On Sainthood and Personal Well-Being
Do moral saints have a good life? What kind of well-being do they stand or strive for? Is it possible for them to attain personal well-being? On her part, Susan Wolf believes that moral saints do not pursue personal well-being because their concern is to live a life of moral perfection or saintliness, which to Wolf is a pursuit that is not “particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive” (419). While it is true that moral saints are after some form of saintliness, moral perfection is not the endeavor or quality that defines them. In opposition to Wolf, this paper will take the position that moral saints pursue a kind of well-being that is more encompassing than moral perfection. Although saints are unlike the rest of us because of their perceived religious fervor or devotion, they are after a kind of good life that is no different from the ones we envision as normal folks or non-saintly individuals. The good life for the saints is not moral perfectionism; instead, it is one of goodness, happiness, excellence, and devotion in all of the major aspects of life. Robert Merrihew Adams agrees with this expansion of moral sainthood and the notion of saintly well-being. He writes: “The substance of sainthood is not sheer will power striving like Sisyphus to accomplish a boundless task, but goodness overflowing from a boundless source” (396). The saint’s relationship with God or a Supreme Being is the saint’s source of personal well-being that is characterized by growth and happiness. In sum, the saints may be a class of their own but they also try to live a good life beyond the demands of moral piety. Pursuing a more personal and holistic way of life, saints aspire for goodness not only in the area of morality but also in the matters of religion, personal contentment, and meaningful fellowship.
More than moral goodness or sainthood, saints also pursue their own happiness just like any other human being. Their notion of the self is as strong and real as anyone else in this world. After all, despite their saintly demeanor, they too are humans with needs, dreams, desires, and aspirations. It is wrong for Wolf to think that saints “pays little or no attention to his own happiness in light of the overriding importance he gives to the wider concerns of humanity” (Wolf 420). Just because saints are known to be do-gooders who spend most of their time thinking and caring about others does not mean that they are incapable of thinking about themselves and their own fulfillment and happiness. Adams writes: “Saints have typically been intensely and frankly interested in their own condition, their own perfection, and their own happiness. Without this interest, they would hardly have been fitted to lead others for whom they desired perfection and happiness” (397). In order for saints to serve others, they must have a firsthand knowledge of happiness and perfection. How can they convince others to embrace happiness and live better lives without a full understanding of happiness and its many riches and benefits. Only by knowing and experiencing happiness can a saint fulfill his or her duty to give joy and inspiration to others. His pursuits for moral perfection do not forbid him or her from the efforts of self-discovery or self-refinement. The act of looking inward is as much the duty of a saint as is the act of looking outward (i.e. altruism).
Although a moral saint derives some kind of happiness from looking after the welfare of others, he/she forms his/her own happiness outside his/her altruistic acts. Wolf can be criticized for claiming that the “happiness of the moral saint, then, would truly lie in the happiness of others” (420) because the saint obviously has interests outside the confines of his or her altruistic nature. It is not hard to imagine that a saint may also have a deep passion for music, literature, or the arts. These non-moral interests lie outside their passions for charity and other humanitarian acts often associated with the actions of moral saints. The personal well-being of saints is not only possible and real but also complex and multifaceted. A saint and his or her happiness cannot be defined solely by his or her moral endeavors or his or her commitment to being as “morally good as possible” (Wolf 421) because doing so would limit or simplify moral sainthood and the notion of personal well-being. Adams tries to broaden the definition of moral sainthood by claiming that the devotion of the saints in pursuing the welfare of others should be seen “in the context of a more comprehensive devotion to God” (397). Although encompassing a more general scope (i.e. human happiness), Haidt confirms the complexity of personal well-being with his happiness formula, namely, H= S+C+V. According to this formula, happiness is the result of a combination of factors, which include our “biological set point” (S), the conditions of our lives (C), and the “voluntary activities” we do (V) (91). The point of Haidt’s happiness formula in relation to moral sainthood is that the personal well-being of moral saints is more complicated and comprehensive than what had been originally proposed by Wolf. The happiness of moral saints cannot be exclusively tied down to their moral zealousness or search for moral perfections.
The moral saints having a good life is possible with a more positive and accommodating understanding of moral sainthood. Wolf, for her compelling arguments, manages to stir a controversy with her article on moral saints because of her narrow and one-dimensional representation of moral saints. She pictures them as being consumed by moral pursuits and nothing else. Wolf writes: “If the moral saint is devoting all his time to feeding the hungry or healing the sick or raising the money for Oxfam, then necessarily he is not reading Victorian novels, playing the oboe, or improving his backhand” (421). She claims that moral saints cannot and should not participate in non-moral interests for practical reasons. This view, while it supports the conventional conception of moral saints, is far from the truth. In reality, moral saints are not robots who are only programmed to engage in moral acts. Many saints have been known to adopt hobbies or passions while carrying out their humanitarian missions. As an example, Adams mentions how Albert Schweitzer, a twentieth century saint, “kept a piano and spent some time playing it” (396) during his humanitarian work in Africa. Saints in real life have other passions and skills that contribute to their general well-being. The moment we accept a more positive and realistic view of moral sainthood is the time we come to realize that moral saints are also capable and deserving of a good life-one that is defined by happiness, fulfillment, love, gratitude, and contentment.
Contrary to Wolf’s moral fanaticism or moral perfectionism, the moral saints as we know them now are human beings who are fallible but has a deep devotion to God that inspires them to perform good and genuine deeds on a constant basis. This definition counters the almost infallible representation made by Wolf of moral saints. A sinner just like anyone else, a moral saint is engaged with emotions (e.g. doubt, sadness, frustration) that are similar to any regular individual. This fallibility along with his/her desire to make a difference in this world through faith and love makes the life of a moral saint not as impossible as we normally think it is. The life of moral saints though imperfect or far from ideal holds many ...