success stories

Posted February 11, 2004

Book: Heroes, Saints, & Ordinary Morality
Author: Andrew Michael Flescher
Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, pp. 344

An excerpt from the Jacket:

Most of us are content to see ourselves as ordinary people — unique in ways, talented in others, but still among the ranks of ordinary mortals. Andrew Flescher probes our contented state by asking important questions: How should “ordinary” people respond when others need help, whether the situation is a crisis or something less? Do we have a responsibility, an obligation, to go that extra mile, to act above and beyond the call of duty? Or should we leave the braver responses to those who are somehow different than we are: better somehow, “heroes,” or “saints?”

Traditional approaches to ethics have suggested there is a sharp distinction between ordinary people and those called heroes and saints; between duties and acts of supererogation (going beyond the expected). Flescher seeks to undo this distinction by looking at the lives and actions of certain historical figures — Holocaust rescuers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, among others — who appear to be extraordinary but were, in fact, ordinary people. Heroes, Saints, and Ordinary Morality shifts the way we regard ourselves in relationship to those we respect from afar — it asks us not only to admire but to emulate as well — further, it challenges us to actively seek after the acquisition of virtue as seen in the lives of heroes and saints, to learn from them, a dynamic aspect of ethical behavior that goes beyond the mere avoidance of wrongdoing.

Andrew Flescher sets a stage where we need to think and act, and lead lives of self-examination – even if that should sometimes provoke discomfort. If we strive to emulate those we admire, we allow ourselves to grow morally and spiritually, and to develop a deeper altruistic sense of self – a state wherein we will respond as the heroes of our own lives, and therefore in the lives of others, when times and circumstances demand that of us.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Identifying Saints

The term “saints” has been given its dominant meaning by the Roman Catholic tradition and historically refers to publicly venerated figures of the church believed to have martyred themselves for Christ. According to this definition, persons become saints by a formal process of canonization and through the establishment of cults. In my discussion I depart from this definition and present a formula for “saints” that can be more widely accepted. What is important about saints, according to modified understanding, is their complete and uncompromising devotion to promoting the welfare of others. So construed, the term “saints” refers primarily to charismatic, moral, and spiritual paragons. This emphasis is not without precedent in philosophical and even theological literature. Urmson himself gave the term “saint” a new, “contemporary” meaning by interpreting it as a word of “moral evaluation.” Since his essay “Saints and Heroes” appeared in 1958, the term has been used in that way by various scholars to identify exceptionally altruistic persons. Likewise, I shall understand “saint” to refer to someone of boundless compassion and generosity, or in the words of Lawrence Cunningham, a conveyer of “transparent goodness, deep holiness, and a broad and encompassing charity.”

By the same token, we must be careful not to speak of saints as if they are rootless. Saints, like heroes, have histories. They are the products of the traditions within which they first come to be recognized, and their hagiographic narratives reveal the extent to which religion does furnish them with the resources to develop their moral convictions. Throughout her life, Mother Teresa was consistent in her insistence that good works consisted in no more than “accepting, with a smile, what Jesus sends us.” Still, according to this working understanding of saints, Mother Teresa is a saint because of her life’s work helping the poor, not because of her religious motivation for doing so. This is not to say that morality, per se, is the object of the saint’s passionate devotion. The understanding of saints as persons of boundless compassion, generosity, and goodness is perfectly consistent, for example, with Robert Merrihew Adams’s claim that saints are “people in whom the holy or divine can be seen,” and who offer themselves, in faith, “to God, not only loving Him but also letting His love possess them, so that it works through them and shines through them to other people.” It is also consistent with James’s observation that the saint “is grasped by a religious vision.” In other words, religion or religious experience may be the distinguishing motivating factor lying behind saints’ compassion and generosity, but it is saints’ attitudes and conduct toward others that gains them recognition. Whereas the conceptions of the divine in which saints place their faith vary according to the particular tradition in question, saints themselves are known and approved universally by their fruits. They are in every case, as James notes, “authors, auctores, increasers, of goodness.”

In defining saints according to their boundless compassion and generosity, and not necessarily their spiritual piety, one more qualification must be made — a qualification proved by Susan Wolf’s famous characterization of the “moral saint” as a person “whose every action is as morally good as possible. According to the characterization I will defend, saints are not, in fact, “moral fanatics” or passionless do-gooders, who, like perfect utilitarians, commit themselves in machine-like fashion to the equitable distribution of material resources among the world’s needy and desperate. They do not worry about the maximization of the good, nor, for that matter, invest in any impersonal calculations of this sort. Rather, they exist in the grip of the “Other,” literally obsessed by the immediate, all-encompassing demands placed on them by those in need. According to this characterization, a thoroughgoing utilitarian could not be considered a saint because the self would be included in the utilitarian’s calculus of what the overall good required. Thus, saints are not model practitioners of a preferred moral theory. To the contrary, saints act out of a “first-order” desire to alleviate others’ suffering. This desire motivates saintly practices prior to reflection about whether such actions are “good” or “right.” Saints exist always already at the disposal of their beneficiaries. The saintly penchant to act altruistically is in this sense “primordial.” It is an impulse not thought of as a moral demand before it is acted upon, perfectly natural for the saint, and not at odds with the saint’s “human nature,” as some have argued.

Table of Contents:

Part I Heroes, Saints, and Supererogation within the Context of a Duty-Based Morality

Chapter 1 Supererogation, Optional Morality, and the Importance of J.O.Urmson and David Heyd in the History of Ethics

The advent of the concept of supererogation in contemporary ethics

Urmson’s heroes and saints: moral exemplars without moral authority

From Urmson to Heyd: standardizing supererogation

Chapter 2 The Standard View under Critical Scrutiny

Urmson and Heyd contested

A duty to go beyond the call of duty?

Part II Morally Extraordinary Persons

Chapter 3 Ordinary human heroes

The “Hero” as a type

Heroic representations

Human heroes

Characterizing heroes within a moral framework

Chapter 4 Suffering Saints

Eccentrics or exemplars?

Following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day: The case of two moderns saints

Saints and the “Ethics of excess”

Saints and supererogation

Part III Ordinary Persons and Moral Betterment

Chapter 5 Moral development, obligations, and supererogation

The thesis of moral development

Aristotle and the grounds for the Aretaic


Psychological realism and the thesis of moral development

Criticisms and responses

Chapter 6 Human striving and creative justice

The thesis of moral development and
the religious thought of Abraham Heschel and Paul Tillich

Abraham Heschel and human striving

Paul Tillich and creative justice


Conclusion: The banality and contingency of Good and Evil