Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't hate the saints...

I've just read this paper on Moral Saints by Professor Wolf at UNC- Chapel Hill. It's not exactly recent, but still pretty good, and here's my attempt at dissecting it. First off there's the thesis that moral sainthood is not the ideal you would think it is. A moral saint, she claims, is a person who forgoes their own interests (or whose happiness depends upon) serving the interests of others. The moral saint will always choose to serve others over herself, whether she does so happily (the Loving Saint) or out of duty (the Rational Saint). Naturally, such a person is likely to be lacking in certain nonmoral virtues, such as well-roundedness and pursuit of fulfilling personal potential in various ways (music, relationships, athletics, etc). According to Wolf, the moral saint lacks such nonmoral virtues because the pursuit of said virtues is likely to conflict with the interests of others. Without such extra-qualities, the picture of the moral saint begins to look less rosy. Nevermind the objection that we would most likely find such a saint to be vexing or obnoxious (in the best way of course), for the saint's own sake it would be preferable for her to serve herself every now and then.

(As an aside, about the brief objection above: Of course, this objection is more likely fueled by some sort of envy rather than substance. It's likely that you wouldn't get on well with someone who has achieved "moral sainthood" because of your own inability to be as saintly as the person in question (and that, of course, cannot hold much philosophical weight as far as objections go). I find swimmers like Ian Thorpe rather annoying, but my envy at his natural athletic ability doesn't diminish the awesomeness of his accomplishments, nor should it make my goal of becoming as fast as him (I wish) any less worthy of a goal.)

Now at first this article struck me as a bit off, precisely because I have always assumed that moral sainthood is an admirable goal (though I highly doubt our ability to achieve it). The article claims (quite convincingly) that it's not that great a goal after all, but I shan't give up that easily. So let's start by taking a closer look at Wolf's picture of moral sainthood.

According to Wolf, a moral saint is, essentially, any "person whose every action is as morally good as possible... a person who is as morally worthy as can be." Okay, that's a good start. But what qualifies as being "as morally good as possible"? That will obviously depend quite heavily on the moral theory to which one subscribes. A utilitarian, for example, will always pursue the maximum net happiness, whereas the Kantian will always act on moral principles that should be universal. There are two ways in which this picture of sainthood, under either ethical theory, begins to look grim.

The lesser problem is the commitment to determining what is, in fact, the moral thing to do. Moral decisions are not always easy (esp if you are trying to make the best moral decision, not just a good enough one). Wolf calls this the problem of having "one thought too many." In other words, the person would end up spending an excessive amount of time trying to decide what to do, and that time could be better spent do something else. I can see how in the actual world this objection has quite a bit of sway, but I don't think it holds so well in the ideal world (and I'm allowed to bring this up because of the next objection). I say this because you could argue that a real moral saint wouldn't have to try so hard (that it would just come naturally), in which case it needn't be an obsession or waste of time, but rather the natural behavior of the saint. But, matters, the next objection is the important one.

So the real problem is that the moral saint must be lacking in many good nonmoral virtues if she is truly be as morally good as possible (even if this is in the ideal world and she does it all by second nature). Why? Well for starters, if she is more concerned about others than herself, then developing her own person is not likely to be one of her goals, at least in so far as developing her own skills and desires takes time or resources that could be going to someone else. Wolf acknowledges that perhaps self-development could be seen as a way to better help others (becoming a surgeon or something, probably not a philosopher though...), but that doesn't solve the problem that the moral saint is limited from pursuing the type of self-enrichment activities that we consider good for their own sake. If being a moral saint means that you can't pursue things that we consider good, then perhaps the goal of being perfectly morally isn't such a great goal after all. Wolf has a point. There is a tension between perfectly serving others and living a well-rounded life. So what's a saint to do?

Well I think there a two possible ways out of this jam. Both will require an altered perspective of what constitutes moral behavior and what scope morality really does have over the saint's life. The first solution is to ask why the saint must consider her own life after or below the lives of others. I'm fairly certain that most moral theories would at least put the life of the agent on par or equal with the lives of others, certainly not beneath. That being said, you could argue that the saint not only has a responsibility to help promote the wellbeing of others, but also her own wellbeing. In fact, you could go so far as to say that each person has a duty first to develop or work towards her own wellbeing, if only because that is the most efficient way of starting the whole "well-being protection" process, because each agent can do the most to help herself, and since she ought to use her power to help people, and her own self is included in people, and she's in such a great position to help herself, then she needn't deny herself her own attention (at least not to a reasonable degree). You could even say she is morally obligated to at least do what she can for herself, because if no one did, then everyone would be the worse off and no one would be helped at all. So if there's some moral obligation to help yourself, then within limits, this would be part of the morally best course of action and wouldn't diminish but rather would increase the moral worthiness of the saint. So this route says that the saint should at least give herself as much attention as she gives to others, which may open the door for her to pursue nonmoral virtues.

Another route (along the same lines) would be to outright claim that we have a specific duty to make the most of our own lives (again, within reason and with limits --and no, I won't outline any here, sorry, but I will acknowledge that this needs clarification). You could draw a bit on the thought process in the previous paragraph and appeal to our unique position to help and develop our own selves. This unique position demands action, because no one else can do for us what we can do for ourselves. No one else can live your life, and it's up to you to make your life worth living. You have a responsibility to do so. Is it a moral responsibility? Morality is a code of conduct, right? And part of conduct is how your take care of and develop yourself. Now I'm not advocating selfishness or every man for himself, but I am making a claim that perhaps we have moral duties to ourselves before we have moral duties to others, namely because we can do more for ourselves than others can do for us. Stupid example: I have to feed myself everyday. If I decide not to bother, then I can't really be upset that I'm starving. Other people could feed me, and that'd be great, but it's sort of wrong to make them feed me if I'm perfectly capable of feeding myself. Now if I wasn't able to feed myself (for whatever reason, maybe physical or financial or something), then okay, I may rely on help from others. Do you see what I mean? The moral saint need not completely neglect her own life in order to serve the interests of others because her life is just as important as theirs and there are things she can do for herself that others can't, so she has a duty to pay special attention to her own life.

Now that's fairly obvious on the "how we actually live" scene, but it's not that obvious we think of the perfectly moral person. Sometimes our idea of the moral saint is someone who devalues her own life to the point of ridiculousness. But she needn't do that, because it wouldn't be very morally praiseworthy to value a life less than others, even if that life is her own. Now this is a far cry from an argument that the moral saint can pursue Russian literature or her passion for the oboe, but it's a start. There's something to the idea that we ought to live a life as full as we can. Why? Maybe because life is a "gift" (for the less spiritually inclined, you can say that you only have this one chance and you're lucky you have it so try to make the best of it). If being well-rounded is valuable, and if morality is essentially a code of conduct that would be put forth by rational persons (SEP), and if rational persons pursue what is valuable, then why not? I see no reason why the saint shouldn't be able to pursue what Wolf labeled "nonmoral" virtues. I actually think she may have a moral duty to do so. So I guess what I'm saying is that wasting your life is, essentially, immoral.

Now I can't help myself, so here's what I see to be the Christian perspective on the moral sainthood quandary. I think that God gave us this life as a gift, and He wants us to use it and reach the potential that He created in each of us. You know the parable of the talents? The master entrusted each servant with some money, and he praised the servants that took what he gave them and made the most of it. He praised the good stewards of his blessings. If you squander your talent or natural gifts, then you're not living up to the potential God created in you, and that's not exactly a moral victory. Of course the greatest thing you can do is to fulfill your potential in such a way that you give back to others in the process. We should use our potential to serve God, and in that sense you have a win-win. You can have both a rich life full of all the blessings God has given you and still turn those blessing back to those around you in service. Moral saints need not be boring and dull with empty lives. Far from it. But of course, it all turns on what you take to be morally required. I just think our moral responsibility is not to everyone other than ourselves, but rather we are responsible first to God and He wants us to live up to what He has planned for us, and then we turn that over in service to others.

So I guess that was all to say that I think moral sainthood is a worthy goal, however hard it is to achieve. The end. :)

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