Philosophical Studies

, Volume 158, Issue 2, pp 289–311 | Cite as

Saints, heroes, sages, and villains



This essay explores the question of how to be good. My starting point is a thesis about moral worth that I’ve defended in the past: roughly, that an action is morally worthy if and only it is performed for the reasons why it is right. While I think that account gets at one important sense of moral goodness, I argue here that it fails to capture several ways of being worthy of admiration on moral grounds. Moral goodness is more multi-faceted. My title is intended to capture that multi-facetedness: the essay examines saintliness, heroism, and sagacity. The variety of our common-sense moral ideals underscores the inadequacy of any one account of moral admirableness, and I hope to illuminate the distinct roles these ideals play in our everyday understanding of goodness. Along the way, I give an account of what makes actions heroic, of whether such actions are supererogatory, and of what, if anything, is wrong with moral deference. At the close of the essay, I begin to explore the flipside of these ideals: villainy.


Moral worth Motive of duty Moral saints Supererogation Moral deference Moral expertise 


  1. Arpaly, N. (2003). Unprincipled virtue: An inquiry into moral agency. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Grann, D. (2009). A sudden dismissal. The New Yorker: News Desk Blog, October 1st, 2009. URL: Retrieved February 27, 2012, from
  3. Hills, A. (2009). Moral testimony and moral epistemology. Ethics, 120(1), 94–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Holmes, R. (1985). Acts of war: The behaviour of men in battle. New York: The Free Press (Simon & Schuster, Inc.).Google Scholar
  5. Keneally, T. (1982). Schindler’s ark. New York: Scribner.Google Scholar
  6. Korsgaard, C. (1997). Two distinctions in goodness. In Creating the kingdom of ends (pp. 249–274). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Markovits, J. (2010). Acting for the right reasons. Philosophical Review, 119(2), 201–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. McGrath, S. (2011). Skepticism about moral expertise as a puzzle for moral realism. Journal of Philosophy, 108(3), 111–137.Google Scholar
  9. Raz, J. (1999). Practical reason and norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (Belknap).Google Scholar
  11. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1(3), 229–243.Google Scholar
  12. Sullenberger, C. (2009). Interview with Katie Couric. 60 Minutes. New York: CBS News.Google Scholar
  13. Tango down. (2010). Appendix: Glossary of military slang (under “T”). In Wiktionary. URL: Accessed August 18, 2010, from
  14. Urmson, J. O. (1958). Saints and heroes. In A. I. Melden (Ed.), Essays in moral philosophy (pp. 198–216). Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  15. Walden, K. E. D. (2012). Laws of nature, laws of freedom, and the social construction of normativity. In Oxford studies in metaethics (Vol. 7) (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  16. Williams, B. (1981). The truth in relativism. In Moral luck (pp. 132–43). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Wolf, S. (1982). Moral saints. Journal of Philosophy, 79(8), 419–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Linguistics and PhilosophyMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations