Why and in what sense are our intuitons regarding 'moral saints' opposed to the conclusion Susan Wolf reaches regarding moral sainthood?

A critique of Susan Wolf's notion of moral sainthood

Term Paper, 2021

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Wolf’s Position

3. Prior Objections
3.1 We Cannot Be Too Moral
3.2 What Moral Saints Look Like
3.3 The Motivation of the Moral Saint

4. The Perks ofBeing a Saint
4.1 Moral Saints AsFree Agents
4.2 Moral Saints Arelmpactful
4.3 There Are Many Ways To Well-Roundness

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The notion that one ought to be as morally good as possible is widely spread and can be found throughout history and in many cultures. Following that notion, a good person is a morally good person. And the more morally good someone is, the more he is considered to be a good person. This ideal also plays a central role in many religions - even today many people subscribe to this notion. Furthermore, it is easy to find examples of people who are in one way or another striving to become as morally good as possible.1

This idea of morality as a measurement of the good life has been challenged by Susan Wolf in her 1982 paper concerning ‘moral saints.’ In the paper she argues that one should not aim to be as morally good as possible, and that people would not even want to be close to a person who has reached moral perfection (Wolf, 1982:419). She questions wether a life that is solely concerned with morality would inevitably lack what we believe to be necessary for a well-rounded and good life (Wolf, 1982:421). A moral saint, for example, could not devote her time to learn to play the violin because the time spend on practicing could also be used to fight poverty or prevent climate change. She further argues that a person who is solely concerned with morality will be a rather annoying and unpleasant person lacking certain character traits, such as humor and sharpness (Wolf, 1982:422).

This paper will offer a critique of Wolfs thesis, and will mainly focus on two points I will introduce that are strongly connected with each other. The first one is the notion of free will, that is, that one can only be a moral saint by choice and out of one’s own free will. After offering some reasons to support this thesis, I will demonstrate how this idea constitutes a problem for Wolf’s argumentation and possibly even leads to a complete rejection of it. Secondly, I will argue that a moral saint will affect their surroundings in a way that will make up for the possible downsides of moral saintliness. Hereby I will also show why exactly Wolf’s argument seems to work in the first place and why it eventually has to fail. I will mainly argue that her notion of well-roundness is too narrow, and that fulfillment can be reached through many other ways.

Wolf’s thesis has been widely discussed and criticized in several ways, some of which I will reference in my argumentation, even though I am inclined to reject their conclusiveness. In order to show that a new critique of Wolf is needed I will summarize three objections that have been made, and I will offer some reasons for rejecting them.

2. Wolf’s position

Wolf defines a ‘moral saint’ as someone “whose every action is as morally good as possible” (Wolf, 1982:419) and who therefore is “as morally worthy as can be” (ibid.). Although she grants that such a description can apply to a great variety of types of people (ibid.), she argues that everybody who could count as a moral saint will have to spend most of their time maximizing the general welfare (Wolf, 1982:420). Thus, there will be no time left to invest in nonmoral skills and interests, such as learning to play an instrument, reading novels, sports, etc., because the time spent on these could as well be used for moral causes (Wolf, 1982:422). A moral saint could furthermore not have an interest in fashion, design, gourmet cooking or enjoy, let alone produce, sarcastic humor, for those kinds of things seem to include either an unjustifiably huge amount of time and resources or simply go against moral virtues, such as kindness and looking for the best in people (Wolf, 1982:422). Amoral saint also could never reach the status of a modem ideal, like “athletes, scholars, artists [...], cowboys, private eyes, and rock stars,” who devote a lot of time to nonmoral causes (Wolf, 1982:422).

Wolf distinguishes between two types of moral saints, one that is acting out of love, and the other who is acting out of duty (Wolf, 1982:420). The loving saint, however, will presumably simply be blind to what else the world has to offer, while the rational saint might have “a pathological fear of damnation [...] or an extreme form of self-hatred” (Wolf, 1982:424). I shall later argue that neither is the case.

Though Wolf grants that due to favorable circumstances a moral saint might end up pursuing nonmoral ends anyway because it highly benefits a moral cause (e.g. playing golf in order to raise money), she points out that those cases can merely be described as “happy little accidents” (Wolf, 1982:426) since the nonmoral action could not have been performed if it hab not coincidentally had moral value (ibid.). Therefore it really was not even a nonmoral action and the moral saint still is unable to pursue nonmoral interests for their own sake. The same argument applies for talents or skills that are acquired before a person becomes a moral saint (ibid.).

Although Wolf proceeds to discuss moral saints with regard to Kant and utilitarianism I won’t be diving into her further argumentation, as these beforementioned aspects of Wolfs work are most central to my critique.

3. Prior Objections

3.1 We Cannot Be Too Moral

One early objection to Wolf’s paper has been made by Robert Louden (1988) who argues that the conclusion made by Wolf could only be reached due to an underlying misconception of morality. He offers a moral conception which he calls the “classical view” (Louden, 1988:363) that is “arguably superior to our own” (Louden, 1988:362) moral conception. Thereby, he manly focuses on Kantian2 and Aristotelian ethics but notes that those are merely two examples of many (Louden, 1988:364). According to this conception of morality, the aim of morality is not to maximize the general welfare, but self-perfection (Louden, 1988:365). In that sense morality is mainly concerned with a certain way of being, not (directly) with our way of acting (Louden, 1988:370). Kant, for example, focuses a lot on the underlying good will and the training of that will (Louden, 1988:366). Kant's ethics also include the cultivation of one’s “natural powers” (Louden, 1988, 368) which are crucial to morality because for Kant, the cultivation of these powers is a duty in itself and they are necessary to achieve moral goals (Louden, 1988:368). Louden also points out that one can never act purely moral and that one always has to draw on skills and traits that have been developed earlier in life (Louden, 1988:367). So one has to promote nonmoral traits and talents. We do not need, as Wolf puts it, “enough imagination [...] [to] contrive a suitable history and set of circumstances” (Wolf, 1982:426) in order to have a moral saint pursuing nonmoral goals. In fact, it is simply impossible to act for any human being without drawing upon nonmoral talents and character traits. Further, Louden points out that in the classical view the moral saint’s inner motivations and feelings matter (Louden, 1988:368). It would be odd to call someone a moral saint who is secretly hating the people she is treating (ibid.).

In Kantian and Aristotelian philosophy, ethics play an “architectonic” (Louden, 1988:376) role, that is, they are fundamentally to human life. For Aristotle, all “decisions regarding what roles personal, aesthetic, social and intellectual interests are to play in individual and public life are themselves ethical and political decisions” (Louden, 1988:375). If ethics are concerned with all these fields and, furthermore, with one’s own character and will, there can be no such thing as ‘too much morality,’ as that would mean that one could be “too well-ordered” or“too systematically reflectedupon” (Louden, 1988:376).


1 Even though they might not phrase it that way. Vanessa Carbonell (2009) has pointed out that most people who we might consider to be ‘moral saints’ do not act in order to become morally good, but rather because they are directly motivated by the cause they are invested in, e.g. curing the ill or feeding the hungry. Nevertheless, they strive to become better at what they are doing, which makes them candidates for moral sainthood, even if they did not do it in order to be moral saints.

2 Both include Kant in their argumentation but Louden claims that Wolf’s reading of Kant is either different from his or she “attaches the wrong significance to it” (Louden, 1988:367).

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Why and in what sense are our intuitons regarding 'moral saints' opposed to the conclusion Susan Wolf reaches regarding moral sainthood?
A critique of Susan Wolf's notion of moral sainthood
Humboldt-University of Berlin
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Ethik, Susan Wolf, Saints, Moral Saints, Heilig, Moral
Quote paper
Felix Haus (Author), 2021, Why and in what sense are our intuitons regarding 'moral saints' opposed to the conclusion Susan Wolf reaches regarding moral sainthood?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1164511


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