Immoral Sinners: A response to Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints”

Originally published in the Florida Student Philosophy Blog

Reading Susan Wolf’s paper, Moral Saints,[i] there seems to be a prevailing attitude of hostility towards those who would seek to be such. From the beginning, she allows that she is “glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.” Six times Susan Wolf describes moral saints as “unattractive.”[ii] After portraying the moral saint as “patient, considerate, even-tempered, hospitable, charitable in thought as well as in deed”, she immediately opines that this is probably “enough to make some people begin to regard the absence of moral saints in their lives as a blessing.”(421) She calls them “disgusting goody-goodys”(425), “holier than thou”, “nauseating”(428), and the type of person that would “inhibit others’ ability to enjoy themselves.”(428) Near the end of her paper she remarks that “some of us would have reason to be sorry if our (she includes herself) children aspired to and achieved” the accomplishment of becoming a moral saint.(436) Taken as whole, it appears that Susan Wolf brings to her article a decided prejudice against those who might strive to be moral saints. Later, I will touch on why this might be so.

Susan Wolf makes the argument 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.”(419) I will argue that when she writes about the undesirable idea of a moral saint, her argument seems to take the form of a straw man fallacy, in that her moral saint is a type of human that for all intents and purposes does not exist.[iii] I will explore reasons why she might have chosen this approach, and will briefly describe a type of person that could more realistically be assumed to be a moral saint. I will argue that men and women, being creatures governed by change, move their characters closer toward the archetype of a virtuous moral saint or a vicious amoral monster. Finally, I will comment on how the realistic moral saint might appear to both the utilitarian and the Kantian.

The Straw Man Moral Saint

To use the vernacular employed by Susan Wolfe, I claim that we are all immoral sinners. Biblical references aside,[iv],[v] it seems to me that all individuals who believe in such things as moral judgment, are willing to admit that they frequently err in such matters. To a greater or lesser degree we all lie, cheat, steal, lust, hate, are selfish and prideful.[vi] In polite society, we do not ordinarily speak about, much less admit these acts except as mark of close friendship. If we do disclose and catalogue our mutual failings privately one to another “we seldom confide in those who are better than ourselves.”[vii] Plato said that the initial impetus for the state had arisen “out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants.”[viii] I would submit that the need to improve our characters is among them. So in some measure, I think that it is our failings that cause us to observe others in the hope that we may discover a role model, a mentor who will supply some remedy for our imperfections; for our perceived need to improve ourselves.

Just as we would never accept a chicken that was not quite spoiled as fresh, we hesitate to accept a person who makes correct decisions only part of the time as saintly. Plutarch observed that “the good qualities in a man are likely to be obscured and choked by his vices”[ix] We are quick to point out the failings found in anyone held up as paradigm of virtue, reassuring ourselves that he or she is as fatally flawed as we are. We judge, correctly or not, whether an individual is better or worse than ourselves, forgetting Shakespeare’s admonition that we should “forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.”[x],[xi]

Another reason for arguing against the existence of moral saints is that there is hardly a consensus about the virtue of those individuals who do have a reputation for some degree of saintliness. Mother Theresa, whom Wolf holds out as a possible example,(432) has been lambasted as a “fanatic … and a fraud”[xii]

“who left the primitive hospice in Calcutta as run down when she died as it always had been-she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself-and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?” 10

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, British libertarian author, viewed Mother Teresa as a “deeply unpleasant, immoral human being” who “built up and ran an international corporation using slave labour” and “did everything she could to oppose progress in terms of women’s place in society.”[xiii] Mother Theresa’s doubts about her own spirituality are revealed in her recently released letters anguishing over the pain and darkness in her own soul.[xiv] History is replete with ersatz moral icons who upon close inspection fail to live up to their portfolio. Mahatma Gandhi, for all his current popularity, supported a rigidly imposed caste system in India, which conferred lifelong ostracism on its untouchables. His strict adherence to a policy of non-violence provocatively combined with his political activism was in great part responsible for the massacre of thousands of Hindus by the British authorities. The more orthodox wing of Hinduism despised him for what they viewed as his liberality, and it was an orthodox Hindu, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Gandhi for that very reason.[xv] Billy Graham, the internationally famous evangelist, has been reviled for consorting with the likes of Pope John Paul II, ultraliberal theologian Dr. Robert Schuller, and members of the Soviet religious establishment. Most recently, some evangelicals have criticized him for his public political endorsement of President George Bush in the 2004 presidential election and for his support for the war in Iraq. Susan Wolf begins her article with the words, “I don’t know whether there are any moral saints.”(419) I think it is pretty clear that there are not.

Given the idea that there is no such thing as the moral saint described by Susan Wolf, why would she give us such a description and then warn us against trying to adopt it? She cannot merely be making a straw man argument, or be otherwise engaged in a Hegelian dialectic designed to draw forth a synthesis about the nature of good and evil. Rather, it seems that her intent is to deliver us from the stress and pain of attempting to achieve the impossible. By suggesting that devoting one’s self to a life of moral perfection is actually counterproductive, she frees individuals to redirect their efforts, thereby gaining a greater measure of happiness and effectiveness by accomplishing that which is possible. By striving to excel in other more mundane areas they are more likely to achieve a personal success that will bolster their self-esteem; enrich themselves culturally as well as financially, garnering them high praise from their fellow citizens.[xvi] A further benefit gleaned is that it leaves the individual feeling substantially free from guilt. For it follows that if a person has made the decision not to strive to be a moral saint, they would necessarily, contrary to the advice of Socrates[xvii], stop paying much attention to whether any particular action they were about to take was moral or immoral. Rather, they would focus instead on whether a particular action increased their happiness by making them more accomplished, or successful, or richer, or renowned.[xviii] In this way, according to Susan Wolf, “a person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral.”(436)

Finally, we should note that given the impossibility of living a perfect moral life, there is the danger of succumbing to psychopathological behavior in the pursuit of it. Perfectionism is an example of obsessive-compulsive disorder that can lead to severe mental and physical illness.[xix] When combined with moral introspection and religious fervor it can lead to unbelievable aberrations. Writing about religious fanaticism, the noted English philosopher, Isaac Taylor, said that such “a malignly inspired enthusiasm carries human nature to the extreme boundaries of emotion that is possible to man: -nothing which the human heart may know lies beyond the circle occupied by fanatical extravagance.”[xx] Professor Rudolph Bell documented such fanaticism among female members of various religious orders in Italy, who developed anorexia motivated by their desire to overcome the moral failing of gluttony. This would be enough, but he also went on to describe other fantastic and horrible practices to which these individuals were driven in the name of spiritual purity. Practices that greatly outstrip mere fasting, hair shirts, and flagellation, to wit: drinking cups of pus, mopping the floor with one’s tongue, and the repeated scalding of one’s own genitalia with boiling oil.[xxi] Once in possession of these facts, it seems that we can agree with Susan Wolf that there is, at the very least, such a thing as going too far in the pursuit of moral sainthood.

I remarked that it had appeared to me that Susan Wolf manifests a decided prejudice against those who strive to be moral saints. This might be because having developed such an unrealistic set of qualifications for moral sainthood, she judges harshly those people who have a reputation as moral saints for failing to meet her standards. Of course, there is no lack of individuals who masquerade as moral pillars of the community and are in reality corrupt hypocrites worthy of denunciation. However, I do not believe that this is the only reason for the pronounced animosity toward the idea of sainthood that appears prevalent in certain sectors of contemporary society. That an individual would demonstrate “a commitment to improving the welfare of others or of society as a whole”(420) infers that the individual would know, or think that they know what actions would have this effect.[xxii] These actors would of necessity have to have a fairly strong conviction that they knew what was best for others before acting. Such presumptuousness is frequently resented. Combine this with the idea that people who adopt strong moral positions often do so because they believe in objective moral truth, good and evil, right and wrong, and may also believe that there is a God who concerns Himself with the affairs of men,[xxiii] and imparts moral virtue to them.[xxiv] Consider then the reaction of other individuals who find themselves outside of this particular moral economy. Since they do not share the saint’s absolute moral convictions, accusations that he fancies himself “holier than thou” [or they] are made, following the Socratic reasoning that if a man knew the truth about what was good and evil, he would always do the good[xxv], and no man, as we have claimed earlier, can stand up to that kind of scrutiny. On the other hand, the thought that a man should actually receive a portion of knowledge and virtue from God would infer that God actually exists, and therefore all men should repent and seek His mercy.[xxvi] For some, the mind reels in trepidation at such an idea; the flesh crawls; the spirit gnashes its teeth in prideful fury; unable to bear it for even a moment. So it seems to me that these three observations, often made about those who are presumed to be moral saints: their moral imperfections, their adamant confidence in their moral positions, and their frequent belief in external objective moral truth and the existence of God, cause some of the people they come in contact with, including perhaps Susan Wolf, to dislike them out of hand.

The Realistic Moral Saint

What then, would be a more realistic approximation of a moral saint? One of the leading orthodox Jewish scholars of our day, Rabbi Hayim Donin, writes that:

“Holiness does not lie in the ascetic, saintly withdrawal from life, or in excessive denial to oneself of all human pleasures, or in the repression of all human drives. It consists, rather, of full participation in the stream of human community life, sharing the joyous as well as the sorrowful experiences which life has to offer, denying to oneself no legitimate pleasures; but at the same time so developing one’s sense of discernment as to be able to distinguish and choose the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the good from the bad, the sacred from the profane, the pure from the impure, and the clean from the unclean.”[xxvii]

Ah, very neat, but the question is, “How is this to be achieved?” Along with Locke and Kant, it is my understanding that such values must be imbued from childhood.[xxviii], [xxix], [xxx] Like Plato and Aristotle, I think that children should be closely guarded and exposed to only those experiences and teachings that will encourage them to be virtuous.[xxxi],[xxxii] This is because, as Locke also says, “their minds are easily turned this or that way, as water itself.”[xxxiii] Parents are most effective at teaching their children these things and so it must be their primary responsibility.[xxxiv] It is in this way that a man,[xxxv] taught by instruction and example as a callow youth, has a fair chance of becoming the kind of a person who:

“… when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright:
Who, …Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care; [xxxvi]

This then is the type of moral saint we might consider to be realistic and practical. A person who, having received a sound moral grounding through proper education and example, subsequently makes a continual decision to adopt that approach as a life strategy, whether consumed by some great passion for art or science, or content with the life a yeoman farmer; as a person blessed with fame and fortune, or as one called to a vocation of personal sacrifice and anonymity.

Change, Change, Change

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI, a gentleman who I am told has spent some time considering the matter, remarked to an audience of the faithful that, “fundamentally, life is always a choice between good and evil.” [xxxvii], [xxxviii] The objections of Parmenides notwithstanding, the idea of change through time is virtually a universally accepted apriori condition of human existence. As we move through time, we are constantly presented with unavoidable choices. These choices are as ordinary as whether or not to wear socks that day, or as weighty as choosing whether, as a member of jury, a man shall live or die. Shall I reuse this postage stamp? Will I govern my own speech or will I allow it to be arbitrarily filled with vulgarities and sarcasm? Shall I get up and go for a brisk walk or sit on the couch and vegetate? Shall I give something to eat to that homeless person? Will I just change the tire for this woman or will I attempt to seduce her in the bargain? So many choices, and each one may be taken carelessly or with some thought as to what would be most appropriate, not necessarily morally appropriate but that will often be a consideration. Shall I do what will most enrich me, or that which will also benefit others; shall I dispense justice, or is it mercy that is called for; will I be courageous even though safety lies in retreat and silence; can I show benevolence to the poor, politeness to those who insult me, be truthful even if I suffer loss, act honorably when tempted by licentiousness; will I show loyalty to my subordinates and superiors when they most need it or merely to curry favor?[xxxix] The teachings of Aristotle and Plato would lead me to conclude that if it is my custom to consider these matters and attempt to do what is right, it will become easier, as any skill or habit does, both to know and to do it.[xl], [xli] While Kant did not think that the habit of practicing virtuous acts was enough evidence to make the claim that the person himself was in fact virtuous, he did say that a person’s moral will could not be immediately carried out “if he has not tried and exercised his powers beforehand.”[xlii] Kant claims that truly virtuous acts must be the “result of resolute and firm principles ever more and more purified.[xliii] But this also must be recognized as a process that requires effort and practice over a period of time. Conversely, it must follow that if it is my custom to act pragmatically and do what is expedient; to always rationalize that what I think is best for me must therefore be good, continuing in the practice of immoral acts and reasoning, it must eventually become impossible for me to consider any other action as appropriate. It is for these reasons that I think that men and women, being creatures governed by change and affected by the decisions they make in response to that change must inevitably move their characters to a greater or lesser extent closer toward the archetype of a virtuous moral saint or a vicious amoral monster.

Utilitarian and Kantian Viewpoints

What view then, will the Utilitarian and Kantian take of our man? Even though he is still just an immoral sinner; nevertheless, he is one who is deliberately attempting to move toward the archetype of a virtuous moral saint, and is therefore an individual who both loves and reasons. For if his mentors have succeeded by lesson and example in teaching him to love such virtues as truth, justice, courage, benevolence, beauty, and honor, he cannot help but love his fellow man for all these virtues are to be found among them. While he may remember his early moral lessons, he discovers that there is a never ending array of unique moral choices to be made, and for each one he must use his knowledge and experience to reason out what is the good and right thing to do at any particular moment. Because he has been encouraged to enter fully into every good thing that he may legitimately enjoy in this life, he is also likely to be a happy man. The happy man that loves his neighbor must naturally wish for them the same happiness and is likely to do what he can to promote the greater good of his fellows. Therefore, after being weighed by the utilitarian calculus,[xliv] this man would likely to be found acceptable to them. His way of life has made him happy, and should others adopt it they would be very happy as well. He desires to love and aid his fellow man and this is likely to increase their happiness. Even though men’s happiness is a secondary goal to him; his focus being the seeking of absolute truth and objective standards of right and wrong which make him unwilling to sacrifice his standards for the happiness of others, the utilitarian is likely to conclude that the net consequences of our man’s behavior for himself and for the world will substantially increase overall happiness.

The Kantian may view our realistic moral saint with some condescension, given the manner in which his early ethical training was conducted by rote, and the emotionalism associated with it. Still, the Kantian will greatly admire his respect for the moral law and his unwavering commitment to duty; his credo of death before dishonor, the mark that is the measure of a man. The Kantian will further note that when our realistic saint asks himself, “Shall I do this or that?”, he is asking himself, “is this a good and noble thing for a man to do?”, which may be restated as “is this a thing that any man may rightly do?”, and that is certainly a fairly close approximation of the universality of the Categorical Imperative.

While contrasting the picture of the straw man moral saint that Susan Wolf paints for us, with the idea of the realistic practical moral saint, the question remains as to how a person might fully complete the process and be divested of every of unworthy thought and shameful action thereby being empowered to act with moral confidence, which she speaks of as “individual perfection.”(437) Similarly, we could ask what steps are to be taken to garner perfect happiness for ourselves and for others. These are profound philosophical questions deserving of lengthy contemplation. Perhaps a worthwhile project for some gifted philosopher might be, starting at the beginning of a year, to devote the time completely to the consideration of these questions with the hope that by the last weeks of December, one might draw closer to the nascence of the answer.

Louis William Rose

[i] Wolf, Susan. Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982): Pages 419-439

[ii] At 419, 426 (twice), 427,428, and 430

[iii] With the possible exception of You Know Who.

[iv] I am a Christian, a divine command theorist believing in absolute, independent, objective truth, good and evil, right and wrong; therefore I shall occasionally note biblical references as a quaint affectation.

[v] Romans 3:10-20

[vi] See my poem “Ethics” at I think it’s really quite good.

[vii] Camus, Albert, 1913-1960. The Fall, & Exile and the Kingdom. Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. New York, Modern Library, 1964

[viii] Plato’s Republic, 369b

[ix] Plutarch “The Morals” Volume 4 Page 196″ Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2006

[x] Henry VI, Part 2, act 3, sc. 3, l. 31.

[xi] Romans 2.1

[xii] Hitchens, Cristopher. Mommie Dearest. Slate Magazine. Internet Website. Posted Monday, Oct. 20, 2003, at 4:04 PM ET (Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice)

[xiii] Fitz-Claridge, Sarah. Why Mother Teresa Was Evil. Internet Website. Posted on the Extropians List on Tue, 30 May 2000 11:54

[xiv] Van Biema, David. Theresa’s Secret Life.. Time Magazine. New York. September 3, 2007, Page 41

[xv] Nathuram Godse and Gandhism. Internet Website. Accessed 11/17/2007

[xvi] John 12:43

[xvii] Apology 28b

[xviii] Plato’s Republic 1.344a (Thrasymachus had similar opinions)

[xix] Ramirez, PhD, Monica. Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism.

New York, Simon & Schuster – Basco Free Press. 1999. Page 32

[xx] Taylor, Isaac. (1787-1865). Fanaticism. Originally published 1833. Montana. Kessinger Publishing. 2003. Page 55

[xxi] Bell, Rudolph. Holy Anorexia. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press. 1987. Pages 25, 77, and 137

[xxii] Nichomachean Ethics, Book 2, Ch 4

[xxiii] Psalms 8:4

[xxiv] Summa Theologica I-II, q. 63, a. 3

[xxv] Meno 77c-78b.

[xxvi] Acts 17:30

[xxvii] Donin, Hayim. To be a Jew: a guide to Jewish observance in contemporary life. New York. Basic Books, Inc.


[xxviii] The Works of John Locke, Vol 8. Some Thoughts Concerning Education, paragraph 42

[xxix] Kant on Education (Ueber Paedagogik), trans. Annette Churton, introduction by C.A. Foley Rhys Davids

(Boston: D.C. Heath and Co., 1900). Ch 5, Page 79

[xxx] Proverbs 22:6 (Possibly where Locke and Kant were first exposed to the idea.)

[xxxi] Republic 376d – 378d

[xxxii] The Politics VII 1336b

[xxxiii] Locke, John. The Works of John Locke. Volume 8. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. Paragraph 2

[xxxiv] Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, 117.30 – 118.6

[xxxv] Yes, of course this process applies to women too, but as it happens I find myself in the form of a man, and am frequently reminded so by the mundane circumstances of nature, and the women who constantly surround me.

[xxxvi] Wordsworth, William. (1770-1850), Poem: Character of the Happy Warrior.1806

[xxxvii] Catholic News Agency. Pope Benedict-Life is always a choice between God and Satan, between love and selfishness. Internet Website: Accessed 12/5/07

[xxxviii] Deuteronomy 11:26,27

[xxxix] Nitobe,Inazo, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. G.P Putnam & Sons. New York & London. 1909

[xl] Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 1, 1103b

[xli] Xenophon, Memorabilia , Book III, Chapter 9, Section 3

[xlii] Kant , Emanuel. Ethical Philosophy: Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals and Metaphysical Principles of Virtue . 477

[xliii] Ibid 384

[xliv] Lawrence M. Hinman, Ph.D.. Utilitarianism. PowerPoint Presentation. University of San Diego Accessed 12/5/2007

About Louis William Rose

“I am an advocate for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a lifelong student of parliamentary procedure and political process. He has served as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004, with an additional two years of graduate work in political philosophy. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a hydroponic farmer in the panhandle of Florida, and Alexander, a successful real estate developer.
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