Saints, Heroes, and Well-Lived Lives
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What is it

Some actions are right, and some are wrong.  But aren't some even better than right---the kinds of things that heroes and saints do?  Yet some philosophers think that such "supererogatory" acts make no sense; we should always do the best thing open to us, and there is no room for better than best. John and Ken discuss the philosophy and psychology of saints and heroes with Susan Wolf from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Listening Notes

John and Ken start the show by throwing out some ideas of what it might mean to be a saint or a hero.  They both think these labels are for people who go above the call of moral duty.  John questions the value of being a hero for a life.  He doubts that sacrificing one’s life for others really makes one’s own life any more worthy. 

The hosts then welcome Professor Susan Wolf to the show.  Susan quickly defines a saint as someone overflowing with moral goodness.  She distinguishes between two types of saints: those who do moral acts because those are the only ones that occur to them, and those that do them out of a sense of duty.  She then makes the controversial claim that she wouldn’t want to be a saint or even be close friends with such a person.  Ken agrees: he thinks being around such people would remind him of all the flaws of his own morality.

After the break, John again expresses his worry about the ideal of heroes.  He says we put war heroes on such a pedestal that people want to go risk their lives for the glory.  He doesn’t think that risking death for others is good for one’s life in any way.  Susan disagrees, and argues that there is something valuable to living a moral-filled life.  However, she does not think all there is to life is being morally good.  She says there are many other parts to living a good life.

A caller suggests that what our moral duty asks of us is dependent on our situations.  Everyone agrees, and Susan goes on to say that we often think our situations ask less of us than they do.  If we realized our full moral responsibility more often, saints and heroes would not be necessary.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 3:30): Amy Standen investigates public opinion on the difference between saints and heroes by interviewing people on the street.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:56): Ian Shoales tells the life story of Audie Murphy, a decorated combat hero and cowboy movie star.

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Susan Wolf, Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

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