In her work “Moral Saints,” Susan Wolf discusses the issues of striving to achieve a morally perfect state of being and approaches the topic of personal values from various perspectives. A moral saint, in her words, is a person who has achieved the best possible state of moral worth; such a state is commonly viewed as a goal in personal development. The author opposes this state as a goal and contends that people should not rationally strive toward a single model of moral perfection. Lastly, she considers the deontological and teleological contexts of this discussion before concluding with some remarks regarding the nature of such a moral philosophy.
The discussion begins by bringing personal development into the framework of morality. Wolf deems the framework of “moral sainthood” derivative of common-sense ethics (p. 420). Wolf (1982) argues that it is similar since altruism is the essence of moral saints’ personality and development. Wolf (1982) contends that such a one-sided approach to life may result in other traits’ compromised development, resulting in an individual who is not as well-rounded. Thus, the author perceives the manifestation of this trait as one-sided and predominant. Instead, it may be helpful to reconsider the function of altruism: if someone is devoted to helping others, this may not necessarily entail an abandonment of other moral interests.
There is nothing in the given definition of moral sainthood that explicitly precludes one from pursuing personal development, even if it is done with a selfless goal. Wolf (1982) argues that a moral saint would look for the best in people and have hope to continue with their work – thus, such people may not be sarcastic, cynical, or humorous. However, these traits may all be perceived as defense mechanisms individuals use to deflect some of the world’s impact. In other words, helping others does not automatically imply that a person who does so must be otherwise perfect.
Another point lies in the core of the discussion around selflessness. Wolf (1982) evaluates the requirements for moral sainthood through assessing a commitment to improving others’ well-being and personal happiness. A moral saint may either be selfless because altruism brings them happiness or because the sacrifice is so necessary that it overshadows everyone else. Wolf (1982) calls these two states being a saint “out of love” or “out of duty” (p. 420). For the first one, people are expected to be happy purely through ‘serving’ others; for the second, people are expected to persevere and put their happiness last. Wolf’s (1982) concern seems to be that either of these is unattainable and, therefore, harmful since the desire to become a moral saint “does not merely successfully compete with one’s other desires but… demotes them” (p. 424). The moral saints are thus entirely devoted to their sole purpose.
However, striving toward an idea of moral sainthood and embodying it are different concepts. One may strive to be selfless yet not represent a perfect moral saint, for seldom anything in the real world is a flawless model. Moreover, Wolf’s (1982) argument is that moral goodness becomes an imperative, dominating all other desires in life, which diminishes access to other facets and experiences of living. On the contrary, when someone is entirely devoted to helping others, there is often a backstory that pushes a person to do so. Additionally, there may be a specific interest topic – humanitarian aid, education, medicine, or others. Therefore, moral sainthood does not necessarily dominate other areas of existence but instead directs and intertwines with them. Daily manifestations that Wolf (1982) describes, such as lending a needed item or sharing a favorite meal, may result from collective-oriented cultural and familial upbringing. A perception that ultimate selflessness is harmful seems to be characteristic of a Western perspective, where individual needs are prioritized.
Lastly, the question of balance and limitations requires consideration in the context of morality. According to the Kantian framework, one can achieve the optimal state of moral goodness by balancing the maintenance of one’s needs with altruism and devoting a limited portion of energy to each. In countering Kant’s argument, Wolf (1982) seems to effectively contradict herself since she deems his approach a perversion of moral goodness. Wolf (1982) states that placing a limit on one’s moral capacity denies the ability to remain as moral as possible. However, she presents this argument in absolute terms: once a limitation has been placed, it may never be crossed. In reality, Kantian regulation of altruism and apathy is more likely a balance that shifts throughout one’s life: sometimes, a higher degree of self-sacrifice is needed and granted; sometimes, one’s own well-being is prioritized.
In conclusion, Wolf’s presentation of moral sainthood raises important notions of setting personal goals and boundaries. She differentiates between the moral saints being altruistic since it brings them pleasure and those viewing altruism as a duty that trumps all other desires. One of the primary concerns that she presents is that striving to be the best possible version of the moral self becomes an imperative that dominates other goals and personality aspects. However, striving toward a moral state does not exist in the human mind – instead, it may be compounded by other goals and underlying causes. Lastly, the balance between self-sacrifice and other commitments is not static – it may change throughout the lifetime, which further counters the author’s argument. Overall, Wolf’s work presents many intriguing insights, but it omits several essential constituents of one’s well-being.