Moral Saints Sara S.
December 13, 2001
Ethical Theory

Moral and Nonmoral Perfection

The main issue I wish to address is the conflict between moral and nonmoral virtues and motives. More specifically, I will explore the extent of this conflict, its implications, and possible misunderstandings. As a primary text, I will use Susan Wolf's ``Moral Saints'' to examine this conflict in light of her notions of excellence of both moral and nonmoral virtues.

I will begin by attempting to clarify what is meant by moral excellence or moral saintliness. A moral saint, says Wolf, is an idealization, someone ``whose every action is as morally good as possible'', someone who is ``as morally worthy as can be'' (Wolf, 419). This paragon of moral excellence is an ideal, and one who wishes to be as morally good as can be will emulate this ideal. Moral saints are good, kind, just, and possess all of the other such traits that are typically associated with moral excellence. Moral sainthood requires that ``one's life be dominated by a commitment to improving the welfare of others'' (Wolf, 420).

Wolf distinguishes between two kinds of moral saints, the Loving Saint and the Rational Saint. Loving Saints are those who derive their happiness from making others happy; they act out of a motive of love. Rational Saints act out of duty; their saintliness comes at the cost of sacrificing their interests for those of others (Wolf, 420).

Being, or attempting to be, a moral saint is no easy task. Furthermore, Wolf states quite confidently that most of us don't, and shouldn't, want to strive for such moral excellence. The pursuit of moral excellence to the exclusion of all else is not a goal to which we aspire; it is a goal that we should be leery of. As Wolf says, ``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'' (Wolf, 419).

Wolf finds the ideal of the moral saint objectionable for a number of reasons. She believes that the moral saint, if such a being could exist, would be too good, boring, bland, and simply not good in all the ways that one might want. Her primary concern is that the moral saint will be missing many attributes that she thinks it is necessary to have; instead the moral saint will live an empty, barren life. Since the moral saint strives for excellence in all moral virtues, she worries that these moral virtues will ``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'' (Wolf, 421). In other words, one who strives for moral sainthood must have an unbalanced character.

For support, Wolf turns to a description of characteristics that we look for in role models and virtues we might like to encourage. Wolf's depiction of a well-rounded and desirable life includes such things as reading literature, playing instruments, and engaging in sports (Wolf, 421). We look for role models not only in Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, but in scholars, artists, and athletes as well (Wolf, 422). As for virtues, she believes that we look for grace, perceptiveness, a passionate nature, and many other nonmoral virtues. We prefer role models who are balanced over those who are only morally virtuous. The pursuit of nonmoral excellence, then, is one that we want, and have reason, to encourage.

The life of Wolf's Moral Saint, on the other hand, is void of the pursuit of these nonmoral excellences. Wolf believes that the moral saint cannot encourage athletic, aesthetic, intellectual, or any number of other virtues because the pursuit of these virtues would conflict with the pursuit of moral excellence. The moral saint will always feel that his time and effort could have been put to better use by attempting to increase his moral, rather than his nonmoral, excellence. As Wolf says, ``no plausible argument can justify the use of [the moral saint's] resources involved in producing [art, fine cuisine, etc.] against possible alternative beneficent ends to which these resources might be put'' (Wolf, 422).

The conflict between the moral and nonmoral pursuits and virtues is one that cannot easily be reconciled. Although these nonmoral pursuits are not immoral and present no direct conflict with the quest for moral excellence, the indirect conflict is real. The seemingly limitless goal to be as moral as one can be may not leave room for the moral saint to ever pursue nonmoral interests. This leads Wolf to claim that nonmoral ideals ``cannot be superimposed upon the ideals of a moral saint'' (Wolf, 422).

This claim deserves serious consideration. The moral saint has limited resources. Time and energy spent pursuing nonmoral interests could otherwise be spent on moral interests. Furthermore, moral sainthood seems to require that the desire to be as morally good as possible be ``a higher desire, which does not merely successfully compete with one's other desires but which rather subsumes or demotes them.'' (Wolf, 424).

Must the pursuit of moral excellence exclude the pursuit of nonmoral excellence? If not, then it seems that there is no problem; both can coexist. If, on the other hand, they are mutually exclusive, then the moral saint cannot have room for the nonmoral pursuits that Wolf desires. The demands of the pursuit of moral excellence are fundamentally greedy. ``The way in which morality, unlike other possible goals, is apt to dominate is particularly disturbing'' (Wolf, 424). I wish to further discuss whether this domination must crowd out the pursuit of nonmoral virtues.

This ideal moral excellence seems to require dominance by definition. The moral saint is highly motivated by, in fact is driven by, this desire to be as moral as possible (if not better). This motivation must override all other considerations for the moral saint. This does not, however, obviously negate the possibility of pursuing other virtues. Other virtues or projects may be pursued provided that they do not interfere with moral excellence and can be given up, or trumped, by the pursuit of moral excellence. Moral excellence may be unique in its demanding requirements; the pursuit of nonmoral excellence may be less resource-intensive. At first glance, there does not seem to be any cause for alarm that the pursuit of morality will significantly hinder the pursuit of personal nonmoral goals.

The question, then, is whether or not the moral saint can pursue nonmoral excellence within a system in which the pursuit of moral values must trump all other considerations. Wolf does not deny the possibility that one may be able to pursue both moral and nonmoral virtues; the moral saint may have or develop nonmoral virtues. But she cautions that ``for a moral saint, the existence of [nonmoral] 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, 425). Presumably, this is because such interests could interfere with the pursuit of moral excellence. However, to say that nonmoral interests can be developed is not the same as saying that they ought to be developed. Wolf believes that we have reason to encourage the pursuit of nonmoral interests not merely as means to moral ends, but for their own sake.

It may prove useful to discuss the questions that have been raised with reference to Kantian ethics in particular. Roughly speaking (and only roughly speaking), the Kantian moral agent is similar to Wolf's Rational Saint. He is one who acts out of a motive of duty or out of respect for the moral law. He believes in a categorical imperative, a formula for a command which is to be followed as an end, not as a means. Kant takes the categorical imperative to be as follows: Act as if the maxim of your actions were to become a universal law. Kant offers several other equivalent formulations including that one should act in such a way as to treat other people as ends and not merely means.

The perfect Kantian, then, might be one who always acts in such a way that could be universally adopted and who always treats others as ends. This picture of a perfect Kantian moral agent does not seem to be that of any extreme or ideal saintliness. The Kantian moral agent, though, does have a number of obligations, including the duty to take up the projects of others as his own and the duty to increase his own moral perfection. ``These duties are unlimited in the degree to which they may dominate a life'' (Wolf, 430). One who is striving to be as morally good as one can be might take a life wholly dominated by these duties as the ideal. This Kantian, then, is dominated by moral motivation, much like Wolf's notion of a moral saint (Wolf, 431). The Kantian moral saint has a duty to constantly approximate the morally virtuous ideal.

Since this Kantian moral saint is dominated by a motivation to be moral, the range of nonmoral motives and actions available to him is restricted. It is restricted severely because activities have to be valued insofar as they respect the moral law (Wolf, 431). Any nonmoral actions, it seems, must be pursued for moral reasons, not as ends in themselves. This appears to be inconsistent with Wolf's notion of the pursuit of nonmoral excellence for its own sake.

Wolf considers a different interpretation of the Kantian moral saint, one who stands a better chance of being able to satisfactorily pursue nonmoral excellence. If the Kantian agent is under only a finite set of obligations, moral motivation might not require such dominance. A Kantian might be as morally good as possible if he dedicates a limited portion of his time and energy to altruism. He may otherwise pursue his own ``independently motivated interests and values in such a way as to avoid overstepping certain bounds'' (Wolf, 431).

But even if this Kantian agent satisfies the requirements of moral sainthood, this may not be enough to placate Wolf's objections. Wolf feels that the bounds established by morality will not allow enough room for the pursuit of nonmorally directed directed ideals. In addition to restricting the extent to which one may pursue nonmoral interests, Wolf says that it will also restrict ``the quality of one's attachment to these interests and traits'' (Wolf, 429). She concludes, ``the tight and self-conscious rein we are thus obliged to keep on our commitments to specific individuals and causes will doubtless restrict our value in these things, assigning them a necessarily attenuated place'' (Wolf, 432).

If the pursuit of moral excellence requires that the ideal ``as worthy as possible'' be limitless, we return to the following: Is it a problem for the pursuit of the nonmoral virtues that they must be trumpable by this moral pursuit? It seems that any nonmoral interests that can exist within this limited space will be very casual and undemanding interests that do not approximate anything like the pursuit of nonmoral virtues that Wolf describes. Indeed, it is only ``weak and somewhat peculiar passions to which one can consciously remain so conditionally committed.'' The pursuit of these nonmoral interests as ``extra-curricular'' activities is not nearly enough to satisfy Wolf's nonmoral ideals (Wolf, 429).

Yet, it might be the case that the pursuit of the nonmoral virtues does not demand anything like the sort of attention that the moral virtues require and that such virtues could be pursued in this bounded space. I find it difficult to see how these virtues could thrive within the restrictions, but it does seem at least somewhat plausible, provided that such a space exists. Perhaps however, the unlimited requirements self-imposed by the moral saint could be so great as to prevent such a space from existing at all. If actions done in pursuit of moral virtues are always to be preferred, there is no place for the pursuit of nonmoral virtues, unless they are pursued as a means to further moral excellence.

This leads to another possibility; the conflict between the pursuit of moral and nonmoral virtues may be greatly exaggerated. Perhaps it is not the case that only moral or nonmoral excellence can be pursued. Instead, it might be that both can, even must, be pursued simultaneously. Wolf suggests that we prefer a ``well-rounded'' character for nonmoral, intuitive reasons (Wolf, 421). This does not rule out the possibility that such well-roundedness may be necessary for moral sainthood.

I will present an argument in support of this theory. A moral saint is one who is as moral as can be, who performs as many morally worthy acts of as much moral worth as possible. A well-rounded moral agent might be better able to perform such acts in many, or all, situations. Then, the moral saint has reason to develop his nonmoral virtues. The fact that these nonmoral virtues are being pursued as indirect means for moral pursuit need not trivialize or hinder their value.

Additionally, the Kantian moral agent is required to devote energy to ``maintenance of [his] physical and spiritual health'' (Wolf, 431). If performing morally worthy acts and striving to be as morally worthy as one can be is not enough to maintain a healthy attitude, then one has a moral duty to pursue personal, nonmoral interests if such interests will contribute to one's health. It seems plausible that the pursuit of solely moral virtues may cause a moral saint to become burnt-out and less productive. If this is the case, the pursuit of nonmoral virtues might be a good way to enhance the quality of one's moral excellence. In this way, nonmoral pursuits can play an important role within the scope of morality.

While this idea is appealing to me, it likely will not satisfy those, like Wolf, who think the pursuit of nonmoral virtues will be colored by the restrictions that the pursuit of moral excellence set. Wolf believes that ``there are strong reasons not to want to incorporate such a [nonmoral] characterization more central into the framework of morality itself'' (Wolf, 434). One reason for this is that within the moral framework, nonmoral excellence will not be valued in any way that is at all comparable to the value placed on moral excellence. Even if we can pursue both moral and nonmoral virtues, there is the problem of balancing the two. If our comparison and judgment is to be done from a moral point of view, it seems that the nonmoral virtues will always be relegated to a subordinate position.

It seems that there is a need for some impartial arena for balancing these two kinds of pursuits. In such an arena (and, one may suppose, only in such an arena) a person who does not satisfy these stringent and impossible requirements for moral sainthood can still be considered to be morally good. Here one may be deemed a morally worthy being without leading a life entirely directed by the imperative to be as morally good as one can be, to the exclusion of personal interests and projects (Wolf, 434).

It is not that morality, Kantian or otherwise, permits one to live a life that is not maximally morally good. It is that outside this scope of morality, our lives are not entirely guided by strict requirements and the need for permission to be excused from some moral duties. ``Our nonmoral reasons for the goals we set ourselves are not excuses, but may rather be positive, good reasons which do not exist despite any reasons that might threaten to outweigh them'' (Wolf, 436). There is more to excellence than moral excellence. As Wolf concludes, ``a person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral'' (Wolf, 436).

Wolf concisely echoes my sentiments with the following: ``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 other values must be translated nor that of an ever-present filter through which all other values must pass'' (Wolf, 438).

Wolf wants to put morality in its place. Moral virtues and the pursuit thereof are extremely important, but they represent only one class of the many virtues that a model of excellence should possess. We cannot ever satisfy the moral ideal, nor is it a good idea for us to try. I believe that this noble goal of moral sainthood may be the right goal for some rare people, but it certainly is not for everyone. As such, the pursuit of such an ideal moral excellence should not be expected or required of anyone. One may choose to pursue it, or any of the nonmoral virtues, as a personal project, but one should not be considered to be morally unworthy unless he is actively seeking to be as morally good as possible.

The problem of balancing the motivation to be morally good with the desire to pursue nonmoral virtues is a difficult one. If it is to be resolved, it seems, it will require much careful consideration and a serious revision of the definition of moral excellence. The ideal represented by Wolf's Moral Saint will need to be discarded or kept firmly in its place as an unattainable and often undesirable ideal. Only then can the intuitive notion of near-perfection be aligned with the ideals in normative ethics.


Wolf, Susan. ``Moral Saints.'' The Journal of Philosophy, 79, no. 8 (Aug., 1982): 419-439.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 2.51.
On 17 Dec 2001, 15:48.