Once upon a time, I almost fell in love with a superhero.
We didn’t date the way mere mortals do. Humans plan their dates. They ask silly question like, “How about coffee on Friday afternoon?” No, this wasn’t our routine. Because we had no routine. We couldn’t. He was too busy saving lives for us to predict just when he’d be available to see me.
He’d arrive in his emergency uniform at my apartment between calls. 1 am, 3 am – whenever he had a break. He’d stumble through the front door, shedding reflective gear as he tripped to the bedroom. “Don’t have long,” he’d say, and throw me into bed.
The man I almost fell for was a paramedic.
Romantic? Yes. The lack of routine had its charms. And it helped that he was sculpted like Superman – he had to be, he said. It helped him save lives (I never did work out how, exactly). But no matter. That paramedic vest wrapped his pecs like a glove.
So what’s the problem? you ask.
The first sign of trouble was that he never switched off his radio. “Can’t,” he’d say, “they might need me.”
There we were, lying in a post- (or pre-!) coital bliss, when the radio would twitch. “Collision on the Mike One South,” it would screech. He’d leap out the bed and into his 911 response vehicle before I had a chance to kiss him goodbye. (For the record, he was off duty at the time).
Yes, that was my superhero.
But it’s worse than that. In addition to the fact that they’re lousy cuddlers, superheroes have a deeper flaw. They’re nauseatingly good.
A superhero is what philosophers call a moral saint, or someone who performs the morally correct action, to the perfect degree, in every circumstance in which she finds herself. Sure, we might disagree on what morality is. You might think that morality involves making society happy (Utilitarianism), or respecting the dignity of everyone involved (Kantianism), or that morality depends on what your culture dictates (cultural relativism). Whatever morality is, moral saints are perfectly moral.
Now, nobody in real life is actually a moral saint. Everybody slips up once in a while. Everybody but …
Aaaand this brings me to the movie I saw last night. Have you seen the latest Captain America? This one’s titled, Civil War, because the superheroes take it upon themselves to fight one another. Cool idea? Maybe. Captain America, or Steve Rogers, was particularly challenged this time round to perform the right choice each and every fucking moment (sorry, he did look a lot like my paramedic). And he did succeed in remaining entirely virtuous. Here are some particularly repellant lines of dialogue that he thinks right to smear our eardrums:
“This job … we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody, but you don’t give up.”
“If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could.”
“I can do this all day.” [While being beaten up, protecting his friend from harm.]
Did you also throw up while reading those lines? Alright, maybe this isn’t entirely fair. The movie is also full of disobedient superheroes who do bad things. And, granted, the action scenes are superb. But I’m interested here in the core question raised by the film:
Should we strive to become moral saints? In other words, should we strive to perform the perfectly moral action at all times? Should we strive … drumroll … to be Captain America?
You can probably guess where I fall on this question. A resounding no. But why? you ask. What’s so wrong with doing the right thing? And no, my answer isn’t just that moral sainthood ruined a potential relationship with my paramedic. The question of whether to pursue the life of a moral saint raises fascinating discussion in the Philosophy of Meta-ethics. For example, the question may help to decide lifestyle choices, such as, should I be a vegetarian?
Susan Wolf, in her article, Moral Saints, provides a compelling argument for why it is not the case that we should always strive to do the right thing. It’s so compelling, in fact, that it changed my life. Yup, you heard it, folks. Philosophers change lives. Until I read Wolf’s work, I was a bona fide vegetarian. No longer!
Here’s Wolf’s argument.
Imagine for a moment what the life of a moral saint is like. Could she sit down to eat a gourmet meal? Nope. Not when others are starving mere miles away. She’d have to seize that leg of lamb you place in front of her, sprint to the nearest homeless person, and insist with all the love in the universe that he eat it.
Same goes for playing tennis, or reading a novel, or watching a movie, or (yes, you guessed it) having sex. While the moral saint is performing these activities, she could be helping others – initiating a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the homeless, or appealing to big corporates to fund education for the masses, or reading children’s stories at an orphanage.
Yup, the life of a moral saint has no room for fun.
Pffft, you scoff. Harrumph. Fun. Why should we care about tennis and gourmet meals when vast swathes of society starve around us? If we have to give up recreational activities to make the world a better place, so be it.
But wait. It gets worse. The moral saint, by definition, performs the best possible action in every circumstance. So that means the moral saint is compelled to give away everything she has, and maintain just enough so she can do good in future. That means that not only will the moral saint have to give up a gourmet meal, she’ll have to give up most of her food to others who need it more than she does (and there’s always someone who needs it more).
Place a burger with fries in front of her, and she’ll do a quick calculation on the minimum portion of the meal she requires to survive the day, and rush to the nearest homeless shelter to donate the rest. Hell, she can’t even sit down with you to eat the meal, because it would be more moral to spend that time running while she eats, scurrying to the next person in need.
And it doesn’t end there. The moral saint wouldn’t stop at giving away her food and time. She’d have to give away everything she owns, other than the bare minimum required to stay alive. Because with a medium-class salary, she could keep 10, 20, who-knows-how-many other people alive. But why stop there? The moral saint has a surplus of organs required for survival. She doesn’t need both her lungs, both kidneys, both eyes, or her entire liver. Others need them far more than she does. She could easily survive donating a lung, kidney, eye and a portion of her liver.
A day in the life of the moral saint would involve sprinting between organ donation appointments. She’d snatch handfuls of leaves and berries on the way (but only just enough to sustain her meagre frame). And as she runs, she’ll fling aside whatever wealth she’s accumulated to the needy masses.
What a life.
So, should you strive to become a moral saint?
At this point, you’re probably shaking your head. But if you’re not convinced yet, here’s a question.
Would you instruct your child in the ways of moral sainthood? Would you encourage her each night before she falls asleep to give up everything inessential she will ever own, including her left eyeball?
If morality is the most valuable value there is, if morality trumps everything else, then surely you should convince your child to become a moral saint. Coo sweet nothing in her ear until she agrees to donate that left eyeball. “Don’t cry, angel. It’s okay, baby. Mommy is donating her eye too.”
I think you’ll agree this is bad parenting.
In fact, it seems that wishing the fate of moral sainthood upon someone is about the worst curse you could saddle them with. Now, Wolf is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that you should never be moral. It merely means that is not the case that you should always be moral, and that when you are moral, you needn’t be maximally moral. (She then introduces her own system for determining just how much morality you should strive for, but I won’t go into that here).
Okay, so why is this important? you ask. Given that nobody could ever actually be a moral saint, why is it interesting to ask whether we should strive to become one? Well, it turns out that the notion of moral sainthood is at the core of lots of issues in everyday life. And here’s my favorite: vegetarianism.
People become vegetarians for various reasons (aesthetic, health, or simply preference), but the most commonly cited reason is that eating meat is immoral. Animals bread for meat suffer horrifically; we shouldn’t kill them; and we shouldn’t eat them. Now there are two ways the carnivore might go about objecting to this position. First, he might argue that it is moral to eat meat. This usually results in corning ware being thrown around, and no real consensus. So I prefer to raise a second objection.
Sure, let’s grant that eating meat is immoral. But I’ve argued so far that it’s not the case that we should always do the moral thing. Maybe becoming a vegetarian is one of those moral activities that although the moral saint would pursue, we should not. And this is precisely my intuition. Eating meat seems like just the right sort of wrong that we should be permitted, since it’s not all that bad. Sure, it’s immoral. But it’s not on the same level of wrongness as murder, or cheating on your wife, or stealing. If the vegetarian insists that we renounce meat, she seems to be holding us to an extremely high moral standard. She seems to be insisting, in other words, that we become moral saints.
Have I convinced you not to become a moral saint (and perhaps, not to be a vegetarian)? Let me know in the poll below. And I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
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