The Motivation of the Moral Saint

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Susan Wolf, "Moral Saints," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No. 8, (1982), p. 419.

  2. 2.

    In this paper, I set aside Wolf’s consideration of the moral saint ideal implied by Kant’s moral theory. For a critique of Wolf's criticism of Kant, see Robert B. Louden, "Can We Be Too Moral?" Ethics, Vol. 98, No. 2, (1988), pp. 365-370, 375-376.

  3. 3.

    See Wolf, op. cit., p. 420.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., pp. 421-22.

  5. 5.

    Ibid., p. 428. Cf., Bernard Williams, "Persons, Character and Morality," in Moral Luck (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  6. 6.

    See Wolf, op. cit., p. 421.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., p. 425.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., p. 425.

  9. 9.

    Ibid., p. 429.

  10. 10.

    One way to make this point is to say that the moral saint pursues non-moral virtues, interests, activities, relationships, and so on, but not for their own sakes. This is how I have described the claim thus far. If a person pursues non-moral ends, like improving their golf game, however, solely as a means to improving the general welfare, then it might make some sense simply to count this as a moral pursuit, rather than a non-moral pursuit. The cultivation of their golf game is a moral pursuit, because it is derived from the more basic moral goal of improving the general welfare. If this is right, then the moral saint simply does not pursue non-moral virtues, interests, activities, relationships, and so on at all. Perhaps the deficiency of the life of the moral saint seems more obvious when it is described this way. In what follows, I put this description of the motivation of the moral saint aside.

  11. 11.

    See Vanessa Carbonell, "What Moral Saints Look Like," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 3, (2009), p. 390 and "De Dicto Desires and Morality as Fetish," Philosophical Studies, Vol. 163, No. 2, (2013), p. 461.

  12. 12.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 393 and 2013, p. 462.

  13. 13.

    A reviewer for the journal cautions that I might put both Wolf's characterization of the motivation of the moral saint and Carbonell's interpretation of Wolf too strongly here. This seems supported by the following passage, from the final pages of Carbonell 2009:

    Perhaps the definition of moral saint that Wolf was intending all along was something like 'a person who only responds to moral reasons, and cannot respond to non-moral reasons, except when doing so either augments her ability to respond to moral reasons or has no effect whatsoever on this ability'. If this is the definition Wolf intends, perhaps many of my criticisms fall flat (op. cit., p. 396).

    For the sake of argument, I mean to assess this stronger reading of Wolf's description of the moral saint, and grant (but not necessarily accept) that this is an accurate description of the moral saint ideal implied by utilitarianism and common sense morality. If the reply that I outline in this paper is convincing, then it might succeed where Carbonell's criticisms might otherwise "fall flat."

    It's also hard to see, however, how the weaker reading of Wolf's description of the moral saint can be consistent with her objection. If the claim that the life of the moral saint is “dominated by a commitment to improving the general welfare" merely means that the moral saint spends a great majority of their time and effort on this pursuit, but still pursues non-moral ends for their own sakes as well, then the intuition that their life is deficient might seem implausible from the outset. So such a reading seems to assume the conclusion for which Carbonell and I mean to argue.

    Additionally, I'm skeptical that Carbonell's criticisms need to assume the weaker reading in the first place. If the moral saint must pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes in order to avoid burnout, for example, as Carbonell argues (see below), then the moral saint might pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes even on the stronger reading, just because these pursuits "augment their ability to respond to moral reasons."

  14. 14.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, pp. 309-312 and 2013, p. 461.

  15. 15.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 390 and 2013, p. 461.

  16. 16.

    Carbonell's view is that the moral saint's motivation to improve the general welfare should be read both de dicto and de re. The two types of motivation act "in concert" (op cit., 2013, pp. 459, 2009, pp. 394-395.).

  17. 17.

    See Wolf, op. cit., p. 424, cited at Carbonell, op. cit. 2009, p. 390 and 2013, p. 462.

  18. 18.

    See Carbonell, op. cit. 2009, pp. 390 and 2013, p. 462.

  19. 19.

    See Wolf, op. cit., p. 429, emphasis added.

  20. 20.

    Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 75, cited at Carbonell, op. cit., 2013, p. 463 and 2009: 393.

  21. 21.

    Sigrún Svavarsdóttir paraphrases Smith's point by saying,

    [t]ypically, a kind person does not undertake a kind act because he has conceived of it in positive moral terms. It is simply the conception of the action as yielding comfort, relief, or encouragement to someone that makes him undertake it (see Sigrún Svavarsdóttir, "Cognitivism and Motivation," The Philosophical Review Vol. 108, No. 2, (1999), pp. 198-199).

  22. 22.

    Smith makes this point with an analogy:

    Just as it is consitutive of being a good lover that you have direct concern for the person you love, so it is constitutive of being a morally good person that you have direct concern for what you think is right, where this is read de re and not de dicto (See Smith, op. cit., p. 76, cited at Carbonell, op. cit., 2013, p. 464).

  23. 23.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 388.

  24. 24.

    In a number of places, Carbonell suggests that Wolf's moral saint is problematic because they are fundamentally concerned with being seen as moral, as opposed to being moral. Kelly Sorensen considers this kind of objection to Mother Theresa and Gandhi, in particular (see Kelly Sorensen, "The Paradox of Moral Worth," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 101, No. 9, (2004), p. 465-483). Even when the motivation of the moral saint is read de dicto, however, there is little reason to think that the moral saint is especially concerned with their reputation. Being directly concerned with rightness is not equivalent to being directly concerned with being perceived as righteous.

  25. 25.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, pp. 390-91, 2013, p. 461.

  26. 26.

    See Zoë A. Johnson King, "Praiseworthy Motivations," Nous, forthcoming, p. 4.

  27. 27.

    These further features in virtue of which some right-making feature obtains are also right-making features, since they too are features in virtue of which the action is right.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., p. 6.

  29. 29.

    Ibid., p. 6.

  30. 30.

    Carbonell seems to accept this conclusion, since she reads the motivation by justice both de dicto and de re (See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 394).

  31. 31.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 391.

  32. 32.

    Ibid., p. 392.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., p. 392.

  34. 34.

    Geoffrey Scarre, Utilitarianism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 185.

  35. 35.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2013, p. 462, 2009, p. 374.

  36. 36.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 378.

  37. 37.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2013, pp. 374, 382.

  38. 38.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 388.

  39. 39.

    For other arguments for the claim that moral sainthood is unattainable, see Earl Conee, "The Nature and Impossibility of Moral Perfection," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 54, No. 4, (1994), pp. 815-825.

  40. 40.

    Ibid., p. 396.

  41. 41.

    See Wolf, op. cit. p. 420.

  42. 42.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 373.

  43. 43.

    Edward Lawry compares moral saintliness to religious, "holy" saintliness and argues that both have more to do with what a person "exhibits" rather than what a person does (see Edward Lawry, "In Praise of Moral Saints," Southwest Philosophy Review Vol. 18, No. 1, (2002), pp. 4-5). If this is right, then the moral saint need not improve the general welfare as much as possible with every action.

  44. 44.

    Lawrence A. Blum cites "morally worthy motivation" as a criterion of the "moral hero," and explains this as having "only morally good desires as their primary motives" (see Lawrence A. Blum, "Moral Exemplars: Reflections on Schindler, the Trocmes, and Others," Midwest Studies in Philosophy Vol. 13, No. 1 (1988), p. 199. Cf., Conee, op. cit., pp. 817-818). This might be putting the point too strongly, but even if it is granted, the descriptions of motivations that I offer here might meet the criterion, even if they are constituted by both moral and non-moral motivations.

  45. 45.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, pp. 393-395, 2013, pp. 466-470.

  46. 46.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2009, p. 378, fn. 2.

  47. 47.

    See Carbonell, op. cit., 2013, p. 470.

  48. 48.

    Cf., Ron Aboodi, "One Thought Too Few: Where De Dicto Moral Motivation is Necessary," Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 20, No. 2, (2017), pp. 223-237.

  49. 49.

    See Svavarsdóttir, op. cit., p. 198.

  50. 50.

    It is worth remembering that Wolf draws the distinction that Carbonell takes to correspond to the de dicto/de re distinction by contrasting motivation by "morality itself" with motivation by some "more concrete and specific vision of a goal," respectively. My suggestions in what follow might be taken as a possible elaboration of Wolf's point.

  51. 51.

    To see this, try to translate the words ‘de re’ in the claim that the moral saint is motivated to do what is right de re in a way that clearly captures its sense.

  52. 52.

    My thanks to anonymous reviewers at The Journal of Value Inquiry for suggestions that improved the paper significantly. I’m also grateful to David Dick for conversations that helped me sort out my own thoughts on these issues.

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Framarin, C.G. The Motivation of the Moral Saint. J Value Inquiry 54, 387–406 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-019-09716-2

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