Here is a web broadcast of an NPR program on "Moral Saints" that features an interview with Susan Wolf. Below are the listening notes on the program:
About the Guest
Susan Wolf is Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her primary areas of research are moral philosophy and the philosophy of mind. She is the author of Freedom Within Reason (Oxford UP 1993), where she makes a case for freedom as the ability to act in accordance with one's values and the ability to form one's values in light of an appreciation of the True and the Good. Professor Wolf's current research focuses on the relations among happiness, morality, and meaningfulness in life.
What are moral saints and heroes? Saints and heroes are people that go above and beyond the call of duty. In philosophical jargon, this is called "supererogation". Most moral theories divide actions into three categories: that which is obligatory, that which is forbidden, and that which is optional. Would we have better lives if we were more like the saints and heroes? Ken introduces Susan Wolf, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Wolf defines a moral saint as a person that is as morally good as can possibly be. Wolf says that while it would be good for there to be moral saints, she wouldn't want to be too close to them. Wolf distinguishes two kinds of saints: loving saints, people that act out of love for everyone, and dutiful saints, people that act out of feelings of duty or obligation.
Wolf argues that it would be very hard to be friends with a saint because they would make you aware of your imperfections. Wolf defines a hero as a person that does one act or one kind of act heroically, and she thinks that it would be easier to be friends with a hero than with a saint. War heroes seem to be a special class of heroes. Are they somehow braver or just unlucky? Should we strive to have a maximally moral life as our life goal? Wolf thinks that it may be obligatory to do something heroic, such as a secret service officer jumping in front of a bullet to save the president. This is one difference between heroism and sainthood. John suggests that we need to distinguish two kinds of loving saints, those in love with an abstract idea and those that care deeply about particular people.
Are there situations in which we could be required to do things that are otherwise above and beyond the call of duty? Wolf thinks there are and that we should raise the bar of what is expected of the average person. Wolf thinks that aspiring to sainthood prevents us from having well-lived lives. If you start giving in to the demands of morality, how do you know where to stop? Wolf thinks that the line is determined partly by what you are interested in and is somewhat arbitrary. Wolf distinguishes between moral relativism and moral pluralism.
- Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 04:35): Amy Standen asks some people on the streets what they think saints and heroes are.
- Ian Shoales the Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:55): Ian Shoales give a quick biography of his hero, a war hero, writer, and actor.