competing goals, does not in itself lead to cultural ignorance or a lack of cultivation of other non-moral goals. If we merely think of the goal of moral saintliness as one goal among many (as Wolf’s position would seem to indicate we should), then we will not necessarily be lead to the unpalatable path of perfect moral saintliness.

****Let it be noted that far from disagreeing with Wolf's position in the technical details, and finding it incoherent, I reject the whole foundation upon which it is built. Her watered down Nietzschean standpoint I find insulting on two levels:
  1. I'd rather read Nietzsche at his absolute worst than read a bastardized, 'presentable', safe version of him.
  2. I think the attempt to co-opt Nietzschean thought into an analytic framework is bound to fail due the necessarily anti-analytic (or at least highly critical of what the analytic trend in Anglo-American philosophy would term 'analytic') thread in his thought

Works Cited

  1. Louis P. Pojman, “In Defense of Moral Saints” pp. 388-396 in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Wadsworth, Toronto, 2002).
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe and edited by Rush Rhees and G.E.M. Anscombe (German and English text, no further publishing information provided with this edition).
  3. Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints” pp. 377-388 in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Wadsworth, Toronto, 2002).

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