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  • What Moral Saints Look Like
  • Vanessa Carbonell (bio)


Most of us have never met a moral saint, and so it may be difficult for us to imagine what such a person would be like. Even before thinking too deeply about what it takes to be a moral saint, we tend to think that being a saint must be quite difficult. We might even think that the difficulty of being a moral saint —the sacrifice it involves —is in fact a burden, a project so all-consuming that it causes a person to be deprived in certain important ways. If this deprivation is severe enough, the life of the moral saint begins to look awfully bleak. Indeed, the most influential philosophical account of moral sainthood paints a rather bleak picture. But is it really so bad to be a moral saint? If we look more carefully at just what is required for moral sainthood, and if we observe the life of a living, breathing moral saint, we find that it is not so bad after all.

In her famous paper 'Moral Saints,' Susan Wolf argues that it is not rational to want to be a moral saint. A moral saint is someone who is 'as morally worthy as can be,' and such a person, Wolf claims, would be quite unattractive, because sainthood is incompatible with many of the personalities and lifestyles we tend to find desirable (Wolf, 1982, 419). This poses a problem for anyone who thinks that the life of the moral saint is the best life, because it makes little sense that the best life could [End Page 371] be so unattractive. Wolf's thesis may even pose a problem for those who think that the life of the moral saint must be a good life, for how can an undesirable and unpalatable life be a good life?

There are two central claims in Wolf's argument. The first is that the life of the moral saint —that is, the morally best life —is not the best life from what Wolf calls 'the point of view of personal perfection' (437). The second claim is that a lack of correspondence between the morally best life and the best life from the point of view of personal perfection is problematic, because it presents us with a paradox of sorts: we are committed to the idea that the life of the moral saint is the best life, all told, and yet when we examine that life, we find that it is not a 'palatable ideal' (419). In what follows I focus mainly on the first claim. I argue that moral saints are not nearly as unattractive as Wolf claims, because moral commitments do not grossly distort an agent's personality to the extent she proposes.

Wolf concedes that our discontent with the moral saint as the model of an ideal life is at least partly motivated by 'the egoistic, hedonistic side of our natures' (426). While it is widely acknowledged that being moral is not necessarily always in our self-interest, Wolf seems to be making a stronger claim: that leading the supremely moral life is necessarily not in one's self interest, or more broadly, that in virtue of its very nature, this life does not and cannot accord with a model of a well-rounded life, where a well-rounded life leaves room for at least some satisfaction of our egoistic and hedonistic desires. In what follows, I argue that these strong claims are not true. That is, I argue that even if we agree that the moral point of view is not automatically more authoritative than the point of view of personal perfection —even if we concede that the two points of view draw on incommensurable criteria —still, the best life from the moral point of view (the life of the moral saint) is not necessarily unattractive from the point of view of personal perfection.

On Wolf's account, a saint is someone we want neither to be nor to be around, because the saint cannot devote himself to hobbies, cannot tell certain jokes or laugh at them, cannot be cynical or pessimistic, and must generally be so...


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