An ideal person
Is it ideal to be a moral saint?
Moral exemplar and moral luck                                 Return to contents

An ideal person

    A conception of the ideal person involves a person who is best able to make morally proper decisions, has all or most virtues, and may be thoroughly happy or fulfilled in his or her moral worthiness. Each of us may propose a different description of the ideal person; in doing so, we can clarify our moral views. A conception of the ideal person may also illustrate how different values can be assimilated into a person's life. Differing ideals, some emphasizing concern with individual perfection while others focus on concern for others, or on love of God, may produce different judgments about the moral value of different styles of life. An ideal cannot be fully realized, but we can incorporate aspects from many ideals, even aspects of conflicting ideals, into our own lives. Most of us will find some proposed ideals more attractive than others.
    We can think of real people who we believe come close to being ideal: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Schweitzer. These people had faults; they are not ideal, but real people. However, many people believe that they did lead exemplary lives approaching an ideal. As models they may inspire moral action, and give us reason to reconsider what we take to be morally right. Other figures, such as cult leaders, are mistakenly thought, by some people, to lead ideal lives. We can evaluate the lives of people thought to be nearly ideal, and we can evaluate moral ideals, ours or those of others, through the weight of our moral experience. Those people whose lives run counter to basic moral values such as personal freedom and justice are far from ideal, though they may be mistaken as nearly ideal. Those people who reject moral rules -- say, rules about telling the truth -- are not likely moral models. Moral experience helps us locate ideal behavior, but ideals can, in turn, instruct us about our moral experience and modify our sense of moral value.   Top

Is it ideal to be a moral saint?

    Virtue ethics concentrates on a virtuous character and what that involves. An actual person presented as a moral exemplar -- an example, held up as a model of a person with especially fine moral characteristics -- gives life to the virtues, and allows us to understand how they are developed and the kinds of rewards and sacrifices they may entail. Although notions of the ideal person vary, most conceptions include integrity, honesty, reliability, and courage. Other virtues, like kindness, care, compassion, and altruism, are not always thought of as ideal traits. Yet many people argue that these characteristics should be included in our notion of an ideal person.
    A moral exemplar may be selected by the extent to which he or she exhibits ideal characteristics. We expect an ideal person to be peaceful, contented, satisfied, fulfilled, and perhaps charismatic. Control is crucial; although the ideal person may be pulled by temptation, ultimately temptation does not win. Weakness of will , or giving into temptation, is not an ideal trait. Control involves the proper use of emotion by directing it toward proper goals. A saintly person, clearly a moral exemplar, comes close to being a morally ideal person. The well-known contemporary British philosopher J. O. Urmson, in Saints and Heroes, emphasizes that a saintly person does act from a self-control in situations where others would "be led astray by inclination or self-interest." Sometimes such control is not easy and involves genuine self-deprivation, but this is not an essential part of being a moral saint. Urmson believes that a person is called a "saint" even if he or she has no contrary temptions, and so in this case all saintly actions are done without effort.
    The notion that a moral saint gives up some of the finer things in life is well ingrained, so much so that, in a recent article, the American philosopher Susan Wolf claims: "I don't know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them." She adds, that by moral saint she means that every action done by such a person is as morally worthy as possible.
    Wolf's view of a moral saint is extreme: surely nobody was ever as "morally good as possible." Her view represents an ideal statement, but one she finds, in some ways, unattractive. In effect, she believes that moral values must be balanced by non-moral personal values involving self-interested behavior. Others argue that the position she criticises understates the moral value or moral need for personal enjoyment. A utilitarian counts one's own pleasure as well as the pleasure of others. In response to Wolf, R. M. Adams claims that concern for personal interest does not disqualify a person as a moral saint:

Albert Schweitzer, whom many have honored as a twentieth-century saint, was one who felt keenly the tension between artistic and intellectual achievement on the one hand and a higher claim of humanitarian commitment on the other. Yet in the midst of his humanitarian activities in Africa, he kept a piano and spent some time playing it -- even before he realized that keeping up this skill would help him raise money for his mission.

    Perhaps Wolf's definition of a moral saint is mistaken; recall that she claims that a saint is as morally good as can be. Perhaps a saint is simply someone who reaches some plateau of goodness, but still with room for moral improvement. Real "saints" are not as good as can be, so it is only in ideal realm that Wolf's definition applies. Ideals are helpful in the guidance they offer even though they cannot be achieved. Typically we think that ideal conditions would be good to achieve, or at least good for someone to achieve. If Wolf is correct, being a moral saint doesn't look so good. It could be that she has incorrectly deprived a saint of all the nonmoral goods you and I often seek. Or it could be that attaining an ideal state is less than fully desirable.
    Wolf's point is that an examination of the meaning of moral sainthood shows that morality should not always override other values. This may be a mistake; it seems to take a narrow view of moral experience. In a comprehensive moral view, taking into account various principles, obligations, judgments, and commitments, to claim that someone is as morally good as can be makes little sense. Someone who acts for the good of others may be no morally better than Einstein, who toiled for science. To say that someone is a moral saint may mean that that person has much courage, works diligently for others, and tends to put off the satisfaction of his or her own interests. Yet a moral saint may do other things that are no less morally worthy. Failure to be a moral saint need not involve putting morality into a secondary position, but may instead result from choosing to do things in a way different from -- but perhaps no less morally worthy -- what we expect of a moral saint.
    Wolf's view suggests that our conception of a moral saint is not fixed because people disagree about whether a moral saint needs to be a good as possible. We can readily locate other contentious beliefs about what it takes to be a moral saint or a moral ideal. We sometimes think of the ideal person as fighting against suffering and sometimes against immorality. In this way we may add anxiety and frustration to the notion of being a moral saint. Religious saints often experience inner turmoil along with their special inner peace. We find it difficult to determine whether such struggle is part of the ideal. Also, unclear is whether the ideal person reflects on his or her ideal qualities. Does he or she know, for example, about his or her ideal status and does he or she take satisfaction in that knowledge, or does he or she struggle to be good and believe that the effort falls short?
    How knowledgeable is an ideal person? In some moral theories, being good is a function of knowledge. Plato believed that with full knowledge we would appreciate the beauty and value of moral goodness. Utilitarian doctrine puts a premium on knowledge of what makes people happy, and Aristotle's good person is wise in a practical way. Yet, in religious traditions, the ideal person often has difficulty gaining knowledge of God. Plato's philosopher-king engages in a lifetime of struggle to gain knowledge of the ideal of goodness. Since knowledge is a part of so many moral perspectives, should we claim that the moral saint has special moral "knowledge"?
    While many people include knowledge in the definition of the ideal person, others reject this. Mother Teresa might or might not have been highly intelligent. Intelligence is not why she is valued; her goodness stems from kindness, care, and sincerity. Some people may argue that she falls short of the ideal because she lacks knowledge about the consequences of some of her beliefs. For example, some believe that her rejection of contraception, through a lack of awareness, may be antithetical to her general caring disposition. Others see her rejection of contraception as part of the unconditional value she places on human life.   Top

Moral exemplar and moral luck

    A person may be a moral exemplar over a limited domain. That is, a person may do some extraordinary things, yet in other ways be unexceptional or even morally lacking. If those virtuous actions are significant enough, despite other shortcomings, that person may be thought of as a moral exemplar. In his thoughtful study, "Moral Exemplars," Lawrence A. Blum offers Oskar Schindler as an example of what he calls a moral hero. As you will recall from the movie Schindler's List, Schindler was a German industrialist who saved thousands of Jews from the holocaust, yet he had his share of moral flaws. Blum presents Schindler's love of pleasure, his unfaithfulness to his wife, his willingness to lie, to take unnecessary risks, and his attachment to power as features that detract from his "moral excellence." Despite these traits, Blum believes that Schindler meets his five criteria of a moral hero:

  • Bringing about a great good (or preventing a great evil)
  • Acting to a great extent from morally worthy motives
  • Substantial embeddedness of those motives in the agent's psychology
  • Carrying out one's moral project in the face of risk or danger
  • Relative "faultlessness," or absence of unworthy desires, dispositions, sentiments, attitudes
    A moral exemplar may be far from ideal. Schindler may be an exemplar under Blum's standards, depending on whether or not his behavior violates the fifth point about relative faultlessness. Yet Schindler's morally exemplary actions came in a specific way at a particular point in his life. He had a kind of good moral luck, by being at the right time and place to become a moral hero. Moral luck can be good or bad; many people who live good lives, would have done evil, if faced with certain circumstances. The difference between you and me, and someone who has cooperated in evil may be good moral luck, the fortunate circumstances that have kept us from facing the temptation to do immoral things. Others become moral heroes only when the circumstances arise without themselves doing anything to bring them about. Blum believes that moral luck -- that the circumstances find the person -- should not disqualify a person from being a moral exemplar, one we can emulate.
    Folk heroes, religious figures, and literary creations are commonly used to promote moral behavior by presenting moral exemplars and moral heroes. Young children learn to be moral in many ways. Certainly parental guidance, religious conviction, social convention, and institutional rewards and punishments promote morally desirable behavior. But examples of personal moral excellence are also important. Having proper moral exemplars is part of forming a morally good world.   Top

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