January 19, 2019

You Don't Have to Be Perfect

“‘I am glad,’ wrote the acclaimed American philosopher Susan Wolf, ‘that neither I nor those about whom I care most’ are ‘moral saints’. This declaration is one of the opening remarks of a landmark essay in which Wolf imagines what it would be like to be morally perfect. If you engage with Wolf’s thought experiment, and the conclusions she draws from it, then you will find that it offers liberation from the trap of moral perfection.

Wolf’s essay ‘Moral Saints’ (1982) imagines two different models of the moral saint, which she labels the Loving Saint and the Rational Saint. The Loving Saint, as described by Wolf, does whatever is morally best in a joyful spirit: such a life is not fun-free, but it is unerringly and unwaveringly focused on morality. We are to think of the Loving Saint as the kind of person who cheerfully sells all of her or his possessions in order to donate the proceeds to famine relief. The Rational Saint is equally devoted to moral causes, but is motivated not by a constantly loving spirit, rather by a sense of duty.

The Loving Saint might be more fun to be around than the Rational Saint, or more maddening, depending on your own personal temperament. Would the constant happiness of the Loving Saint make being with her easier, or would it drive you around the bend? There is an instruction associated with Buddhism – in fact, coined by the American scholar Joseph Campbell – that asks you to ‘participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world’, and the Loving Saint does this to the maximum: but perhaps you would find such joy sustained in the face of the world’s worst horrors inane or inappropriate. On the other hand, the Rational Saint, with his relentless commitment to duty, might be very grating company, too.”

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