Ethics – Handout 22 Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”

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Stevania M. Hagos

Ethical Theories Proposal

Ethics – Handout 22 Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”
Wolf defines a moral saint as “a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.”

But the first clause is importantly different from the second. We might call the first person a “moral hero” and the second a “moral saint” (following Louis Pojman), to keep our ideas straight.

Pojman: “A hero is one who accomplishes good deeds when the average person would be prevented by fear, terror, or a drive of self-interest. A saint is one who acts for good when inclination, desire, or self-interest would prevent most people from so acting.”

- Admiral James B. Stockdale Lecture on Ethics and Leadership at the University of San

Diego, April 13, 2000, “Moral Saints and Heroes”

Sometimes, being a hero might require not being a saint (we can talk about examples).

Wolf discusses two kinds of saints:

The Loving Saint, perhaps characteristic of the utilitarian ideal, whose own well-being simply consists in the well-being of others; the Rational Saint, perhaps characteristic of the Kantian ideal, who retains some non-moral and even selfish desires, but, out of duty, does not act on them.

Wolf: Moral saints are unattractive because:

‐ They lack the "ability to enjoy the enjoyable in life"

‐ They are so "very, very nice" that they have to be "dull-witted or humorless or bland" – we like Han Solo better than Luke Skywalker

‐ They have no time for literature, music, or sports and so live a life that seems "strangely barren"

‐ What is missing in the saint's life are the non-moral virtues: a robust sense of humor, a refined musical or artistic ability, culinary acuity, and athletic prowess (she allows that a saint may have some of these virtues – by accident – if, for example, she became a saint late in life, but saintliness allows no time and energy to develop these talents. 2

‐ "The moral virtues, given that they are, by hypothesis, all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the non-moral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.”

Does this seem right? Aren’t many of these qualities going to be very useful to a moral saint (especially a certain level of pragmatism and sense of humor!)?

It’s true that a moral saint is unlike to be a musical virtuoso or a wine connoisseur, but there are other ways to be an attractive person. And sometimes developing ones talents can be a very good means towards making a different in the world – take, for example, Bill Gates.

Eudaimonistic ethics, held by Aristotle and Plato among others, suggests that true happiness consists in being as morally perfect as possible. And it does seem that ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ can protect you to some extent from suffering too much under your own burdens – it puts them in perspective.

But Wolf worries that moral saints would lack some qualities necessary to develop the kind of life we think is good for the person who leads it – personal interests and projects and special relationships…

Also, of course, a moral saint will often sacrifice her own well-being for the well-being of others – a definition of happiness that makes that impossible seems to be leaving something out.
Utilitarianism: Wolf says U would not support moral sainthood as a universal ideal, because a world peopled only by moral saints would be less good than it could be. But it remains possible that individual utilitarians should aim, in their own lives, at being as morally good as possible.

‐ Wolf is unconvinced, given the current state of the world, by the suggestion (found in

Mill, for example) that we’d to best to promote the total happiness if we cared mainly for ourselves.

‐ It seems more plausible that we’d do better, by utilitarian standards, if we cared about some things non-instrumentally that on the utilitarian picture have only instrumental value.

‐ Wolf agrees that utilitarianism may leave the moral saint some limited room to develop her talents, etc., because she’ll be a more effective promoter of the good that way.

‐ But, says Wolf, even when U allows this, it gives the moral saint “one thought too many”

(B. Williams). The utilitarian saint would value projects and talents and relationships only as means to or at best as constituents of happiness, and be willing to sacrifice them as soon as another project or relationship could produce more happiness. This “shallow appreciation” for such projects or talents or relationships brings the utilitarian saint to close to our common-sense picture of the saint from which Wolf began to escape her criticisms of that figure.

Kantianism: whether the Kantian moral saint comes too close to the common-sense moral saint to be an attractive ideal depends, Wolf says, on our reading of Kantianism.

‐ On a reading of Kantianism that emphasizes the requirement to take up the ends of others as our own, and to perfect ourselves, the Kantian saint will also have too little room to develop her own talents, relationships, and projects, and will have “one thought too many.”

‐ On an alternate, minimalist reading of Kant, that emphasizes not violating certain rules in our interactions with others, much more room might be left for pursuing non-moral virtues.

‐ But, Wolf argues, a moral theory that in this way puts an upper bound on what morality demands fails to capture the thought that, e.g., Mother Theresa, even if less attractive (on

Wolf’s view) than, say, Katherine Hepburn, is nonetheless more morally admirable.

Need either the Kantian or the utilitarian saint have one thought too many? That will depend on what kinds of motives we recognize as morally admirable…

Wolf notes that for the moral saint, it’s not just that moral values crowd out or outnumber or outcompete non-moral values – rather, nonmoral values are subsumed under moral ones. The moral saint can see these other values as valuable only to the extent that they contribute to the moral ideal. But, she says, this isn’t the right way to think of these other values:

“[T]he admiration of and striving toward achieving any of a great variety of forms of personal excellence are character traits it is valuable and desirable for people to have. In advocating the development of these varieties of excellence, we advocate nonmoral reasons for acting.”

Wolf doesn’t want us to revise our moral theories – the right response to the unattractiveness of the saint as a moral ideal isn’t to settle on a less demanding moral theory; rather, we should reassess the importance we give to morality in our picture of our reasons in general: things that matter morally aren’t the only things that matter: “The flaws in a perfect master of a moral theory need not reflect flaws in the intramoral content of the theory itself.”

This means giving up on the idea the morality can serve as the ultimate arbiter – the guidebook that can tell us, in all circumstances, what we have reason to do. Moral considerations won’t exhaust the considerations relevant to our decisions. As Wolf puts it, “It is not always better to be morally better.”

Review Questions:

What makes a moral saint? Is it what we do? Or what motivates us? Or what our character is like?

A moral saint is someone who can face his or her own fears in such a way that does not depict lack of fear, but rather the presence of courage and the acknowledgement that there is something in this world that is more power and greater than fear. Being a moral saint is based on who we are as people, because that will determine what will motivate us to choose a certain course of action.

Is it good or bad for us to be moral saints? Moral heroes?

There are pros and cons to being moral saints or heroes. Becoming a moral saint/hero means that we are choosing to do what is right rather than what is easy, no matter how much hardship we will endure to get there. Moral saints and heroes have a certain degree of selflessness, which is admirable, but to dedicate one’s life to becoming that selfless person everyone expects them to be will also lead to losing one’s self.

"It is not always better to be morally better". Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

I agree with this statement because there is a certain point where someone believes absolutely in the power of being morally right that that person will come off as someone who believes too highly in himself/herself. This would cause the people around that person to believe that this person is not the best person to be around because they believe that they are the exception to the moral rules, that they would be overlooked by basic laws just because they are knowledgable about it.

Is it better to be a loving saint or a rational saint? Explain.

I believe that it is better to be a rational saint because it means that we can still have thoughts for ourselves and we can still choose whether to do something rather than just doing something automatically out of love for a stranger. An example of this is that if someone is in need of a heart transplant, obviously I would not give my own heart while I still had my entire life ahead of me, but I wouldn’t be against donating it if I had no chance to live my own life. At least a part of me would get to live on even when the rest of me is six feet under…or ash.

Wolf disagrees that utilitarianism may leave the moral saint some limited room to develop her talents”. True or false.


Discussion Questions:

If given a choice between saving one significant person in your life or saving a thousand strangers, will you choose to be a moral saint/hero? Explain.

I would choose to save the strangers because I could save more lives with millions of possibilities for each and every one of them, rather than if I save that one person and there would be a limited number of possibilities in my life with that person, not all of them very bright. Saving the lives of innocent people is more important than saving my own love life, because that’s just one side of what makes me who I am. At least upon saving a thousand strangers, there are lives that get to be completed, endless potential to be realized, the prospect of new life very probable; who am I to stop that from happening just because I couldn’t control my emotions?

Do you agree that the more we use our brains, the more we lose our humanity and morality, as suggested in the movie Lucy? Does this theory mean that if we begin to use a higher percentage of our brains, that we are no longer capable of becoming moral saints or heroes? Explain.

I believe that that theory was at the very least, on to something. The more we use of our brains, the more control we have over ourselves, and over our environment. This could cause us to be sociopathic because we now control what happens to us, even the people. This wouldn’t be very conducive to actually turning into a highly-functioning society because we’d just end up fighting one another over who gets to control whom.

Do you believe that shallow appreciation of things is not true appreciation? Explain.

I do believe that to truly appreciate something, we must appreciate the process of how it was made, the people who made it, the idea that inspired its creator to even build it, and not just the product itself. My example would be in the little things, like appreciating the fact that the lipstick I use was not a product of animal cruelty.

What makes an average man into a hero?

An average man turns into a hero when he acknowledges his mistakes and his flaws, and actively creates an effort to either get rid of those flaws, or use those flaws to shape who he becomes. A hero is not someone who is perfect, but rather someone who knows that he is flawed, but wants to do something about those flaws so that he could be a better man to the people around him.

What makes a moral value valuable? What do you think can remove its value?

Value is given to certain moral values when those values can be used to help people in their respective problems. The value can be taken away from this when the value is only used to preach to people about superiority and impending hellfire, or to guilt trip them into thinking that they are less than what they perceived themselves to be.

Ethics – Handout 5 Harman, “Ethics and Observation”

Harman’s Thesis:

Moral theories, unlike scientific theories, do not seem to be confirmable through observation.

What is an observation?

• “observation has occurred whenever an opinion is a direct result of perception”

(p. 207); “an immediate judgment made in response to the situation without any conscious reasoning having taken place” (p. 208)

• Harman: “There are no pure observations. Observations are always ‘theory laden.’ What you perceive depends to some extent on the theory you hold, consciously or unconsciously.” (p. 207)

So Harman is not making the simple argument that because observation can only tell us what did happen, and not what should happen, moral theories can never be confirmed through observation.

Harman thinks there can be moral observations:

Also, Harman does not think that scientific observations, unlike moral ones, do not depend on our background beliefs:

So what is the difference between scientific and moral explanations, according to Harman?

Harman says that an observation supports a theory when the truth of the theory is part of the best explanation for the observation’s having taken place. Harman argues that the best explanation for why the physicist observes “There goes a proton!” will include references not just to her background beliefs but also to the fact that there really was a proton going through the chamber. But we can explain our observation that setting fire to a cat is wrong perfectly well – indeed, better – without making any reference to moral facts; we can explain it best just by referring to our moral beliefs.

Review Questions:

Describe what an observation is in your own words.

An observation is our immediate opinion on something that we have seen or heard. This would be the most raw version of our opinions because this is something immediate and something that had little to no amount of conscious logic or reasoning that could have aided in formulating the opinion.

If we cannot use observation to confirm our moral theories, what can we use in its place? Is this as credible as making a scientific theory? Why?

Moral theories are confirmed, in my opinion, by the moral theories or the research of other people. Moral theories are not as credible as scientific theories because where one is based on observation, the other is based on opinions and feelings.

Differentiate scientific vs moral theory in your own words.

Scientific theory uses observations to confirm themselves, and moral theories do not.

Do you agree that scientific theories do not depend on one’s cultural beliefs? Explain.

I believe that if cultural beliefs are put into the mix of a scientific theory, it turns into a hybrid between scientific and moral theories. Scientific theories should only depend on the events that are happening around someone and how it affects the people in the immediate environment. No cultural beliefs should taint a scientific theory.

An observation is “an immediate judgment made in response to the situation without any conscious reasoning having taken place”. Do you agree with this statement? Why?

I agree with this statement because observations should not be tainted by the moral “training” of opinions that we were raised to believe in. They should be raw and should not be tainted by morality or emotion.

Discussion Questions:

Is judging a book by its cover an example of an observation?

Judging a book by its cover is probably the best example of an observation, in my opinion. It is upon seeing the cover that we begin the internal debate with ourselves if we should get the book or not, so the cover has a lot of power behind it.

Is judging a movie by its poster an observation, and do you believe that this is a variant of bigotry? Explain.

Judging a movie by its poster is almost the same as the previous question, but it is a form of bigotry in some ways, especially when sweeping statements of whether it is a good movie is made purely on the opinion of the poster.

Are opinions that can be classified under “bigotry” a scientific or moral theory? Explain.

I believe that these are classified under moral theories. Moral theories do not need scientific observations to support themselves, so a theory can be about whether something is “sinful” or should not be shown to the general public.

Can moral theories be made about the same-sex marriage campaigns and declarations?

Many moral theories have been made about same-sex marriage, both positive and negative.

From the previous question, what about a scientific theory?

If a scientific theory about same-sex marriage has been made, it is highly likely that it is not in the favor of same-sex couples.

Nagel, “Moral Luck”

Control Principle: People cannot be morally assessed for what is due to factors beyond their control.

Corollary to the CP: Two people ought not to be morally assessed differently if the only other differences between them are due to factors beyond their control.

Moral Luck: Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck.

Some initial examples:

• We think manslaughter is worse than reckless driving that does not result in a death.

• We think murder is worse than attempted murder.

• Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany (assume this was something he could not control), but we still judge him harshly.

Problem: Because of the many ways in which the shape of our lives and intentions and effects of our actions are beyond our control, if the condition of control is consistently applied, it threatens to erode most of the moral assessments we find it natural to make.

So is this just evidence that the CP is false?

Nagel: No. “When we undermine moral assessment by considering new ways in which control is absent, we are not just discovering what would follow given the general hypothesis, but are actually being persuaded that in itself the absences of control is relevant in these cases too.”

(p. 443)

Analogy to Skepticism:

• Formal analogy: When we recognize that the kinds of things we think would generally undermine our claim to know something (e.g, we would think it even if it were false, or our evidence supports an alternative thesis equally well, or the reasons we believe it are unconnected with its truth…) have much broader application, this has a tendency to undermine our confidence that we know anything, rather than just leading us to reject the relevant standards for knowing.

• Substantive analogy: There is a problem of epistemic luck that runs parallel to the problem of moral luck.

‐ On some theories of knowledge, according to which whether we count as knowing can depend on factors external to us, and beyond our control, whether we know something seems to come down to luck (rather than some kind of epistemic virtue). 2

‐ But theories of knowledge according to which whether we count as knowing depends only on internal features of us – facts about our deliberation process and beliefs – and not on what goes on outside of us and beyond our control – threaten to lead to skepticism: a general undermining of knowledge. What we believe, and the relation of our beliefs to reality, seems almost always to be due to factors beyond our control.

4 Kinds of Moral Luck

(1) Luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out


• The truck-driver who failed to have his breaks checked recently, whose break failure kills/does not kill a child.

• The drunk or sleepy driver who swerves onto the sidewalk and kills/does not kill a pedestrian.

• Murder/attempted murder.

• Bill Belichick’s 4th down call.

• Leaving the baby’s bathwater running: Nagel – These differences in assessment are not mere expressions of temporary attitude – one can say in advance how the moral verdict will depend on the results (whether one’s done something horrible or merely been negligent)

• Gaugin (success at some costly endeavor may be beyond our control, but it may determine the moral status of our actions)

• Decisions made under uncertainty (remember Lenman): Gaugin, Chamberlain, the Decemberists, the American Revolution, match-making…

(2) Constitutive Luck: Luck in the kind of person you are – your inclinations, capacities and temperament.

• We might blame people for having character traits that are beyond their control. (But we sometimes see a bad upbringing, e.g., as an extenuating circumstance.)

• What is it to have a vice? Can one be greedy, envious, or conceited, but, through effort of will, behave perfectly well? If no, then even bad actions seem like they could be the result of constitutive moral bad luck. If yes, and if one can be condemned for such vices, having them still seems like a case of moral bad luck.

  • Are such qualities always the result of earlier bad choices, or always amenable to change by current actions?)

‐ Ought-implies-Can again plays a role here: we ought be virtuous (even if we’re not), so being virtuous must be something we can be (even if we’re not). What’s the relevant sense of “can” here?

(3) Luck in one’s circumstances:

• We may conclude that we’re appropriately assessable for our bad characters, and the actions resulting from them. But some (probably inconclusive) empirical literature suggests that how people act is determined more by circumstance than by character.

• Ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany, white children of slave owners in the 1850s, and persons brought up to embrace conventional sex roles

• Situationism: Some experiment social psychology suggests that much of human behavior is attributable not to robust character traits but to seemingly trivial features of the situations in which persons find themselves

‐ Milgram experiments

  • phone booth experiment

• Guilt by association: e.g. Vietnam

• Can we be morally responsible for what we do, if what we do is the result of who and where we are, and who and where we are is not the result of something we do, and so is not something we are responsible for?

(4) Luck in how we are determined: the free will problem

• If determinism is right (or even if the world is indeterministic) then everything we are and do (including “the stripped down acts of the will itself”) will depend on factors beyond our control.

Review Questions:

Identify the four kinds of moral luck.

Luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out, Luck in one’s circumstances, Constitutive Luck, and Luck in how we are determined.

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