Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.
And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’
It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it: https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect
Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’
‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’
I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’
However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.
I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.
I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.
I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.
The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”
“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.
The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”
“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”
The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.
“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.
“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.
A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.
“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.
His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.
I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.
When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.
“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.
The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”
“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”
“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”
I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”
The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”
I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”
The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”
And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…