Saints, Heroes, and Schmucks Like Me

02 September 2005

Thanks to Susan Wolf for an interesting discussion.  The episode certainly  prompted lots of response from listeners.  We must have set a record for questions submitted via e-mail.  There were also more callers than we could get to.

Susan has a point.   There is more to living well than slavishly  and  single-mindedly devoting oneself to moral perfection -- either of oneself or of the world.  I want a life filled with goods of all sorts -- many of them non-moral.  I want  moments in which I contemplate beauty, even if by such contemplation I achieve nothing for the world at large and merely  elevate myself above the mundane demands of the everyday.   I want to perfect my abilities as a philosopher and use them to  plumb the depths of the deepest philosophical mysteries, even if through my exploration the world remains as morally imperfect as can be.   I want to explore the heights of erotic pleasure with my deepest love, to tend my roses, to spend idle hours in the company of those I hold dear  or even merely in solitude. If morality were to ask, but not demand -- since we're talking about supererogation and not "mere" duty -- that I forgo the pursuit of such goods and devote all of my energies to pursuit of  moral perfection, either of myself or the world, I would refuse the offer.

There are times, of course, when morality demands personal sacrifices, large or small,  of us.   When morality calls in this way,  I hope that I can find it within myself to answer.  There is surely  something to the idea that the demands of morality (purport to)  override any non-moral demands.  Someone who would let another perish  that he could easily save,  just so that he might continue to enjoy even the best imaginable, once in a life time sort of meal,  cares too much for his own pleasure and too little for morality.
 
On the other hand,  the presumed  overridingness of morality is more complicated than many allow.   In particular,  I don't think that the demands or morality are rationally inescapable as, say, Kantians would maintain.  But that's a complicated issue that I don't want to explore in depth here.

But back to supererogation.  As I said,  I agree with Susan Wolf that one needn't as  a general rule give up the pursuit of all non-moral goods for the sake of a single-minded and slavish devotion to morality.  Still, it seems to me that she does inadequate justice to the pull of the supererogatory upon us.  The  supererogatory isn't  something  toward which morality is indifferent.  The supererogatory  isn't a domain of  "take it or leave it"  sorts of matters.  The supererogatory often concerns matters of great moral significance.   These aren't, it  seems to me, the sort of things that one can greet with a shrug of the shoulders.  That's because they have some call on us, even if we aren't obligated or duty-bound to do what is supererogatory.

Suppose, for example, I really and truly could do some great moral deed, perhaps even a heroic deed.  But suppose that I choose not to out of a preference for some non-moral good.  Though I may not have done anything morally wrong,  it seems to me that I am less than fully morally admirable.  It is perhaps not quite right  to say that I can be blamed for not doing what was supererogatory but not required.  But it's also not quite right to say that my failing to do what was merely supererogatory was a matter of moral indifference. The supererogatory exercises some moral pull on us, even if it does not obligate us.  Preferring  non-moral goods  over non-obligatory moral  goods is not quite like the preferring  jazz over opera.   The latter is of no moral significance.  But the former strikes me as  deeply morally significant.

I'm not quite sure, though, exactly how to characterize that moral pull.  It's not quite right to say that we are entitled to blame or punish those who refuse to do supererogatory acts that it is within their power to do.  What seems more appropriate is a kind of disappointment either in ourselves or others when we turn away from the supererogatory.  At a very minimum,   we do not greet such "failures"  with mere shrugs of the shoulder, as if they were of no moral moment.

Some moral theorists reject  the existence of the supererogatory.  One reason for that, I suspect, is that they think there is no way to accommodate the standing pull of the putatively supererogatory with its status as merely optional.    Such approaches give too much weight to some of the requests of morality and too little weight to all non-moral goods.   These approaches elevate morality into something of a despotic and  hegemonic ruler over our lives.   On such approaches, it is as if  our lives are first given over to morality and only after morality has extracted its due from us are our lives given back over to us.   Something like this thought, I think, is behind the idea that at least the commandments of morality are overriding.  But if you add the thought that even the supposedly  supererogatory partakes of  the imperial majesty of morality, you might quickly be led to reject the very idea of the supererogatory.  Morality becomes set of inescapable commandments  (together with a set of "permissions") all the way down.  The "above and beyond" simply disappears.

Though I don't quite no how to articulate it,  there must be a middle ground between the view that morality is hegemonic and the view that the merely morally good but not morally required does not partake of the full  "majesty" of the  morally required.   Two things indicate that our common sense morality at least implicitly recognizes the existence of such a middle ground.   First, there is the very fact that we do esteem heroes and saints as ideals.  Second, there is the fact that our attitude towards "non-heroes" who enjoy both the opportunity and the capacity to step in but, nonetheless, refused to do so  involves more than a  mere shrug of the shoulders.  Though there are many circumstances in which we don't blame or punish such people, there are many circumstances in which our admiration diminishes, in which we think less of the person who "failed" in this way and express various forms of disapprobation toward them.

Of course,  as we said on the show, there may be times when extraordinary acts are indeed morally required.  And one might be tempted to say that the only time we can legitimately  disapprove those who fail to do something heroic is when it is required.  But this just repeats Susan Wolf's mistake, on my view.  The  merely morally good,  but not required does not have the same pull on us as the morally required does.  But it doesn't follow that it has no pull on us, that we need be merely indifferent to its absence.  Depending on the circumstances, when we forgo some moral good in preference for some non-moral good, there is always room for regret or disappointment or shame.   Not only is there room, but to feel no such regret or shame or disappointment strikes me as a form of moral blindness.

What follows.  Not that we are all called to give our all only for morality.   But it does follow that the morally good is always present to us as an outstandingly worthy option, an option that we may rationally prefer to forgo, but always at some costs.  Feelings of regret, shame or disappointment are ways of recognize such a cost as a cost.

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, September 5, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I don't quite agree. I am sort of convinced by an

I don't quite agree. I am sort of convinced by an argument that I think pulls us in a more moral direction.
The argument is, I hope I am using the word correctly, Kantian in a sense.
If you realize yourself as a rational agent and if you "want moments in which I contemplate beauty", "want to perfect my abilities as a philosopher and use them to plumb the depths of the deepest philosophical mysteries", "want to explore the heights of erotic pleasure with my deepest love, to tend my roses", then you will perhaps agree that there are other rational agents who may have similar needs and desires. And if you philosophically elevate your ability to accomplish these tasks, by the same token, you will also elevate others' potential to do these.
So, I think helping others and being moral are not really supererogatory but just something you should do by rational considerations - it isn't an option. I realize that you mean immensely self-sacrifical acts by "the supererogatory" but I think the distinction between "the supererogatory" and "moral requirements" can be made rather arbitrarily. And most people think that just refraining from negative acts is enough to be moral and anything more is just supererogatory.

nick's picture

nick

Thursday, September 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

The Highest Good consists of the moral good and th

The Highest Good consists of the moral good and the realization of natural ends. The realization of natural ends entails a clear recognition of basic human goods. These are friendship, aesthetic experience, knowledge, play, and life. These are self-evidently good things to have. So much for having the good. Doing the good or realizing the moral good begins only after we have a clear understanding of what is good for human persons to have. I think moral perfection consists in not doing anything to impede people's pursuit of basic human goods, and to try to maximize our attainment of basic human goods. What more can there be to moral perfection? Moral perfection involves maximizing the realization of all peoples pursuits of basic human goods.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Nick: I'm not sure whether you are agreeing or

Nick:
I'm not sure whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with Susan Wolf's approach. What you seem to mean by moral perfection seems to include a lot of what Wolf would call non-moral goods. In one sense it seems clear that a life that included more total goods, moral and non-moral, would be a better life than a life that included fewer total goods. I doubt that Wolf would deny that. Her worry is whether the presence of more moral goods can "compensate" for the absence of non-moral goods. She thinks not, apparently.
Cosmic:
I'm not sure I see why my own pursuit of, say, philosophical excellence, should necessarily have any impact on others. I could just sit in my study and think and never write a thing and never even appear on the radio. Similarly, even if I recognize that others have needs and desires like my own, nothing follows about whether I will or should devote my energies to helping others satisfy their needs and desires.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, September 9, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

It depends on what you mean by "impact" and the di

It depends on what you mean by "impact" and the distinction between a "passive" moral agent and an "active" moral agent.
I first heard about this distinction from the guy across the hall to you :P. Mr. Bobonich, in last year's Visions IHUM, at some point gave a very convincing example about the need to be actively engaged as a moral agent - that passiveness can not be moral. (This may not be his opinion but this is what I infer). His example was something like: Imagine that you are walking down a street in a rainy day and right next to you, a baby is drowning in a poodle of water. Would you consider yourself moral if you did nothing and just walked away? I think not. Similarly, in the face of the great evils perpetuated by other people, I think we should consider ourselves immoral if we simply do nothing. (Take the Iraqi War for instance.)
Noam Chomsky, when asked why he was involved in political activism to the point that he lacked a non-political social life, he answered something like "If someone was being beaten and oppressed in the street, would you just sit there and do nothing? In fact, I am surprised by how little I am involved and how even less other people are involved."
I think this notion of "having no impact upon others" is just a smoke-screen to smuggle theses that protect our selfish interests. As John Donne said, "No man is an island onto himself/Every man is part of the continent"
So, yes, if one was to spend one's life contemplating abstract philosophical or scientific notions that aren't practically related to life, I wouldn't consider that a well-lived life. I would consider such a person what Nietzsche called in the Birth of Tragedy "a spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge."
As for the other point about how our realization of ourselves relates to others, I'll let the another person across the hall to you do the talking. I hate to argue by authority(and I repent I have done many times so in this text) but Mr. Wood in his paper "On the Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research", writes (emphasis mine):
Why did Kant think that rational nature in persons is an end in itself? As I interpret him, Kant thinks that we cannot employ reason in making decisions without according a special and primary value to rational nature in ourselves, and therefore, if we are consistent, equally in others also. It is the possession of the capacity to act rationally, especially the capacity to act autonomously, that fundamentally makes a being a person. The fundamental claim made on us by the value of rational nature is the claim that we express respect for rational nature in the way we act, especially in the way we act toward persons.
Unless one has a solipsist view of the universe, I think it's only consistent if we are ACTIVELY moral - and such a requirement isn't supererogatory.
(Great show by the way. Keep up the good work!)

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, September 9, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Poodle => Pond Just a correction...

Poodle => Pond
Just a correction...

nick's picture

nick

Sunday, September 11, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Moral goods cannot be comprehended without referen

Moral goods cannot be comprehended without reference to non-moral goods. Moral goods (involve doing) can in no way compensate for non-moral goods (involve having). They are incommensurable. Each basic non-moral good is incommensurable with every other basic non-moral good.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, September 12, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Ken: If you truly want to explore ?philosophi

Ken:
If you truly want to explore ?philosophical excellence? I would argue that it requires your interaction with other minds, and I assume by your participation in forums such as this you agree. You could argue that you don?t have to, but the reasoning behind why interaction allows a better exploration is separate issue. And if through interaction, your pursuit of excellence allows others to pursue theirs you have added to the world?s utility.
The fact that not writing anything would have to be a conscious act to not leave anything behind I believe makes the argument as to how your pursuit of excellence is a moral good.
That said it is not merely pursuit of a moment of beauty and erotic experience but those we affect in that pursuit.
Cosmic:
Baby in a poodle (that?s a very bad dog ?) is a very tough moral rule. And the loophole is very F-451. By that definition as long as we have no knowledge of ?evils? we have no obligation. And conversely the more we know about our world the harder it will be to be moral regardless of the good we can do.
So can we tie moral goodness to what we know? What if I spend all of my time righting the wrongs in Iraq, which I might not be very good at, when on the other hand I could focus on a pursuit of excellence in an area to which I am more ?acclimated? (I would say that passions dictate this). This area might not posses the same ?positive moral ranking? as fixing Iraq, but if I can be more excellent at it perhaps I can add more positive utility to the world. Let?s say I start a business (something my passion will allow me to be excellent at) and employ a kid, who one day uses the money from the job to buy a book about international policy. That kid grows up to be president, and finally Iraq is fixed.
Sure the story is far fetched, but no worse then a baby eating poodle. Now that leaves moral goodness to perusing our passions. What if our passion hinders others from perusing theirs?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, October 9, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Here are some thoughts on the question of desirabi

Here are some thoughts on the question of desirability to be or to be with a saint. I liked the distinction of the "duty-bound" saint vs. the love-motivated saint. What I did not agree with was the concept of love that Susan suggested.
I believe that the saintly love that was discussed touches such deep levels of fullfilment that there is no need, in fact not even a thought of anything but that pursuit, even to the point of joyful self-neglect.
Also, the concept that it would not be "fun" to be with a saint mind-boggles me. The saint that I imagine "rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep" - and that would include laughing about the joke that may be cynical or off-colored. Love is not the same than self-righteousness!
Jost

 
 
 

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