Moral Saints, Just Lacking Modesty

Over at The Boston Review, David V. Johnson interviews Larissa MacFarquhar on her writing about ‘moral saints’, (‘people who have a very demanding sense of moral duty and live their lives accordingly’). MacFarquhar took this project on by way of offering a thesis opposed to the one advanced by Susan Wolf in her ‘Moral Saints‘ which argued that because ‘our conceptions of perfect moral virtue…and of a well-lived life are irreconcilable’ our notions of morality, the good moral life and thus the notion of the ‘moral saint’ need to be revised and/or jettisoned. MacFarquhar, for her part, was struck by the skepticism and hostility about the very idea of a ‘moral saint’:

Some thought people who appeared to be extremely ethical must be somehow cheating—that they couldn’t actually be doing all those good things. Others believed they were doing those things, but they found that so weird that they thought they must have some kind of mental illness—that they must lack the ordinary component of desires or feelings, or that there was something robotic about them.

What these skeptics and critics are getting wrong, for Macfarquhar, is a bunch of things:

If the suspicion is hypocrisy, I think we underestimate the sort of people I’m writing about—it’s entirely possible to live an extremely ethical life without being hypocritical. But besides that, I think people overvalue certain kinds of sins. For instance, many people have said to me, when they hear who I’m writing about, ‘Well, don’t they just act morally to make themselves feel better? Don’t they get all self-righteous and overly proud of themselves?’ I think that pride and self-righteousness are far less important than most people seem to think they are. I think that if you’re doing something that’s hard to do and good to do, and that makes you feel proud, I just don’t see why that’s so terrible. One kidney donor told me that his donation made him feel better about himself—that it was one really good thing he’d done in his life, which he had otherwise made a pretty complete mess of. Some psychologists think you shouldn’t donate in order to feel better about yourself, but it strikes me as an excellent reason!

What’s more, I think what is criticized as self-righteousness or preachiness is often the result of a desire to further whatever cause the person is engaged in. If a person held back from talking about his cause out of a desire to appear less self righteous, that would be its own problem—and a much more serious one.

Interestingly, Macfarquhar’s response does not confine itself to the suggestion that the ‘moral saints’ in question do not show the traits attributed to them (piety, pride etc). Rather Macfarquhar’s response is that these character attributes are not problematic to begin with. In part, I agree with Macfarquhar: pride and a heightened sense of self-esteem do not strike me as especially problematic outcomes of a chosen course of action. There is a caveat relating to the pride though, and it occurs to me because the latter part of her response is a little too blithe in dismissing the problems with ‘preachiness.’ Being the subject of a proselytizing sermon is never a pleasant experience, no matter which desire underwrites the delivery of the sermon. If the moral saint is committed to living the life of extreme moral virtue then he or she, in order to increase their level of social acceptance, might have to internalize yet another virtue: that of understated humility about their ’cause’. Perhaps the moral saint can remain proud of his or her actions while also being resolutely committed to letting others make up their minds about the proper way to live one’s lives.

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2 comments on “Moral Saints, Just Lacking Modesty

  1. David Barry says:

    Ha – I think I recognise the Boston-area couple talked about in the interview. My own morality has a similar streak (well it’s more than a streak) of utilitarianism, which leads me to quite strongly disagree with your concluding sentence, at least in theory.

    In practice, I agree that preachiness is annoying. An interesting psych study on this was written up here, suggesting that it doesn’t take much to be considered preachy: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/08/why_moral_leade.html But the utilitarian calculation is pretty stark: at present it costs about $2000 to prevent a statistical death from malaria; persuading someone to donate accordingly would do enormous good; a few people being annoyed at ‘anticipated reproach’ is, by comparison, a very small amount of bad. I think it likely that the optimal amount of preachiness from me is quite a bit higher than what I usually indulge in.

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