Who is Susan Wolf?

Susan R Wolf

Susan Wolf is a professor of moral philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose work focuses on themes of free will, meaning, and happiness. She might be one of the few people to actually have an answer ready to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” The reading for this digital essay relates to Wolf’s questions about contemporary morality. She asks the reader to think deeply about what a moral saint would look like and if this ideal is something worth striving towards.

To brush up on theories of morality, check out these articles on utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and virtue ethics. As you read through this digital essay, feel free to refer to the full pdf of the text. Note that the original text below only covers specific excerpts.

Key Principle Key Concepts

  • Moral Saint
  • Loving Saint
  • Rational Saint
  • Nonmoral Virtues

Argument Introduction to the Moral Saints Puzzle

In the first section of her article, Wolf sets up this problem: according to some very famous moral theories, you should try to be a moral saint. But, on reflection, moral saints actually don’t seem like worthy role models. As you begin reading, think about what needs to change in moral theories to solve this puzzle.

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 be 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.

Key Principle What are Moral Saints?

Kinds of Moral Saints

Next, Wolf details different kinds of moral saints. Consider what assumptions a moral saint must make about the good life. Do you have these same assumptions?

Consider first what, pretheoretically, would count for us—contemporary members of Western culture—as a moral saint. A necessary condition of moral sainthood would be that one's life be dominated by a commitment to improving the welfare of others or of society as a whole. As to what role this commitment must play in the individual's motivational system, two contrasting accounts suggest themselves to me which might equally be thought to qualify a person for moral sainthood.

The Loving Saint

First, for the moral saint, the promotion of the welfare of others might play the role that is played for most of us by the enjoyment of material comforts, the opportunity to engage in the intellectual and physical activities of our choice, and the love, respect, and companionship of people whom we love, respect, and enjoy. The happiness of the moral saint, then, would truly lie in the happiness of others, and so he would devote himself to others gladly, and with a whole and open heart.

In other words, the loving saint actually maximizes their own happiness through moral sainthood. Devoting their lives fully to the service of others brings them joy.

The Rational Saint

On the other hand, a moral saint might be someone for whom the basic ingredients of happiness are not unlike those of most of the rest of us. What makes him a moral saint is rather that he pays little or no attention to his own happiness in light of the overriding importance he gives to the wider concerns of morality. In other words, this person sacrifices his own interests to the interests of others and feels the sacrifice as such.

Comparing Moral Saints

Roughly, these two models may be distinguished according to whether one thinks of the moral saint as being a saint out of love or one thinks of the moral saint as being a saint out of duty (or some other intellectual appreciation and recognition of moral principles).

The two models differ considerably with respect to the qualities of the motives of the individuals who conform to them. But this difference would have limited effect on the saints' respective public personalities. One moral saint may be more or less jovial, more or less garrulous, more or less athletic than another. But, above all, a moral saint must have and cultivate those qualities which are apt to allow him to treat others as justly and kindly as possible. He will have the standard moral virtues to a nonstandard degree. He will be patient, considerate, even-tempered, hospitable, charitable in thought as well as in deed. He will be very reluctant to make negative judgments of other people. He will be careful not to favor some people over others on the basis of properties they could not help but have.

Connection A Rational Saint on Television?

A rational saint might look like Doug Forcett from the TV show “The Good Place.” Doug knows that every action has a negative or positive point value which will determine whether or not he goes to the Good Place of the Bad Place (aka, Heaven or Hell). He does everything in his power to act morally not because it brings him happiness, but because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

What you’ll notice from the clip, though, is that Doug Forcett is not the kind of person you would want to hang out with for too long. Do you really want to have to drink recycled sewage water? Keep an eye out for how “likability” factors into Wolf’s argument.

Argument No One Likes a Goody Two-Shoes

The Nonmoral Virtues Argument

The first prong of Wolf’s argument relies on a more intuitive approach. Namely, that having interests and passions about things other than morality should factor into our lives.

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.

In other words, 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. Although no one of the interests or tastes in the category containing these latter activities could be claimed to be a necessary element in a life well lived, a life in which none of these possible aspects of character are developed may seem to be a life strangely barren.

The reasons why a moral saint cannot, in general, encourage the discovery and development of significant nonmoral interests and skills are not logical but practical reasons. There are, in addition, a class of nonmoral characteristics that a moral saint cannot encourage in himself for reasons that are not just practical. There is a more substantial tension between having any of these qualities unashamedly and being a moral saint. These qualities might be described as going against the moral grain. For example, 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.

An interest in something like gourmet cooking will be, for different reasons, 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. If there is a justification for the institution of haute cuisine, it is one which rests on the decision not to justify every activity against morally beneficial alternatives, and this is a decision a moral saint will never make.

A moral saint will have to be very, very nice. It is important that he not be offensive. The worry is that, as a result, he will have to be dull-witted or humorless or bland.

Nonmoral Virtues Argument Breakdown

Putting all this together, we can summarize Wolf’s argument so far as follows:

(1) A moral saint is someone who acts as morally as possible.

(2) A moral saint cannot pursue nonmoral interests because they crowd out the potential for moral action and they can have an “anti-moral” tinge.

(3) If you cannot have nonmoral interests, then you can only cultivate a very particular set of personality traits.

(4) These traits are generally unlikeable when taken to an extreme.

(C) Moral saints are unlikable.

So far, Wolf has argued that, intuitively, people don't want to be a moral saint or be around them because morality dominates other likable qualities.

Connection The Purity Trope

Characters who are mild-mannered, soft-spoken, virginal, and don't rock the boat fall into the Purity Trope in media like film, television, literature, and more. These characters are often women who act not as individuals with their own personal desires and goals, but as receptors for the desires and goals of others. You might know these characters by the term “flat,” which references their lack of well-roundedness. Sleeping Beauty, for example, is known for her beauty, purity, and happiness. She is passive within the story and a beacon of moral goodness against the evil Maleficent.

We often don’t emotionally invest in these characters or see them as fully fleshed-out human beings because they are unrelatable and distant. They seem more like a caricature than a character. The same feelings arise when we think of moral saints. It is difficult to connect to a moral saint because they lack the vulnerability, passion, and quirks of other people. In other words, those so committed to morality do not exude a unique sense of self.

This explains why we prefer it if our role models come with some quirks, as Wolf goes on to say:

When one does finally turn one's eyes toward lives that are dominated by explicitly moral commitments, moreover, one finds oneself relieved at the discovery of idiosyncrasies or eccentricities not quite in line with the picture of moral perfection.

It seems that, as we look in our ideals for people who achieve nonmoral varieties of personal excellence in conjunction with or colored by some version of high moral tone, we look in our paragons of moral excellence for people whose moral achievements occur in conjunction with or colored by some interests or traits that have low moral tone. In other words, there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.

Objection The "Too Much of a Good Thing" Objection

The Objection

Philosophers often anticipate objections in their own papers, and Wolf is no exception. Here, she imagines someone equating an obsession with morality to any other kind of obsession (say, an obsession with cooking).

One might suspect that the essence of the problem is simply that there is a limit to how much of any single value, or any single type of value, we can stand. Our objection then would not be specific to a life in which one's dominant concern is morality, but would apply to any life that can be so completely characterized by an extraordinarily dominant concern. The objection in that case would reduce to the recognition that such a life is incompatible with wellroundedness.

The Response

A person who is passionately committed to one of these latter concerns might decide that her attachment to it is strong enough to be worth the sacrifice of her ability to maintain and pursue a significant portion of what else life might offer which a proper devotion to her dominant passion would require. But a desire to be as morally good as possible is not likely to take the form of one desire among others which, because of its peculiar psychological strength, requires one to forego the pursuit of other weaker and separately less demanding desires. Rather, the desire to be as morally good as possible is apt to have the character not just of a stronger, but of a higher desire, which does not merely successfully compete with one's other desires but which rather subsumes or demotes them. The sacrifice of other interests for the interest in morality, then, will have the character, not of a choice, but of an imperative.

Here, Wolf’s point is that unlike other pursuits a person might become obsessed with, morality has a built-in imperative structure that can seem to require us to prioritize it above all else. She continues her response as follows:

Moreover, there is something odd about the idea of morality itself, or moral goodness, serving as the object of a dominant passion in the way that a more concrete and specific vision of a goal (even a concrete moral goal) might be imagined to serve. Morality itself does not seem to be a suitable object of passion. Thus, when one reflects, for example, 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. There seems, in other words, to be a kind of joy which the Loving Saint, either by nature or by practice, is incapable of experiencing. The Rational Saint, on the other hand, might retain strong nonmoral and concrete desires—he simply denies himself the opportunity to act on them. But this is no less troubling. The Loving Saint one might suspect of missing a piece of perceptual machinery, of being blind to some of what the world has to offer. The Rational Saint, who sees it but foregoes 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.

Wolf turns the argument for moral sainthood on its head by pointing out that devotion to morality might mean a lack of devotion for everything else good in life. There are certain kinds of joy and love that a moral saint will not experience. Moral sainthood, then, is not just obsessive behavior, it is self-denying.

Objection The “Morality and Fun Can Coexist” Objection

The Objection

The second objection is about logic. Why can’t a moral saint and nonmoral interests exist in the same, overlapping section of a Venn diagram?

Some will object that I am being unfair to “common-sense morality"—that it does not really require a moral saint to be either a disgusting goody-goody or an obsessive ascetic. Admittedly, there is no logical inconsistency between having any of the personal characteristics I have mentioned and being a moral saint. It is not morally wrong to notice the faults and shortcomings of others or to recognize and appreciate nonmoral talents and skills. Nor is it immoral to be an avid Celtics fan or to have a passion for caviar or to be an excellent cellist.

If one turned onto the path of moral sainthood relatively late in life, one may have already developed interests that can be turned to moral purposes. It may be that a good golf game is just what is needed to secure that big donation to Oxfam. Perhaps the cultivation of one's exceptional artistic talent will turn out to be the way one can make one's greatest contribution to society. Furthermore, one might stumble upon joys and skills in the very service of morality.

The Response

The point is that, for a moral saint, the existence of these interests and skills can be given at best the status of happy accidents—they cannot be encouraged for their own sakes as distinct, independent aspects of the realization of human good.

Wolf acknowledges that nonmoral interests might arise in conjunction with moral pursuits, but that this is not enough to claim that a moral saint can pursue any other passions or interests they have.

Argument The Case for Nonmoral Virtues

The Argument

So far, Wolf has argued for the unlikability of moral saints and the fact that their lives are just a bit...lackluster. In this section, she takes it a step further by suggesting that nonmoral virtues are valuable in and of themselves.

One might still wonder what kind of reason this is, and what kind of conclusion this properly allows us to draw. For the fact that the models of moral saints are unattractive does not necessarily mean that they are unsuitable ideals. Perhaps they are unattractive because they make us feel uncomfortable—they highlight our own weaknesses, vices, and flaws. If so, the fault lies not in the characters of the saints, but in those of our unsaintly selves.

The fact that the moral saint would be without qualities which we have and which, indeed, we like to have, does not in itself provide reason to condemn the ideal of the moral saint. The fact that some of these qualities are good qualities, however, and that they are qualities we ought to like, does provide reason to discourage this ideal and to offer other ideals in its place. In other words, some of the qualities the moral saint necessarily lacks are virtues, albeit nonmoral virtues, in the unsaintly characters who have them. The feats of Groucho Marx, Reggie Jackson, and the head chef at Lutece are impressive accomplishments that it is not only permissible but positively appropriate to recognize as such. In general, the admiration of and striving toward achieving any of a great variety of forms of personal excellence are character traits it is valuable and desirable for people to have. In advocating the development of these varieties of excellence, we advocate nonmoral reasons for acting, and in thinking that it is good for a person to strive for an ideal that gives a substantial role to the interests and values that correspond to these virtues, we implicitly acknowledge the goodness of ideals incompatible with that of the moral saint. Finally, if we think that it is as good, or even better for a person to strive for one of these ideals than it is for him or her to strive for and realize the ideal of the moral saint, we express a conviction that it is good not to be a moral saint.

The Argument Breakdown

(1) Given the definition of a moral saint, moral saints cannot practically or in good faith engage substantially in nonmoral activities or interests.

(2) Nonmoral activities and interests are valuable.

(3) It is better to strive for an ideal that includes nonmoral activities.

(4) It is not good to pursue moral sainthood.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If moral sainthood is not the answer, what is? Here is Wolf’s final sendoff:

Moral ideals do not, and need not, make the best personal ideals. Earlier, I mentioned one of the consequences of regarding as a test of an adequate moral theory that perfect obedience to its laws and maximal devotion to its interests be something we can wholeheartedly strive for in ourselves and wish for in those around us. Drawing out the consequences somewhat further should, I think, make us more doubtful of the proposed test than of the theories which, on this test, would fail. Given the empirical circumstances of our world, it seems to be an ethical fact that we have unlimited potential to be morally good, and endless opportunity to promote moral interests. But this is not incompatible with the not-so-ethical fact that we have sound, compelling, and not particularly selfish reasons to choose not to devote ourselves univocally to realizing this potential or to taking up this opportunity.

The purpose of Wolf’s article is to show the flawed logic of pursuing moral sainthood due to the fact that it leads to an unsatisfactory life lacking nonmoral interests. She does not give us a crystal clear recommendation for how to balance nonmoral and moral goods in our lives, but our takeaway should not be to pursue our nonmoral interests at the expense of our moral obligations. This would be to fall victim to the opposite extreme. To see how a life lacking moral interest would also be problematic, let’s consider a thought experiment...

Thought Experiment The Bone Marrow Transplant

You are a connoisseur of the finer things in life. Every day you enjoy 3-star restaurant meals, watch your favorite TV shows, and play tennis with your friends. You invest your money to grow your wealth so that you can continue to excel in nonmoral areas of life.

One day you get a call from your friend. They need a bone marrow transplant and are looking for a match. They ask you to donate. Since you are so committed to nonmoral interests, you refuse. Taking the time to donate would cut into your cooking class or force you to miss the neighborhood barbecue. Plus, the procedure could go wrong or make you weaker--you can’t risk that!

This picture of life is also disconcerting. Nonmoral pursuits are valuable, but they also become problematic if they crowd out moral concern. Wolf’s view is not a “get out of jail free” card for caring about being moral. Striving to be moral is still worthwhile even if the extreme of moral sainthood is problematic. But what is the right balance between moral and nonmoral virtues? Now that’s for you to decide.

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This digital essay was prepared by Margaret McGreevy from the University of Notre Dame.