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Too much of a good thing…

Notes on Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”

Wolf does not consider moral perfection “a model of personal well-being.”

She disagrees with the assumption “that one ought to be as morally good as possible.”

Either we must make our ideals more “palatable” or, as she will argue, tinker with what we mean when we affirm a moral theory. She explores what is wrong with being a moral saint.

The received, pre-theoretical view of saints considers two possible motivations:

1. the happiness of others, and
2. self-sacrifice for others

—the out of love and out of duty types, or Loving and Rational saints, respectively.

Remarking how uncomfortable we can be made to feel by them, Wolf wonders “whether the moral saint, isn’t, after all, too good—if not too good for his own good, at least too good for his own well-being.” She stresses the non-moral virtues (after Aristotle) to the end of “a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.” [Such characters are not likely to inspire or be inspired. Being well-rounded they are prone to velleity and moral mobility. Like Aristophanes’ original beings (in the Symposium), they would roll off tables… Or they populate choruses. Important though they are, an opera with only choruses is like a requiem without the benefit of affecting humility… liable to becoming a proud, self-satisfied paean to mediocrity. Aristotle’s moral marbles are survivors above all else. It is seldom remarked that behind the end of human flourishing is the more humble one of survival. Is this not self-sacrifice of a sort?]

A moral saint’s life would be “strangely barren.” [A genius oboe player may in other respects lead a stunted life. How often do we hear in interviews with such types of their “other accomplishments” as though these in a different context would pique in the least our interest? The run-of-the-mill life is in fact “stunted.” What is remarkable is that—in addition to being stunted—a rare few manage more.]

“The worry is that, as a result, he will have to be dull-witted or humorless or bland.”

[But shouldn’t this just raise the bar of what constitutes saintliness? Among saints the better ones, the ones most remembered and admired, are those who engage, charm or move us. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Augustine…

To bring the point home, nearly all those who call themselves ‘philosophers’ in the academy today will be footnotes, if that, a century on. A tiny fraction then will be recalled as formidable thinkers. Fewer still a thousand years hence. The odds are similar for any devout soul aspiring to sainthood.

Few sane academic philosophers really expect to be among those still read a century after they are dead. They must do what they do because they are well-rounded, responsible, healthy, contributing members of their communities—and being just that while indulging a favorite pastime is sufficient for a “full life.”

The truth of the matter is that the real saints or philosophers among us are not likely to inspire any legitimate unease in their “healthier” contemporaries because they are not likely to be recognized as such in their lifetimes or perhaps ever.

If a saintly person crosses your path and you feel cumbered by the presence, the presumption has to be that either you are vain and the object of your discomfiture flawed or some combination.

In at least this one respect, the Catholic Church is right to wait until a candidate is long dead before canonization. We flatter ourselves to think we could recognize greatness if it stared us in the face. It is invisible to us. It may in fact surround us, but we can only suspect its presence.

When we think we have spotted it, it is because we have, from exhaustion, paused in our suspicion of others and ourselves. The claim is not that the suspicion is healthy, only that it is right. I gather we disagree whether the judgments must coincide.

When St. Julian,* after having given him everything he had, finally acceded to the leper’s last request: that he embrace the leper with his naked body to warm him, we are blinded by offense. How could we contemplate making this a model of behavior?

*Editor’s note: See Flaubert’s story in Three Tales, “St Julian Hospitator”. (Incidentally, the little book was also a favorite of Gertrude Stein who translated it and later reflected some of its structure in her own Three Stories. She retained as well a life-long fascination with saints (and Weininger). Luno speculates that she saw saints as moral artists—artists whose medium was their relationship to others. This aestheticization of morality—or moving the fulcrum of judgment from ethics to aesthetics—is evident in Luno’s own assessment of Weininger’s “scripted life” as “philosophical performance art.” There are of course precedent steps for this move in Weininger himself (“logic and ethics are one”) especially when taken together with those in Wittgenstein (“ethics and aesthetics are one”). Luno merely draws the “obvious” conclusion: “That aesthetics is the genus, the others species that in their confusion may in times of anxiety revert to their foundation at the level of a generalized neurasthenia, to the world at nerve’s edge.” His mocking clinicism here, as everywhere, is meant to be taken seriously per impossibile.

What saints we have today exist largely in prisons, mental hospitals, and alleyways. On her or his part, a saint is obliged not to embarrass you, not to make of him- or herself a spectacle. But this is the tallest order. Hermits seek out the most Godforsaken places to inhabit partly out of concern not to be incommodious to the rest of sanguine humanity. As any good saint knows, merely to be suspected a saint is a strike against you.

But among true saints, there is a class still higher than that of those whose names we recall and whose stories entertain us, the class we will never know, who were or are kind enough not to humiliate us, now or ever… It is this class we must be emulating.**]

**Editor’s note: A typical Lunatic sarcasm.

“…there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.”

Wolf distinguishes “the way in which morality may dominate an ideal life” from the way pursuit of oboe virtuosity might. The former is not one desire among others but is psychologically pre-emptive: it is less a choice than an imperative.

Because morality is “not a suitable object of passion” it leads to moral elitism, snobbishness.

[If Wolf can be said to have made her own revelatory remark, comparable in its gender innocence to Urmson’s, this is it! Recall what Weininger said about the place of morality (the conventional, that is, masculine conception of it) in the female psyche? Unless redefined as a practice that comes quite naturally to her, a moral obsession must seem to the feminine sensibility as too easily liable to social if not psychological pathology. The fact is, morality and immorality are quite easily passions for men. It is in fact the only form morality can take for him and still retain a meaning separate from enlightened self-interest. Morality means not connection with others for him, as it may for her, but quite literally self-denial. Not surprisingly, women—for whom “selves,” if they come at all, come quite hard won—cannot conceive being asked to sacrifice them as a good thing.]

We may be more impressed by “how little he loves these other things.” We will suspect he doesn’t know how to truly love if he can give them up so. [A related plaint runs through Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence, Ayn Rand, et al. See also our discussion of Marguerite Duras. This is indeed a distinctly male vulnerability. Doubts hound his capacity for human love, and literature is filled with stories of the price he is often brought to pay for his lack of such facility.]

Thus, the Loving Saint is “missing a piece of perceptual machinery” and the Rational Saint is replete with “self-hatred,” each seems to lack or deny “the existence of an identifiable, personal self.”

[This perception of loss of self is distinctly feminine: it is a self centered in a material monism, mediated through sensation. The only interpretation of pathology can have here is as a (possibily) treatable condition, a sensual pathology (e.g., an obsession with 18th Century French organ music). It would be a more or less refined hypersensitivity or imbalance.

Heterocosmic, abstracted obsession (e.g., Kantian ethics) seeks to divorce itself from feeling-based (pathological, in its original sense) judgment altogether—even as it may recognize the futility of complete divorce within the limits of (this and perhaps only) life.

Might we not say we are missing out on something the “Loving Saint” enjoys?

“But we could never bring ourselves to enjoy what he or she does,” you reply.

In defending the wager argument for belief in God, or at least the striving to believe in God, Pascal suggests long effort at aping belief may lead to real belief, given our psychological proclivities: Go to church, take holy waters, continue year after year etc, …by and by, genuine belief will come to “stupefy your scruples,” as William James put it (in The Will to Believe). (See also Lycan and Schlesinger on the wager argument.) What do you know now of what you might yet be able to bring yourself to believe? Surely, many Nazi operators could not have imagined before the death camps and the decade of indoctrination leading up to them the extent of what they would find themselves capable of doing to human beings. Perhaps our distant descendants will marvel as incredulously at what we must have convinced ourselves of in order to be able to treat as we do the animals we eat.

If Pascal was right—and he is far more optimistic than I—that we might, by dint of sheer habit, condition hypocrisy into sincerity, then a role for saints as models of behavior is not unintelligible. And isn’t a capacity for some such conditioning an assumption of all programs for social reform? Those who feel we are not doomed to tolerate the lay of our present moral landscape—do they not share in Pascal’s positivism?

It must weigh heavy in the mind of even the “Rational Saint” (if we persist in calling him “rational” in the face of his faith in abstraction—“rational” in the current monistic climate means something closer to “sensible”) that the struggle with unruly desire and intransigent self must have an end, that he will, in theory, if only in the afterlife, attain the unwaxed purity of the “Loving Saint.” For if he has come to love his own struggle, lost the vision behind it, we shall pathologize him, call him “masochist.”

We expect our saints, in the end, to be hedonists. Otherwise, our imagination fails to see a connection between them and us. We expect the impossible of them, that is to say. And when they deliver it to us, we disown them. Still we expect the impossible of them—and that means as well, in some attenuated degree, of ourselves. For example, I expect when I get up each morning that I will accomplish something meaningful today and that the judgment of meaningfulness is not entirely self-serving. We face the peril of sainthood in the mere wish to be alert to this possibility.]

Wolf classes together with the moral saint, the pure aesthete, and “the thorough-going, self conscious egoist.” All in their purity tend to view their styles of life as “moralities.” Wolf seems averse to “fanaticism” and anything with a self-righteous tone. [I would be sympathetic with Wolf here if it did not leave me more isolated than I already am.]

If the moral saint should come by non-moral virtues, they will be considered “happy accidents” which would not be encouraged.

Wolf acknowledges the temptation to criticize moral saints from the standpoint of our own baser natures. But she points to the fact that there are non-moral virtues (personal excellences and character traits) that the moral saint “necessarily lacks.” Thus, it can be good not to be a saint. Though the way she puts it is a bit hedgy: “…we express a conviction that it is good not to be a moral saint.”

[Her argument, at best, supports the conclusion that there are other good ways—perhaps as good—to be than being a moral saint. It does not quite get to the point of convincing us that being a moral saint is not good, not that she makes this claim.]

She now approaches the subject from the perspective of moral theory. Utilitarianism suggests the loving saint; Kantianism, the rational.

[Underpinning utilitarianism as a moral theory—and this is rarely discussed—is a largely unquestioned faith that only sympathy with sentience is without qualification good, and that no further explanation of this is or could be forthcoming. The minimization of pain is the modest goal. Complicated and difficult enough all by itself, it is a sufficiently engaging human aspiration, already a near hopelessly tall order. Heterocosmic liens on human behavior of the Kantian sort are at best superfluous and usually an indulgence we cannot afford.

A Kantian may find the utilitarian’s goal—admirable though it might be—stunted or not fully human, for it too easily dismisses the value of inconsequential human suffering, gratuitous in the sense that it is not a prelude to some deferred better state of things. Suffering that is not mere potential for joy, that humiliates sentience in order to curry the favor of an imaginary judge. A view from which imaginary bliss is the only kind there is. That the only reason our lives are not all torment, that they are sometimes punctuated with joy, is to train us to exercise our imaginations in the longing for an eternity of it. Torturers know this technique: unending pain numbs our capacity to feel more…

So, the Kantian might say, it is not wrong to seek to end human suffering, but that mission by itself can never provide a reason for our being here. Suicide ends suffering. Mass suicide would end mass suffering. Pure quantification leads us to that conclusion. Imagination would have to operate at full tilt exaggerating the joys of life to make the mathematics come out different… But it is supposed to be harder even than that for us.…

There is a curious reductio of Kantianism in Weininger’s performance. Kant favored capital punishment for certain extreme forms of criminality, yet he adamantly opposed suicide. What if, in its purity, the extreme crime was known only to the perpetrator and given its purity* would never be known to others? Would not justice and a necessary trial and self-conviction entail suicide? Kant’s justifications on both scores are unconvincing. Perhaps it was to put a cap on the imperative to self-slaughter deeply buried in his philosophy (unearthed by Weininger) that he so desperately opposed suicide.]

*What might such a crime be? To have knowingly, willingly, even cold-bloodedly and with a lifetime of premeditation murdered in oneself the desire to live. And knowing this, come to see each breath one takes as one robbed from another more worthy. But is this not the epitome of misogyny? To discard the greatest gift ever given to you by a woman? Or is that the very thing you are being punished for by yourself?! There is—if you see where this is leading—some truth in the claim made of Weininger that he was “the greatest misogynist whoever lived.” But he was a good misogynist. (Just as Hitler said he was a good Jew.) We should have more like him, many thoughtful feminists agree. For misogyny, as used here, entails placing distance between oneself (one’s male self) and the accoutrements of worldly power: it means supreme material abdication, returning what our mothers gave… Who we have instead, who we meet everyday, the garden variety, are poseurs.

But Wolf points out utilitarianism recognizes many paths to happiness, striving for moral perfection would only be one.

[There is the example of Peter Singer, who, as committed utilitarian, is quite willing to sacrifice much as frivolous that many others would consider essential. For him, there is clearly a quantitative hierarchy of consequences: the greatest quantity requirement trumps the greatest quality of happiness—more of Bentham and less of Mill. (The latter was perhaps too “sensible” to think straight.) ]

“…perhaps one could create more happiness by not trying too hard to promote the total happiness.”

[Fuzzy logic par excellence, or an intimation that total happiness per impossibile realized would still leave us somehow lacking? “Total happiness” is not what we want. Not really(?) If we occasionally speak loosely as though it were, it is because we have the luxury of knowing we are not in any danger of its actually haunting our waking life? And only a Peter Singer type or an Otto Weininger type—one to whom it occurs to live according to our obiter dicta—could possibly misunderstand us? Are we to imagine that in the long line of things we ought to take seriously but find so little time for, these, our passing sighs of aspiration, decorate the tail?]

Wolf does not wag her finger too hard at utilitarianism. It is in the main a constructive activity. He—and it would nearly always be a “he” who would need the mild remonstration—should tone it down a little, though. She politely asks, “If it is not too difficult, the utilitarian will try not to make those around him uncomfortable.” [She must have in mind Singer.]

A little energy in the direction of non-moral pursuits (Aristotle) “might make a person a better contributor to the general welfare.” The moral life cannot ever be a legitimate passion in itself in the way an artistic life might be.

She insists that the attachment must be to the non-moral activity in itself, not just because it may be a means to some moral ideal.

She cites Bernard William’s criticism of the utilitarian: that when he values the non-moral he is infused with “one thought too many.” Goodness done from principle as opposed to passion is essentially, the implication seems to be, already crippled.

[Compare our discussion of Marguerite Duras’ indictment of the male lover. The suggestion here is that at some level Wolf is finding a similar fault with the morally obsessed (usually male). As men see morality, it is strangely unjust to the objects it treats. Non-moral passions by contrast consume their participants, at the expense of their autonomous selves which are jealously guarded by Kantianism, especially. The male lover never really consummates anything. That would be to lose himself in the act. Instead, he has one eye for the spectator—this is his sin, his “malady,” and the cause of his post coital triste.]

The case with Kant is muddier. A shallow interpretation of Kant—configured around his imperative that we should treat others as ends and never only as means—does not of itself seem to require sainthood, she admits. But he does talk of a duty of benevolence which becomes taking up the ends of others as though yours. The more of which we do, the more moral we become. (Though Kant acknowledges perfection at this is unattainable.)

But again Wolf faults the Kantian for dwelling on “one thought too many”: he values his actions because they are “manifestations of respect for the moral law” not for themselves.

[One might ask: is there a “one thought too few” problem? But perhaps that is so commonplace that it is hardly worth remarking.]

The problem is this “single all-important” value. [Once again, the singular masculine liability: the rule-based nature of his self-governance.]

(432) The shallower interpretation seems to escape the criticism. But on closer examination, perhaps not. Kant also insists that non-moral passions are necessarily subordinate and should not interfere with “calm, practical deliberation” in the service of rational (moral) ends.

Also, in the shallower interpretation, the upper limit on goodness suffers from making all above-and-beyond goodness problematic. Wolf wants to preserve the idea that the saint is a morally better person, just not always and everywhere a model of behavior. She seems not to want to redefine morality but to place it in a humbler place beside other worthwhile pursuits. [Or perhaps she is edging toward different conception of morality altogether…]

[The strategy seems to be that to wrest a measure of power from men who have arrogated morality all to themselves (Weininger)—and not as it turns out without reason, as they themselves pressured a little will admit—women are less interested in depriving men of their favorite instrument of self-discipline than of demoting the entire field down to the level where it can be surveyed and utilized for more mundane, “life-affirming” ends. This means we cannot have unassailable, monolithic rules. If we must have moral rules at all, let them be more fluid rules-of-thumb that rise up as intuitions from the deep springs of the awareness of our essential connection to each other. That connection is not maintained by any single value. Morality is not the highest conceivable human value, to contradict Kant and any number of male theorists.

Though Wolf seems to draw inspiration from the intuitionist tradition of G. E. Moore, other women have followed Hume (Annette Baier), Aristotle (Rosalind Hursthouse), Nietzsche (Ayn Rand), and even Kant (Onora O’Neill and Christine Korsgaard)—all to related conclusions. A close reading of women moral theorists reveals eclectic, almost pragmatic—one might even say opportunistic—appropriations that might seem culpably derivative if viewed from within male moral traditions, that is, if they were not part of a unified program of recurring, distinctively feminine, themes: the diminution of rule, the devaluation of heterocosmic tendencies, concrete over abstract, immanence over transcendence, not so much a material monism (for that would suggest a dogma about what is and is not the case, i.e., a very male obsession) as an agnostic phenomenalism, and culminating in an emphasis on material relations between fully embodied beings. Metaphysics is to serve these relations. This is feminist philosophy at its heart. It was clearly recognized as such by Weininger a century ago, even as it mystified J. S. Mill, as reflected in his remark in his essay, The Subjection of Women, where he seem to confess only a dim awareness of the true moral differences between women and men.

Mill, perhaps with the best Victorian manners, merely tipped his hat at women, suggesting that liberty—what he believed made men thrive—would be good for women, too. He quite paternalistically presumed he knew what women really wanted, viz, the same things men wanted. In the course of things, we can hardly suggest that Mill’s effort was wasted—the duty fell to him to remind men of their inexcusable political treatment of women as measured by their own male standards. It perhaps required a post-Weininger, post-modernist, post-feminist consciousness to see that Mill’s moral terms, such as ‘liberty,’ as used by women, have values or meanings quite different from those accorded them by men.* (By “post-” in the previous sentence, we do not mean supercession or “a leaving in behind” but “enlightened by the experience of.”)]

*Editor’s note: See Luno’s comments on Mill.

Wolf considers two ways of capping moral obsession:

1. fixing limits to benevolence, and
2. making benevolence incidental to something else, e.g., dignified rationality.

The second way is especially unacceptable to feminist sensibilities. It would tend to downgrade natural affinities and unpremeditated expressions of good will. (Cf. Urmson’s disqualification of a mother’s self sacrifice for her children from the status of paradigmatic saintliness or heroism.)

Wolf’s apparent dilemma:

A moral theory that does not contain the seeds of an all-consuming ideal of moral sainthood thus seems to place false and unnatural limits on our opportunity to do moral good and our potential to deserve moral praise. Yet the main thrust of the arguments of this paper has been leading to the conclusion that when such ideals are present, they are not ideals to which it is particularly reasonable or healthy or desirable for human beings to aspire.

[“Reasonable,” “healthy,” and “desirable” are pre-theoretical, non-obsessional common sense notions of a very “nose-to-the-ground” morality. Our moral intuitions make up for their unprepossessing dearth of sublimity by being ingratiating.]

Wolf aligns herself with Aristotle, even Nietzsche, in

broadening or replacing our contemporary intuitions about which character traits constitute moral virtues and vices and which interests constitute moral interests.

A few activities had better not be embraced for purely moral reasons. [Romantic and family attachments, for example. Certain spiritual attitudes as well. What object of affection would want duty or the mere utility of a relationship to motivate attention? What worthy god would be content with the devotion of heteronomous automatons or sycophants?]

A morality, no matter how defined, is never a complete ideal. [Recall the role Weininger asserts morality plays—or doesn’t play—for women. “Perfect obedience” and “maximal devotion” (435) are anathema to the moral decentralization of the feminine consciousness. Abstract principles, “holy ghosts” as Mary Daly calls them, do little to warm her heart. Wolf’s show of skepticism at undiluted moral devotion is consistent with this.]

Being a saint, while admirable, is not all it is cracked up to be. One might do as well (or as badly) being something else with equal devotion.

“…a person may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral.” [This brings to mind feminine reaction to William Clinton in the wake of his sex scandals. Women were apt to be far more forgiving than men in their assessments—even in the face of what even they perceived as disrespectful behavior targeted directly at women. But this is less mystifying when we see that Clinton was in so many ways feminine in his vulnerability both to women and to a feminine disaffection with unyielding judgmental principle. He was, as it were, one of their own. (John F. Kennedy was a similar case.) Another man, a Richard Nixon, say, boxed into his flawed sense of honor, would never have elicited such sympathy. Corruption—all by itself—is more beside the point for her. The style of corruption may redeem.]

Wolf argues for a perspective “that is neither moral nor egoistic.” [Almost literally the words Weininger used to describe where women stood vis-à-vis morality. Even Germaine Greer didn’t argue with Weininger about the egoless woman.]

Judgments from this perspective

“about what it would be good for a person to be are made from a point of view outside the limits set by the values, interests, and desires that the person might actually have. [Thus, non-egoistic.] And, like moral judgements, these judgements claim for themselves a kind of objectivity and grounding in a perspective which any rational and perceptive being can take up. [Note the inclusion of “perceptive”, i.e, matter-perceiving or -apprehending. A merely rational being would not suffice.] Unlike moral judgements, however, the good in which these moral judgements are concerned is not the good of anyone or any group other than the individual himself.”

[Hence, amoral—in the classic sense. Wolf, of course, is trying to say “the good” of concern here is moral but she is clearly distancing herself from the classic sense of “morality” and of its accessory term, “amorality.” In other words, she urges a move from a world of the good, the bad, and the indifferent to one where the apposite distinction is between what promotes human flourishing and what does not, a functionalist theory of ethics.

The perspective—to describe it using terms rooted outside of it—is a kind of materialist, empirically based, broadly construed aesthetics, open enough to encompass the practical effects of obsessional morality but without ceding it ultimate authority. The humility in such a perspective is not a personal one, not a kneeling one, but a nostalgia for connection to what is there: a moral environment consisting of a subset of the natural one.*]

*Editor’s note: Clarice Lispector expresses this humility in The Passion According to G. H., a work that evokes for Luno Descartes’ Meditations and Kafka’s Metamorphoses and, like them, is emblematic of contrasting worlds according to gender.

The judgments are about what kinds of interests one should have, not about how one should live.

For Wolf the moral point of view is

…the point of view one takes up insofar as one takes the recognition of the fact that one is just one person among others equally real and deserving of the good things in life as a fact with practical consequences, a fact the recognition of which demand’s expression in one’s actions and in the form of one’s personal deliberations.

Moral theories attempt to characterize that expression.

Wolf takes “the point of view of individual perfection.” [Reminiscent of Nietzsche whose worldly materiality or cosmicity inspired the (superficially paradoxical) remark of Weininger that Nietzsche was a feminine (though scarcely a feminist) philosopher.] Her question is what kinds of lives are “good lives.”

The view of individual perfection may never be obligatory (in a classic moral sense) but it provides reasons independent of morality for the judgment of lives.

[There seems to be an unresolved tension here between wanting to demote morality from the supreme judge of all human endeavor or making it one on a par with other judges, on the one hand, and setting up a new super morality that enforces this plurality of judges, on the other. To say that the life of a virtuoso oboe player is as much a good life as that of the ‘selfless’ saint is to create criteria for a new kind of saint: the accomplished paragon. (Paragons sacrifice self, too, just in different ways.) The supermorality (or perhaps intersex ethic) would appreciate this vast selection of new prescriptions for worthy lives without strain. One who could work themselves up to this pluralist level of appreciation would now be the supremely worthy being and a model for the rest of us to emulate. But then we would be obliged to take him or her down a notch or two, on pain of setting too much store by such a perspective and lest we make saints of its strict adherents, and so on… The situation is like that of the paradox of toleration: If one is to excel at toleration, one will have to tolerate the intolerant (and essentially become morally inert). But anything short of this is discriminatory. We escape this trap by citing principles, conspiratorial rules that we cleave to with discrimination-sanctifying color rising to our cheeks. One such principle is that we will call ourselves ‘tolerant’…and try hard to forget what it means.

There is of course the traditional way of dealing with this: To admit that only a very few of us will ever be saints, the rest shall only ever be depraved sinners who admire virtuoso oboe players in large part because they have sacrificed effort at being good to being good at something. In the end, we, too, would like this admiration if we don’t see ourselves as candidates for it in any exclusively moral way. Or if we could get it doing something we enjoy, never mind its morality, that would not sit badly with us. We would want to believe that the supreme judge or judges of our lives are at least as able to see some value, if not quite supreme value, in what we imagine ourselves to be—either that or hold out for inscrutable grace.

If God is sophisticated enough in his judgment, even the most heinous murderer will be forgiven. For, in some sufficiently far-sighted way, the criminal will have exercised our moral capacities by forcing us to face the fact of our own criminality and made us appreciate more our moments without, and oblivious of, its effects. These are the unencumbered moments of complete innocence proverbially most treasured in life.

If he is not, I would be afraid for us. For that would mean that God is just like us, and we have no history of such magnanimity. Then we had better hope he is also like us in that he is vain and can be flattered and can have things hidden from him and that he wants to be loved. And that by withholding our love we can manipulate him…

This, then, begins to sound like there are only beings like us in the universe, with the consequence that the game of morality becomes a kind of social self-stimulation, a communal masturbation—it becomes erotically comprehensible to us in a way a supreme purpose can never be, that is to say, it becomes meaningless through not being semantically needy.

I am not suggesting the words ‘meaningless’ and ‘mystery’ are opposites. Rather, that neither has an opposite.

Philosophy has done all it can do when it poses the choice between mystery and meaningless. After that it is rightly ignored.*]

*Editor’s note: In these breathtakingly elliptical passages, we can discern that by ‘mystery’ Luno seems to be referring to a fall into religion or the necessarily incomprehensible.

How good should we be? Wolf answers, “not ‘as much as possible.’”

She focuses on the question “how people should live” at the expense of what sort of account they might give of their lives. [Materiality over the requirements of rational consciousness.]

She questions the metamoral assumption that “it is always better to be morally better.”

[Perhaps if we kept this thought in mind in assessing Otto Weininger, we would be less inclined to call him insane, deranged, ill, a quack, half-baked, etc. in his philosophical martyrdom. If we could see our way to not feeling threatened by his conclusions—because they simply didn’t apply to us, we might perceive an inkling of his lesson in the way overheard conversations, remarks not meant for our ears, sometimes can have more significance and linger in our consciousness often far longer than words addressed directly at us. True, if we extract profound meaning from the words of children and the insane it is usually more a sign of the imagination of the hearer. Still, even among the insane, there are those that standout. A few have a special gift for attracting the very greatest imaginations to the task of interpreting their oracular pronouncements. Weininger was one such.

Let us pretend that Weininger was addressing this small crowd, and not us, more ordinary, less enervated, less excitable types… To this small choir, the fear seems to be that he might not have been utterly wrong in his suicide. The lure of the moral fuels our resentment of it. We would hate it less if we—as healthy persons—see it as just one worthy enthusiasm among others. Morality as an elitist enterprise is odious because, unlike others, it presumes to tell me how I should wear my life. Being a person with healthy attitudes about life, I would want to stamp out this viral threat. So Weininger, who believed that true morality demanded of its adherents—almost exclusively males—that they should make themselves scarce, would seem an ally. Mother Ann Lee’s followers, the Shakers, (except perhaps to the families of some early members) were never seen as a serious threat to human survival on the planet. Why not? Suppose the sect had spread like a flu epidemic worldwide and millions of us had never been born as a result? But it didn’t, and no one, not the Shakers themselves, really feared it would. Likewise with Weininger. Nevertheless, we marvel at the Shakers, at the Jains,…and at Weininger. To the extent it is true one lofty thought in the mind of any of us edifies the lot of us…to that gossamer thread of hope some of us may be justified in clinging. It embarrasses my intelligence to entertain such flights but sometimes I do.]

Wolf doesn’t believe there is a principle that would answer the question just how moral it is right to be.

She would align herself with a healthy intuitionism about moral matters akin to G. E. Moore’s.

Posted by luno in philosophy and sex, sex differences, feminism, Moral Theory (Wednesday September 26, 2007 at 12:22 pm)

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