Heroes, Saints, and Ordinary Morality

Andrew Michael Flescher

"While fully recognizing the sometimes horrifying nature of human existence, it is a book of measured hope."
+ Add to Cart Preorder


Request Print Exam Copy

Request Digital Exam Copy

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 our 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 these standard dichotomies 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 admire from afar—it asks us not only to admire, but to emulate as well—further, it challenges us to actively seek 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, calling us to lead lives of self-examination—even if that should sometimes provoke discomfort. He asks that we strive to emulate those we admire and therefore allow ourselves to grow morally, and spiritually. It is then that the individual develops a deeper altruistic sense of self—a state that allows us to respond as the heroes of our own lives, and therefore in the lives of others, when times and circumstance demand that of us.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Morally Ordinary and the Morally Extraordinary

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

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

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

3. Ordinary Human Heroes
The "Hero" as a Type
Heroic Representations
Human Heroes
Characterizing Heroes within a Moral Framework

4. Suffering Saints
Eccentrics or Exemplars?
Following in the Footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day: The Case of Two Modern Saints
Saints and the "Ethics of Excess"
Saints and Supererogation

Part III: Ordinary Persons and Moral Development

5. Moral Development, Obligation, and Supererogation
The Thesis of Moral Development
Aristotle and the Grounds for the Aretaic Meta-Duty
Psychological Realism and the Thesis of Moral Development
Criticisms and Responses

6. Human Striving and Creative Justice
The Thesis of Moral Development and the Religious Thought of Abraham Heschel and Paul Tillich



"While fully recognizing the sometimes horrifying nature of human existence, it is a book of measured hope."—Chico Enterprise-Record

"Andrew Flescher presents a sustained and learned argument in support of the centrality of altruistic behavior in the moral lives of ordinary people. Equally at home in moral philosophy and theological ethics, Flescher offers a powerful critique of the division in ethics between moral duty and supererogation. This work should open a significant debate over the validity of this distinction."—Stephen G. Post, professor of bioethics, Case Western Reserve University, and president, Institute for Research on Unlimited Love

"In a scholarly yet lucid and persuasive fashion, Andrew Flescher rejects traditional notions of supererogation and argues that moral development toward altruism is a requirement of virtue. In Heroes, Saints, and Ordinary Morality, he suggests how virtue ethics, properly understood, undermines all notions of moral complacency and makes possible the movement of character toward sainthood. An incisive and ambitious contribution to debates over the nature and limits of both commonsense morality and virtue."—Terrence Reynolds, Department of Theology, Georgetown University

"With Heroes, Saints, and Ordinary Morality, Andrew Flescher joins the ranks of the very best virtue ethicists working today. This learned yet accessible book argues that moral exemplars are the products of virtuous character. Invoking figures from fiction and poetry (Odysseus and Lord Jim) as well as history (Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, genocide rescuers, and even New York City firefighters), Flescher offers a compelling casethat altruism is within the grasp of ordinary mortals. In a rich and nuanced discussion, Flescher not only succeeds in repositioning the underexplored idea of supererogation to the center of moral reflection, but then presents his reader with a challenge to move forward in the moral life to discern new possibilities for personal moral development. Flescher offers here a stunning intellectual achievement, but even more importantly he prods the reader to reflect on moral complacency while providing clues for how to envision a better, more virtuous life."—Lloyd Steffen, chair, Religion Studies, Lehigh University

"The events of September 11th, when many ordinary men and women risked their lives to help others, vividly remind us of the importance of moral heroism and courage. In this very up-to-date and well-reasoned study, Andrew Flescher criticizes the tendency of modern philosophy to minimize the importance of moral heroism. Drawing on materials as diverse as ethical theory, classical literature, and the memoirs of Holocaust rescuers, Flescher argues that heroism and saintlinesss have a place in all of our lives because each of us has a lifelong duty to become morally better than we are."—Ronald M. Green, Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and director of the Ethics Institute, Dartmouth College


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Andrew Michael Flescher is assistant professor, Department of Religious Studies and director of the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics, California State University at Chico.

352 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-0-87840-137-6
Nov 2003

352 pp., 6 x 9

Nov 2003

352 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-341-4
Nov 2003

Moral Traditions series
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ

Related Titles