The Unseemliness of Saintliness

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There’s a psychological process called ethical fading that Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrusel talk about in their business ethics book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. Basically, when we make decisions, the ethical implications can fade from the decision criteria, allowing us to violate our own moral convictions without even realizing it. No one is immune to this phenomenon, not even you.

The good news is there are simple strategies – of the behavioral economics stripe – that can keep the moral dimensions of decisions from disappearing into the dark. For instance, publicly pre-committing to an ethical action, or pre-committing to an ethical action and sharing it with an unbiased and ethical person, makes people more likely to follow through with an ethical action in the future. There are also ways to ensure that abstract ethical values are salient during the decision process. These include imagining whether you’d be comfortable telling your mom about the decision, or thinking about your eulogy and what you’d want to be written about the values and principles you lived by.

We can, in effect, nudge ourselves toward morality.

It’s not hard to argue that battling meta-moral defects like ethical fading is a good thing. For Bazerman and Tenbrusel’s target – the business and organizational context, where misconduct tends to flourish – this seems self-evident. What is difficult, however, is figuring out how hard and how often we ought to battle our default psychology in the name of morality. Should we inject ethics into every decision we make and every action we take, or is there a limit to how morally good we want to be?

Bazerman and Tenbrusel don’t advocate taking on our psycho-ethical inadequacies at every turn, nor do they suggest that it’s even possible, but it’s still an interesting question whether as much moral goodness as possible is a good thing – whether we should, if we could, hack our psychology all the way to moral perfection. Whether we would want to be moral saints.

Moral Sainthood

Benjamin Franklin embarked on a systematic quest for moral perfection, which he described in his autobiography. He failed but wrote that he became a “better and happier man” than he otherwise would have been. His desire to be morally perfect, he said, was like “those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wished-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and tolerable, while it continues fair and legible.” In other words, moral perfection is probably unattainable, but it’s nonetheless worth striving for.

George Orwell disagreed. In his essay on Gandhi, he wrote of his “aesthetic distaste” for the man’s saintliness, and he argued that sainthood is incompatible with what it means to be human:

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.

It isn’t just that the average human is simply a failed saint who snubs the ideal of sainthood because it’s too hard to achieve. “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints,” Orwell said, “and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

The philosopher Susan Wolf was equally unimpressed with the moral saint. In her 1982 article “Moral Saints,” she argued that moral perfection isn’t “a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.”

There are two possible models of the moral saint, Wolf said. The Loving Saint is motivated solely by the wellbeing of others. Where most people derive a significant portion of their wellbeing from the ordinary joys of life – material comforts, fulfilling activities, love, companionship, etc. – the moral saint’s happiness genuinely lies “in the happiness of others, and so he would devote himself to others gladly, and with a whole and open heart.” The Rational Saint, on the other hand, is as tempted as the non-saint by the ordinary constituents of happiness, but she denies herself life’s pleasures out of moral duty. Broader moral concerns make her sacrifice her own interests to the interests of others.

Though the motivations of these types of saints differ, the difference would have little effect on the saints’ ultimate commitment – being as morally good and treating others as justly and kindly as possible. The moral saint, no matter which type, “will have the standard moral virtues to a non-standard degree.” The problem with moral perfection, according to Wolf, is that it conflicts with our ideals of personal excellence and wellbeing:

For 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 nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.

If the moral saint spends his days pursuing nothing but moral goals, Wolf argued, then he has no time to pursue other worthwhile goals and interests. He’s not reading novels, playing music, or participating in athletics. There are also nonmoral characteristics that people value – a cynical or sarcastic wit, or sense of humor that appreciates one – that would be incongruent with sainthood. A moral saint, Wolf said, would oppose such characteristics because they require a mindset of resignation and cynicism about the darker aspects of the world. The morally perfect person “should try to look for the best in people, give them the benefit of the doubt as long as possible, try to improve regrettable situations as long as there is any hope of success.”

Nor could the moral saint take an interest in things like gourmet cooking, high fashion, or interior design. If there is a justification for such activities, Wolf said, “it is one which rests on the decision not to justify every activity against morally beneficial alternatives, and this is a decision a moral saint will never make.”

Our ideals of excellence, Wolf said, contain a mixture of moral and nonmoral virtues. We want our models to be morally good – but “not just morally good, but talented or accomplished or attractive in nonmoral ways as well”:

We may make ideals out of athletes, scholars, artists – more frivolously out of cowboys, private eyes, and rock stars. We may strive for Katharine Hepburn’s grace, Paul Newman’s “cool”; we are attracted to the high-spirited passionate nature of Natasha Rostov; we admire the keen perceptiveness of Lambert Strether. Though there is certainly nothing immoral about the ideal characters or traits I have in mind, they cannot be superimposed upon the ideal of the moral saint. For although it is a part of many of these ideals that the characters set high, and not merely acceptable, moral standards for themselves, it is also essential to their power and attractiveness that the moral strengths go, so to speak, alongside of specific, independently admirable, nonmoral ground projects and dominant personal traits.

According to Wolf, although we include moral virtues in our ideals of personal excellence, we look in our models of moral excellence for people whose moral virtues occur alongside interests or traits of lower moral salience – “there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.”

And, to be sure, it’s not just that we value well-roundedness and can’t stand saints’ singular commitment to morality. We don’t usually object to those who are passionately committed, above all else, to become, say, Olympic athletes or accomplished musicians. Such people might decide that their commitment to these goals are strong enough to be worth sacrificing other things that life might have to offer. Desiring to be a moral saint is different, however:

The desire to be as morally good as possible is apt to have the character not just of a stronger, but of a higher desire, which does not merely successfully compete with one’s other desires but which rather subsumes or demotes them. The sacrifice of other interests for the interest in morality, then, will have the character, not of a choice, but of an imperative.

There is something odd, Wolf continued, about morality or moral goodness being the object of a dominant passion. When the Loving Saint happily gives up life’s pleasures in the name of morality, it’s striking not because of how much he loves morality, but because of how little he seems to love life’s nonmoral pleasures. “One thinks that, if he can give these up so easily, he does not know what it is to truly love them,” Wolf wrote. The Rational Saint might desire what life offers in a way that the Loving Saint cannot, but in denying himself these pleasures out of moral duty, his position is equally disturbing – one reckons that he has “a pathological fear of damnation, perhaps, or an extreme form of self-hatred that interferes with his ability to enjoy the enjoyable life.”

Like Orwell, Wolf confronted the possibility that we are put off by models of moral saints because they highlight our own weaknesses and because sainthood would require us to sacrifice things we enjoy. She granted that our being unattracted to the requirements of sainthood is not, in itself, sufficient for condemning the ideal, but some of the qualities that the moral saint lacks are good qualities, ones that we find desirable, ones that we ought to like. And this, she said, provides us with reasons to discourage moral sainthood as an ideal:

In advocating the development of these varieties of excellence, we advocate nonmoral reasons for acting, and in thinking that it is good for a person to strive for an ideal that gives a substantial role to the interests and values that correspond to these virtues, we implicitly acknowledge the goodness of ideals incompatible with that of the moral saint.

So, Wolf agreed with Orwell that people don’t, and shouldn’t, strive to be moral saints – not because sainthood is incompatible with being human, however, but because it is incompatible with being an excellent one. And although Ben Franklin endorsed the pursuit of moral perfection, his life story seems perfectly harmonious with Wolf’s view: he may have failed to become morally perfect, but he succeeded in achieving personal excellence.

If moral sainthood is not a model of personal excellence and well-being toward which we should aspire, then maybe the psychological constraints on our morality aren’t defects at all. Maybe we need them to attain and enjoy the nonmoral goods in life. Sometimes it might be good to just let the ethics fade. The big question is, when?

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