Caleb Hylkema

Practical Moral Sainthood

“To follow the demands of morality” would seem a circular answer to the question “What does it mean to live a good life?” However, if we take these demands seriously, doing so is not as trivial as it seems - indeed, if we closely examine our lives, we will find that many aspects of them are misaligned if not entirely incompatible with the fulfillment of our ethical duties. I will argue that this conception of the good life, namely one in which the ultimate end of life is the fulfillment of morality, is in fact the correct one. Leaving aside questions about particular normative ethical frameworks, I will focus on the issue of demandingness, and make a case for living according to demanding moral duties which at the same time allow for the realization of important personal projects. I will address the most common objections to this conception of the good life, which have been raised perhaps most powerfully by Susan Wolf in her paper “Moral Saints”, and in the process will elaborate my own ideal, which I call “practical moral sainthood”.

My conception of practical moral sainthood centers around our attitudes; while living well requires following morality, it also requires having an attitude of intrinsically valuing our central personal projects, such as raising a family or pursuing a relationship. It is this attitude which most effectively enables us to be sustainable and persistent in our fulfillment of morality because it allows us to get meaning and satisfaction from non-moral areas of life. The precise nature of this attitude and the possibility of separating our second-order goal of fulfilling morality from our first-order attitudes of intrinsically valuing our personal projects is the key difficulty in my argument, and one which I will spend substantial time exploring. The bottom line is that this sort of separation is not only possible, but indeed commonplace in many areas of our lives, and extending it to morality does not incur any insurmountable obstacles. Given this, a radical conclusion follows; living well entails a certain level of practical disconnection from one’s overall purpose (of following morality). While most conceptions of the good life accord some significant importance to integrity, wholeness, or some like concept, I contend that in order to live well, our lives have to be disjointed in this crucial sense, and I will try to show why this disjointment is not detrimental in the way it is often assumed to be.