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Rationality in Belief and Action, ed. by E. Baccarini and S. Prijic, Rijeka, 2006, pp. 9-24
CARLA BAGNOLI
The Alleged Paradox of Moral Perfection

How is it this Nothing, Master? We all want



to free ourselves from our passions, as you advise; but tell us

whether this Nothing […]

is thus, serene, a good Nothing, or instead this Nothing of yours

is just nothing, cold, empty and meaningless”.

For a long time Buddha was silent. Then, he said, with indifference:

To your question there is no answer.” […]

If the ground does not burn under your feet so that anything seems

better than staying. To you

I have nothing to say”

Bertolt Brecht1

It is often held that morality places unacceptable demands on the moral agent when it asks for perfection.2 Some contemporary philosophers argue that moral perfection is not just an unsustainable ideal, but also an unreasonable one: it “does not constitute a model of personal well-being towards which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable to strive”.3 Morality thwarts, demotes and overrides all the various elements that contribute to personal well-being. As a result, the best moral person is condemned to the most unhappy and dull life. More precisely, moral perfection seems to imply the denial of an identifiable personal self; hence the paradox of moral perfection.

Such a paradox takes different shapes, which I endeavor to examine in this paper. My aim is to argue that the alleged paradox arises because of a misunderstanding of the role of moral ideals, of their overridingness, and of the way they relate to well-being.



1. A Distinction in Perfection

According to Susan Wolf, moral perfection allows for two different models. The loving saint is a person whose happiness and well-being completely coincide with the happiness of others. He devotes himself to others gladly and without reservation because he is not self-interested, he is not particularly concerned with his own well-being. The rational saint, on the other hand, is a person whose basic motivation is mixed, but who is nevertheless capable of overcoming the egoistic temptations; “this person sacrifices his own interest to the interests of others, and feels the sacrifice as such”.4 The two kinds of saints are differently motivated because they are differently situated in respect to morality.5 The rational saint copes flawlessly with his liabilities, while the loving saint is unburdened by any liability.

This distinction in perfection is supposed to support the claim that moral saintliness is not a suitable model of personal well-being. The moral saint cannot be happy, as happiness seems to require having all the preferences and wishes satisfied. I will argue that there are compelling reasons to resist this conclusion. The key lies in the ways the ideal of moral perfection is thought to constrain personal well-being.
2. The Paradox of the Loving Saint Dissolved

Since the distinction between the loving and the rational saint is taken to be a distinction in perfection, Wolf has to argue that perfection undermines personal well-being in both cases. However, the loving and rational saints exhibit a remarkably different phenomenology and it is worth considering separately how such a conflict would arise for each of those models of perfection.

The case of the loving saint is most straightforward. By definition, the loving saint does not experience any conflict, as his motivation is perfectly shaped by morality. The loving saint is correctly situated in respect to morality. For this reason, he understands what “well-being” really is.6 Or, rather, “well-being” is for him a moral concept: it is not something other than “being moral”. The only way to flourish is to live a moral life. It is apparent that for people in a state of perfection the conflict between morality and personal well-being does not arise: for those agents, morality is coincident with personal well-being. This is why moral saints are always depicted as truly happy. For them, perfection is both reasonable and desirable.7

When addressed to the loving saint, the objection against moral perfection has to take a peculiar form. It has to be formulated as the objection that moral perfection nullifies personal well-being. Granted that perfection is both reasonable and desirable for morally perfect agents, does it also constitute a model of personal well-being? This objection appears to rest on the presupposition that the loving saint does not experience a conflict that in fact exists. This is to discount moral phenomenology. Moreover, this claim would be justified only on the account that the loving saint is not correctly situated in respect to morality; and this begs the question.

This rejoinder has taken care only partially of Wolf and Williams’ charge. These philosophers hold not only that achieving perfection is undesirable and irrational, but also that aspiring to perfection is. I have shown that their objection misses the target against perfection as a state of character. It remains to be seen whether it makes sense to lead the life of a rational saint.
3. The Paradox of the Rational Saint Dissolved

One can doubt that the rational saint is happy: he suffers. He feels the pangs of unfulfilled desires. It is precisely this difference in the phenomenology of saintliness that shows that the distinction between the loving saint and the rational saint is not a distinction in perfection: only the loving saint qualifies as a moral saint, a being in a state of perfection, while the rational saint would be more correctly described as the paradigm of virtue. The virtuous person struggles for perfection, he has to fight for his ideal. Because he courageously endures such a struggle, he is on the way to perfection, but the way may be long and tormented. The question is whether virtue, understood as fortitudo moralis, can be taken as a reasonable and valuable personal ideal.

It might be suggested that the very image of virtue as courage, and the phenomenology of the moral struggle show that there is a conflict between the demands of morality and well-being. But this suggestion is misleading. The rational saint’s suffering cannot be described in terms of the conflict between well-being and morality. This is because the desires that the virtuous agent must disregard for the sake of his moral ideal do not qualify as reasons for him. Because he holds a moral ideal of perfection, he does not conceive his own well-being in terms of such desires. His pain is no reason to doubt that his ideal makes sense. On the contrary, it shows that he is succeeding in approximating perfection. Thus, from the vantage point of the virtuous agent, morality does not oppose well-being. Rather, morality offers the right conception of well-being. Morality constrains the agent’s actual preferences and desires, but this is not to say that it puts unreasonable demands on him. Thus, the apparent unhappiness of the virtuous agent who struggles for perfection cannot be understood in terms of the nullification of personal well-being.

What I am suggesting here is that the alleged conflict with personal well-being is not a reliable criterion for evaluating the ideal of moral perfection or of moral virtue. More specifically, I am urging that we should not construe personal well-being in terms of the preferences and desires that the agent happens to have.8 In assessing the viability of perfection as a personal ideal, the crucial question is whether the agent considers his preferences and desires important or worthy of satisfaction. It is quite reasonable for him to think that not all his desires should be fulfilled: this is in fact a mark of practical competence. It amounts to the capacity to recognize what counts as a reason. The psychological strength of a desire does not indicate that it has a normative status, that is, the status of a reason.


4. The Most Boring Life of the Best Moral Person

A morally virtuous person devotes all his energy and efforts to an internal struggle. A morally perfect agent acts so that each and every action of his are intended for the sake of morality.9 Any activity that is not primarily and exclusively intended as a moral activity is prohibited for the saints. This means that they necessarily lack a lot of other interesting and appealing traits we ordinarily value. Most importantly, the ideal of moral perfection undercuts any other concern one might have. As a result, the life of a moral saint looks strangely barren, almost scary: hence the paradox of moral perfection.

The objection is that the moral ideal of perfection implies the denial of an identifiable personal self.10 Yet different traditions portray their moral saints or heroes as gifted with very distinctive personalities: they are relentless fighters and charismatic leaders as Joan d’Arc, anything but bland and humorless characters. They functions as moral paragons just because of their strong individualities. Their lives are exemplary. They teach by example. This is to say that there are not rules or principles that if followed will grant saintliness. There are ways to teach what they do by taking instructions from their actions. But there is no way to teach who they are if not by example. Why? This is because who they are depends on the peculiar traits of their distinctive personality. Teaching by example and learning from experience essentially refer to these distinctive traits and therefore does not amount to the passing on some information. What makes it especially difficult is that there is no know-how to apply. The aim is not simply to achieve a better epistemic state; your task is to become a better person by learning to admire the saint’s peculiarities. When you are undergoing such a teaching you are fixing your attention onto the singularity of Joan d’Arc. You are exposed to the life of Joan d’Arc so that you can learn from her experience, but you are not learning how to be Joan d’Arc: there is no such a thing to be learnt. Learning from the life of a saint produces some kind of transformation; but it does not transform you into a clone of the saint. A transformation of this kind is both cognitive and affective; it is not simply a change in beliefs and not only a change in attitude. It amounts to a kind of re-orientation, and this requires that some traits be fixed, while others vary or are re-directed some other way. What remains invariant under a moral transformation is what makes you the person you are: so that it can be said that you are transformed.

The point I am making is that aiming or achieving perfection does not require the neglect of oneself as a person. It certainly requires that desires and needs should not be satisfied merely on the basis of the claim that they belong to the agent. But this does not mean that the agent’s perspective is discounted. Rather it means that the agent’s perspective is taken seriously, that is, as a perspective that is relative to the agent rather than to a locus of actual preferences and desires. To be an agent does not simply amount to being a container of preferences, needs, and desires. Agents are distinctive sorts of agencies because they act on a purpose and represent themselves as acting on a purpose. The satisfaction of preferences, needs, and desires may be represented as a purpose, but not necessarily. Revision or suppression of actual preferences, acquisition of new preferences, rearrangement or rescheduling of a need, refinement of actual desires are all legitimate goals that the agent may represent as the purpose of her action. Life acquires meaning and thickness through the intricacies of these complex clusters of operations.

The argument against the overridingness of morality easily shifts focus from meaning of life to happiness. On some readings, “happy life” and “meaningful life” may be taken as synonymous, as in the case in which Wittgenstein is reported to have said that he had a happy life. However, these concepts are not necessarily coextensive. Happiness does not grant meaning when it is understood as the mere satisfaction of actual preferences, and vice versa a meaningful life is not necessarily happy in this sense. A richer conception of happiness, however, encompasses meaningfulness: one cannot be truly happy in this sense unless one’s life is also meaningful.11 If we take happiness in the narrow sense, then any ideal of morality would deprive our life of happiness, but not of meaning. If we take happiness in the broad sense, then the moral ideal contributes to the meaningfulness of our life and hence it also contributes to our happiness. This certainly does not mean that the more a moral ideal is present and pervasive in our life, the more meaningful and happy this is. To dissolve the alleged paradox, it suffices to say that the moral ideal lends rather than subtract meaning and happiness to our life.

How is it that Wolf’s objection seemed so intuitively appealing? It seems to me that the conclusion that moral perfection implies the denial of personal concerns is forced on us by some tacit and illegitimate assumptions. First, according to an allegedly pre-theoretical model of moral perfection, altruism is taken to be a requirement of morality. A moral relation is based on the recognition of another as a person. These relations vary enormously, and this is why our moral vocabulary is rich and thick. Morality concerns varieties of relations we entertain as agents and does not necessarily focus onto others as receivers of our care and benevolence. We entertain moral relations with ourselves as well as with others: others are not the focus of morality just because they are others. More importantly, altruism requires respect, care and interest for the well-being of others but does not necessarily imply the denial of personal preferences. To be altruistic or benevolent does not require that we systematically discount our own desires and preferences, but that we do not accord them more importance and authority than they have. Our preferences have the same authority and importance of the preferences of others: they do not have a special weigh because they belong to us. Sometimes this acknowledgement requires that our own preferences should be rescheduled or frustrated because there are other priorities. However, the priority is not accorded on the basis of the fact that such preferences belong to others. In morality, there is no opposition us/others.

The second assumption is that perfection requires maximization. The perfect person is the one who always does the best moral action, that is, the most beneficent one (irrespectively of whether it clashes with his own interests). This seems also to imply that the more we accept the moral ideal, the happier and more meaningful our life is. This is certainly wrong. Morality contributes to but does not necessarily determine completely the shape and content of our life. More importantly, happiness and meaningfulness are not dimensions of value that can be maximized, unless we take them in the narrow sense. But even if we take them in the narrow sense, the paradox arises only if we also accept the previous presupposition that morality requires systematic relegation of personal preferences (which is not the same as altruism). If we take them in the broad sense, the paradox dissolves, as I already noted.

The third assumption is that perfection is manifested in action narrowly understood as mere performance or a state of affair to be produced. On this construal, there is no difference between the rational and the loving saints as they both ‘produce’ the best moral action. Other conceptions of perfection focus more on who the perfect beings are rather than on what they do. Specifically, we can think of models of perfection that focus on the quality of the mind (e.g. Simone Weil’s attention), a particular cast of mind or character (e.g. as the paragons of saintliness), or a quality of motivation (e.g. Kant’s good will). Alternatively, one can construe action not as the production of a state of affairs or a re-arrangement of the ontological furnishing of the world, but as represented as the realization of a purpose in given state of mind. On this latter construal, perfection is manifested in action, but this is also a manifestation of a quality of the mind, hence a statement of character.

The fourth and final assumption of the argument against the plausibility of moral perfection is that the perfect agent is required to engage only in directly useful beneficial activities so that one can calculate immediately the returns of the action. There certainly are some activities (such as reading novels or having a conversation with a stranger) that are morally valuable even though not immediately beneficent.

Neither of these assumptions is granted, nor is it essential to characterize a pre-theoretical model moral perfection. In fact, these assumptions pertain to a peculiar moral theory, that is, act-utilitarianism. Wolf and Williams’ complaint makes sense against a morally perfect agent that espouses act-utilitarianism. Since their argument is tailored on this theoretical model of moral perfection, the force and scope of their criticism are very limited.


5. The Paradox Again: the Overridingness of Morality

If we focus on the alleged maximizing feature of perfection, we can be inclined to understand Williams and Wolf’s concern as the objection that moral perfection precludes well-roundedness. But Wolf clarifies that their preoccupation is not with single-mindedness. Rather, it is the way morality dominates other non-moral concerns that creates the paradox of moral perfection. For a moral saint, morality overrides other concerns “in a different way” that other ideals do.12

The thrust of the argument seems to be that moral perfection is unreasonable insofar as it trumps any other concern. It appears, then, that the real objection is not that morality conflicts with well-being, but that it unreasonably constrains what well-being is. Morality overrides all the various elements that normally contribute to personal well-being. Overridingness is, then, the real problem, the reason why aiming at (if not achieving) perfection is unappealing and unreasonable as a personal ideal.

To make this point more vivid, let me compare the moral ideal of Siddhartha-Buddha and the ideal of artistic excellence of P. Gauguin.13 How exactly do they differ? Wolf suggests that they differ because morality cannot be treated as one predominant desire. It is higher, not just stronger.14 Morality claims a kind of overriding authority that the other non-moral ideal cannot claim. But this distinction simply begs the question. To say that Siddhartha had an overriding ideal and Gauguin had a merely strong and constant desire to be a good artist would be to misrepresent Gauguin’s ideal of excellence. Moreover, both Siddhartha and Gauguin regarded their ideals as ground projects, that is, the basic projects that confer meaning to life and for which we take interest in other activities. For the sake of their ground projects, both Siddhartha and Gauguin left their home and families, and sacrificed many other concerns and obligations. If they have to be judged differently, the difference would have to lie in the content of their ground project. We must conclude, then, that any ideal, not just moral ideals, when undertaken in this unconditional way, trumps and demotes any other concerns and obligations.

This claim has important consequences. I will argue that the apparent paradoxicality of moral perfection is due to a misunderstanding of the overridingness of the moral ideal. The argument against moral perfection wrongly assumes that a ground project provides the agent with overriding reasons for action. In contrast, I contend that an ideal qualifies as a ground project when it lends meaning to our life and makes it choice-worthy. Such project provides the agent with special reasons to act only indirectly, just in the sense that it has a special role to play in the conception the agent has of himself, and in what he considers a life plan and a good life to live. However, adhering to a particular ideal does not necessarily commit the agent to acting on overriding reasons that are grounded on such an ideal or to trump any other concern. Rather, it commits the agent to thinking of himself in terms of that ideal, and also it commits him not to undertake action when the action would compromise the realization of the moral ideal. The moral ideal is a constraint on our deliberation, rather than a goal to maximize on every occasion. In this sense, holding an ideal is a very important aspect of being practical evaluators. Holding an ideal is what qualifies us as practical evaluators, as value-seekers or as value-conferring agents.
6. Valuable and Valueless Lives

We may rephrase Wolf and Williams’s objection to moral perfection as the claim that when morality conflicts with other ground-projects, it does not make sense for the agent to take morality as overriding. One cannot be expected to give up everything for something that is not a ground-project. Gauguin cannot be rationally required to take care of his family, if this means that he must renounce art, the only project that makes his life worth living. The idea is not that morality should step aside in all these cases.15 Rather, the question is whether morality can be unconditionally overriding, given that it is not rationally overriding.

This objection opens another apparently quite interesting scenario, in which the agent does not have morality among his ground-project.16 We should take notice that this objection is very different from the previous ones. It does not say that morality necessarily undercuts well-being or unduly constrains other projects. Rather, it envisions the possibility that morality may not be taken as a ground-project at all. In this case, how can morality have a grip on the agent? It seems that it cannot, the objection suggests. Morality provides no reasons to the agent that does not recognize morality as a ground-project. A fortiori, it provides no reason to strive toward perfection. It is only in this case, I believe, that morality can be said to undercut the agent’s concern for life. But the objection is, as I said, quite different from what it is taken to be. It does not say that moral perfection cannot be a reasonable model of personal well-being. Rather, it says that moral perfection cannot be required if the agent does not recognize morality as a ground project: it would undermine other ground projects that confer meaning to the agent’s life. The agent would be condemned to a meaningless and empty life.

This is not an objection against moral perfection, and it is less devastating that it seems. Some would expect my rejoinder to be platonic, that is, intended to show that morality is ultimately in our own interest.17 But such a response is not suitable to me, as I have argued that well-being is not the issue at stake. To show that morality is in everybody’s best interest is not my burden to prove. In fact, I have no reason to offer that would convince anyone who does not include morality among his ground-projects to endorse moral perfection as an ideal. That is because moral arguments cannot provide the immoralist with such reasons. The immoralist can be forced to comply via deterrents and incentives, but we cannot impose on him morality as a ground-project. By definition, the immoralist does not view the world morally and is not in the intended audience of a moral theory: he cannot be convinced by argument.So does Aristotle instruct us:

Arguments seem to have enough influence to stimulate the civilized ones among the young people, and perhaps to make virtue take possession of a well-born character that truly loves what is fine; but they seem unable to stimulate the many towards being fine and good. For the many naturally obey fear, not shame; they avoid what is base because of the penalties, not because it is disgraceful. For since they live by their feelings, they pursue their proper pleasures and the sources of them, and avoid the opposed pains, and have not even a notion of what is fine and [hence] truly pleasant, since they have had no taste of it. What argument could reform people like these?

Isn’t this an embarrassing impasse, a worrisome stalemate? On the contrary, I argue, this apparent deadlock is in fact all we need. That we cannot reason with the immoralist, that we cannot argue with him does not put him in a safe place. We should ask: What is the cost of an immoral life? Such a cost should not be cast in terms of happiness or well-being. What is at stake in renouncing morality cannot be fully captured by considering whether morality turns out to be in our interest. Rather, the question has to be formulated in terms of value. When we try to trade in our morality, our own value is at stake. As Nozick writes:

The immoral person thinks of getting away with something, he thinks his immoral behavior costs him nothing. But that is not true; he pays the costs of having a less valuable existence. He pays that penalty, although he does not feel it, or he does not care about it. Not all penalties are felt 18

Perhaps Nozick’s claim that penalties are not necessarily felt is too extreme. If the guilty does not feel the penalty, what penalty is to him? The point seems to me to be that the immoralist pays with a less rich, thick and complete life. Morality opens up a domain of value that the immoralist cannot enter, and grounds a variety of valuable personal relations that the immoralist cannot entertain. His imagination is curbed this way, and this is a value cost which is felt. The immoralist wanders about, defiant, in a cold world of competitors, preoccupied with his survival, fearing the scarcity of resources and the many contenders. He walks alone. Most likely, the immoralist has the psychological resources to counter or lessen this cost; perhaps he is adept to rationalization or just a victim of self-deception. But he pays with a sad life. His sadness can be seen from the outside; it is visible and should be judged. Not only are we entitled to judge him for crossing the bounds of our consortium, we are also required by rationality to assess the merits of such a life (since it is open to each of us). His sadness is punishment for him and advice to us: hence, it is an emotional marker of value that really functions as a sanction.19

To account for the idea that an immoral life bears a value cost, we have to accept that morality is not an interest among others. It is equally misleading to think of morality as a perspective or as a domain of special objects. Morality is a source of constraints on what we can do to ourselves and others. And, in contrast to other kinds of constraints (e.g. the constraints that rationality puts on us) it carries a special kind of importance: we are not free to dismiss the requirements of morality at whim.

This is not even Williams’ suggestion in the articles discussed (and in this respect, Wolf misrepresents Williams’s thesis). Williams is aware that people do not have just one ground- project, but rather a complex cluster of projects related in many complex ways. Life loses its meaning when we lose all the projects that were once important to us.20 Now, that some have altruistic content does not make them safe from conflict with impartial morality. Hence, we are never free of the possibility that impartial morality trumps our projects, even when they are altruistic.21 Williams points out this vivid possibility so that we can appreciate the risk of according deliberative overridingness to impartial reasons. This objection, however plausible, is once again very different than the paradox of perfection. And yet Williams draws attention to a crucial phenomenon. Gauguin and Anna Karenina, the paragons of “moral luck”, are not examples of people who do not recognize morality as a ground-project. On the contrary, their problem arises because they are sensitive to morality. Such a problem should be re-described in terms of the relations that their different projects entertain.22 This is also what makes them interesting and challenging for any moral theory. We care that the relation among different projects is one of coordination. But when morality comes in, the question cannot be one of mere coordination: this is the admonition of Williams and Wolf. The issue is, then, what the overridingness of morality implies.


7. The Overridingness of Morality and Its Domain

When morality is present as a ground project (and I should put aside the question as to whether one can avoid to treat morality thus and so), it becomes overriding and sovereign. That is, it governs other projects, subtracts or attributes authority to them, schedules, sets priorities, subordinates and grounds.23 Because of this characteristic governance, Wolf and Williams argue, morality ultimately impedes that one pursues other projects. Because it imposes itself as our only project, it also deprives us of character, personality and individuality. This result is not just unwelcome, it’s irrational. Therefore, they suggest, we have to abandon the claim that morality is overriding, and consider ourselves happy that we belong to a world where morality does not actually have this kind of overridingness. If morality is not rationally justified, how can it be endorsed unconditionally?

Before accepting Williams and Wolf’s despairing view, let us consider whether the overridingness of morality carries the consequences they announce. They assume that the overridingness of morality should be understood as the overridingness of certain kind of interests (altruistic and impartial) on others (egoistic and partial). Wolf describes the ideal of perfection as the (ongoing or achieved) attempt to maximize altruistic interests. Morality is thus defined as a domain of objects: it coincides with altruism and other-directed obligations. Consequently, the variety of projects, needs and desires that characterize a person can be organized according to two modality: subordinately to or in conflict with morality. When the conflict arises, impartial morality is always supposed to trump any other concerns. But this cannot be a reasonable demand. It is absolutely irrational to let impartial morality to trump the ground-projects that lend meaning to your life.24

My contention is that there is an alternative (and more interesting) way of conceiving of the overridingness thesis which does not carry these unwelcome consequences. Morality should be intended as sovereign not because it describes a domain of special objects but because it is a pervasive and architectonic activity. There is no moral domain in the sense of a special sector of the universe that we call moral. Likewise, there are no interests that we can specifically address as moral. And consequently, there are no precise bounds to our moral vocabulary (if not in the oversimplified accounts of philosophical systems). There are varieties of moral relations, which are hardly captured by any material definition of morality. This is not to say that we are completely free to define the domain of morality, or to make moral any term we like. It means that we are not free not to invoke moral relations, that morality as an activity is not merely dispensable, and that we do need a moral vocabulary for carry it on. To account for these features we should propose a formal definition of morality, which does not grant any privileged role to our interests. Such a formal definition, I contend, derives from an adequate conception of deliberation.

I believe the best account of deliberation is constructivist, but I will provide no defense of this here. The starting point of my argument is a claim about moral agency: we are animals endowed with reason, that is, capable of acting under our representation of the action and of ourselves.25 Our self-conception is socially conditioned; it can be furthered or blocked depending on whether we live in a flourishing community. Because we are such kind of animals that form pictures of themselves and then try and come to resemble them, as moral philosophers we should be concerned with psychology and politics as well as with moral ideals.26

This thesis does not grant morality any “eminent domain”, as Amélie Rorty suggests.27 The peculiarity of morality should not be understood in terms of the peculiarity of its objects, but in its pervasiveness. This feature is explained by constructivism as the claim that the content of morality results from a constrained kind of deliberation. The recognition of ourselves as agents and as of others as agents puts important constraints on our deliberation. Hence, overridingness is a feature of deliberation and does not depend on any stipulation about the content of morality. Vice versa, the content of moral reasons depends on the result of deliberation. Moral deliberation is distinctive because it bears some constraints, which derive from our self-conception and from the recognition of others as others.28

If we construe the thesis of overridingness as the capacity to construct moral reasons starting with a self-conception, there is an ulterior advantage. Many moral theories, including Kantian constuctivism, hold ‘obligation’ and duty as central moral terms. But the metaphor of constrained construction can be extended to account for the genesis of all varieties of moral relations and for a much richer moral vocabulary. Something of this sort is attempted by Iris Murdoch who argues for a normative construction of reality.29 She exhorts philosophers to give voice to the variety of moral relations and enrich moral vocabulary so that the domain of morality and moral philosophy be more than a question about “debts and promises” but such that it concerns an entire way of life, the quality of relations that we entertain with others and with the world.30

This way of understanding morality does not identify a precise domain of privileged objects, but it’s constitutive of the kind of agents we hope to be. The emphasis on hope is not out of discouragement that our ideal of moral perfection be achievable. Certainly, as an ideal, it is something we have to strive for. But we also have to be aware that its realizability does not depend solely on our strength of will, character and motivation. Nor is it sufficient to monitor the formal features of the mechanisms of deliberation to warrant that such ideal is practicable. The practice of morality is difficult not only because we are weak and subject to many temptations, but also because the moral ideal has to be embodied in social institutions. How demanding and disruptive the moral ideal is, and whether such demands are irrational to meet for the agent are questions that should be addressed from another perspective. In order to answer these questions, we should not merely look at the formal features of the moral ideal. Rather, we should consider the social and political context in which the agent is situated: how demanding morality is it is a function of how bad the state of the world is, how other agent typically behave, what institutions are in place, whether people are cooperative, how much individuals are capable of doing.31

These remarks do not build up the argument that we should undertake moral perfection as a ground-project: such an argument cannot be produced. What I endeavored to show, however, was that moral perfection can be retained as a sensible and reasonable personal ideal.32
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Wolf S. (1997a) “Meaning and Morality”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1997, 97, 299-314



Wolf S. (1986) “Moral Saints”, Journal of Philosophy, 1986, reprinted in R. Crisp - M. Slote (eds.) Virtue Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp.79-98


1 “‘Wie ist dies Nichts, Meister? Wir alle möchten/ Abtun alle Begierde, wie du empfiehlst, aber sage uns/ Ob dies Nichts also/ So ein Fröhliches ist, ein gutes Nichts, oder ob dies dein/ Nichts nur einfach ein Nichts ist, kalt, leer un bedeutungslos./ Lange schwieg der Buddha, dann sagte er lässing: ‘Keine Antwort ist auf euere Frage./ […] Wem der Boden noch nicht so heiß ist, daß er ihn lieber/ Mit jedem andern vertauschte, als dass er da bliebe, dem/ Habe ich nichts zu sagen.’” Bertolt Brecht, Gleichnis des Buddha von brennenden Haus.

2 For a recent formulation of this objection, see McGuinn 1992, and Conee 1994.

3 Wolf 1986, p. 95.

4 “The moral saint might be someone whose concerns for others plays the role that is played in most of our lives by more selfish, or at any rate, less morally worthy concerns. […] The happiness of a 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”, Wolf 1986, p. 80.

5 “Indeed, the model of Loving Saint, whose interests are identified with the interests of morality, is a model of person for whom the dictates of rational self-interest and the dictated of morality coincide.” Wolf 1986, p. 95.

6 I take it that the notion of perfection is strongly linked to an objectivist perspective on value. This is an important remark, but I will not dwell on it, since it will not have any bear on the following argument.

7 This is implicit in the definition of moral saintliness proposed by Wolf, but not fully acknowledged in all its consequences; see Wolf 1986, p.80

8 One can even doubt that this conception of well-being is the proper object of moral concern, see Sobel 1998. I do not argue for this stronger claim here, but I believe that we should not accept this conception of well-being.

9 McGuinn 1992, Conee 1994.

10 Wolf 1986, p. 84.

11 In a recent article, Wolf has acknowledged that what bothers her in moral perfection cannot be the alleged clash between happiness and morality. She has thus recast her position by distinguishing between happiness and the “meaning of life”; she rightly claims that happiness does not grant meaning, and vice versa. However, she still grounds her argument on a distinction between personal and impersonal reasons, and she still claims that a moral theory cannot encompass both, see Wolf 1996.

12 Wolf 1986, p. 83.

13 Williams 1981, pp.

14 At times Wolf seems to acknowledge that the difference between moral and non-moral ideals cannot be traced in terms of overridingness, see for instance Wolf 1986, p. 84. My point is that if one takes this remark seriously, then the objection against the moral ideal of perfection loses its force. Wolf cannot claim, on pain of inconsistency, that moral ideals are not workable personal ideals because they are overriding, and also that there are other non-moral ideals that are overriding.

15 Wolf is quite right in insisting that this conclusion should not be drawn from Williams’ argument about moral luck, Wolf 1996, p. 302. Williams’ argument has less subverting consequences for moral theory than it is usually recognized.

16 This is one way to interpret Wolf’s claim that if morality is not rationally overriding, then it is not unconditionally overriding, Wolf 1996, pp. 311, 314-315.

17 See also Nozick 1981, p. 406.

Aristotle 1179b5- 17 (tr. Irwin, pp. 291-292).

18 Nozick 1981, p. 409, see also Nozick 1981, pp. 405-406, 410-413, 430.

19 For an account of emotions (such as regret) as markers of value and ways of valuing, see Bagnoli 2000, pp. 165-187.

20 Williams 1981, p. 13.

21 Williams 1981, p. 13.

22 Williams 1981, pp. 38-39.

23 Williams 1981, p.14. Williams also notes that the thesis of the sovereignty of morality accounts for the absence of a sensible treatment of character and individuality in Kantian ethics.

24 Williams 1981, p.14.

25 This starting point is not necessarily Kantian, and what I am arguing for is not a Kantian variation of constructivism, see Bagnoli 2002. It is worth reminding that this a claim that is defended by philosophers who do not sympathize with Kantian theory or with moral theory in general. For example, Rorty writes “Humans are just sorts of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves. This is a complicated biological fact about us.” Rorty 1988, p. 97. Rorty also agrees that constructivism is well suited to accommodate the features of that we have outlined: it recognizes that the starting points of deliberation may become the subject of deliberation, it is latitudinarian about including unexpected, contingent, accidental considerations as relevant. She writes: “The constructivist model reveals what is latently seen in other models: that dialectically sensitive decision-makings acknowledges the possible relevance of tangential, accidental, and ironic contingencies. In sum: the extent to which current models of decision-making become more descriptively sophisticated -- the extent to which they add ellipses to accommodate the dramatic dynamics of decision-making-- marks the extent to which they move to incorporate the elements of our account”, Rorty 2000, pp. 156-157. As I understand it, Rorty acknowledges that the constructivist model is the most sophisticated account of deliberation exactly because it makes sense of the above-mentioned features. As examples of constructivists, she mentions Christine Korsgaard, Sheila Benhabib, Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson

26 This much is acknowledged by Rorty: “The critical evaluation of ethical standards take place in the context of a field of action: it begins with a set of assumed --and often conflicted ideals-- and values”, Rorty 2000, p. 150.

27 See Rorty 1988, Rorty 2000. I criticize Rorty’s view in a unpublished paper titled “Three Myths of Moral theory”, presented at the symposium in honor of Amélie Rorty organized by the Society for Women in Philosophy at the meeting of the APA, Eastern Division, in 2001; I should like to thank Margaret Atherton, Sheila Benhabib, and Jackie Taylor for their comments, and especially, Amélie Rorty for her challenging response.

28 For an account of Kantian constructivism, see Bagnoli 2004.

29 Murdoch 1999, see also Bagnoli 2004°.

30 Murdoch 1999, p. 380.

31 I take this important qualification to be a Hegelian clause: morality has to be seen also in terms of the institutions. On this same point, see Railton 1984, esp. 161-162; as a defense of impartiality against the objection of alienation, his argument works; I do not think he is equally successful in defending consequentialism.

32 I presented a shorter version of this paper at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, on 5/4/2001, and at the Workshop on meta-ethics at the University of Milan on 6/27/2002, I am grateful to these audiences and especially to Clotilde Calabi, Luca Ferrero, Elijah Millgram, Robert Nozick, Amélie Rorty, and Marco Santambrogio for their helpful comments.


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