It seemed it to me important to supplement the thought that there is more to life than morality with the idea that there is more to life than self-interest (or the conjunction of self-interest and morality).--Susan Wolf (2015) "Introduction" The Variety of Values, 3.
One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!--George Orwell "Reflections on Gandhi."
After I turned in my Adam Smith book-manuscript to the press, I read Susan Wolf's wonderful essay, Moral Saints, because I had an intuition that the view I ascribed to Smith on virtue (in the book) has a kind of family resemblance to Wolf's position. (It does, actually.) In reading her piece I had that kind of disorientation when one meets a one-time friend--even if one returns to a mode of presentation that exhibits familiarity, one thereby simultaneously recognizes one is a different person than one had been. I actually wondered if I had read it before, or if I only had knowledge by description of it; because I had forgotten that she praises Katherine Hepburn (over Mother Teresa) and footnotes Orwell's essay in it. I am not the kind of person that ignores Hepburn or overlooks footnotes, and Wolf's essay has only six (and these include references to the usual suspects: Bernard Williams, Tom Nagel, Michael Stocker, and Kant).
Wolf takes Orwell to be supporting her case "that the ideal of moral sainthood should not be held as a standard against which any other ideal must be judged or justified, and that the posture we take in response to the recognition that our lives are not as morally good as they might be need not be defensive." (26) The passage she cites from Orwell does support the claim. Indeed, Orwell is unwilling to say that Gandhi is magnanimous ("Mahatma" is Sanskrit for "Great Soul"). But in turning to Orwell's piece one discovers that the situation is more complicated than Wolf allows.
For the immediate context of the passage quoted by Wolf is Orwell's suggestion that Gandhi's sainthood relies on religious commitments unavailable to secular intellectuals: "it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man." Orwell's position is fascinating here; he sides with the humanists, but he does not allow that this ideal is grounded in reason or rationality--it is ultimately a decision. This stance (of the sort familiar from Carnap or Strauss) suggests the (perhaps mediated) influence of Kant. In old-fashioned terms: Jerusalem and Athens are incompatible, but both rests on faith (one in revelation the other in reason).* Orwell can assume that his learned audience sides with Man. So, for instance, Wolf assumes that the only real players in the game are Kantianism and Utilitarianism (she briefly discusses Aristotelian and Nietzschean virtue ethics in order to dismiss them (24)). I would not make this assumption today.
Orwell's position entails (as he recognizes) that Gandhi-style moral sainthood may well be a standard given certain religious background commitments. Even if one were to grant (as I would) that moral saints are insufferable in the ways she describes, Wolf cannot assume that moral sainthood should not be held as a standard. That really depends on context and one's commitments. Of course, Wolf could simply reject Orwell's position (and one like it).
This is not to say that Gandhi cannot be evaluated in light of standards he would not accept. Orwell shows us how that can be done with respect. (I have quoted the closing lines above.) Orwell emphasizes that Gandhi was a master of "non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred." The absence of hatred and Gandhi's "honesty" -- by which Orwell means existential integrity, that is the words and actions match each other and one is willing to acknowledge the implications of one's commitments -- are the ruling themes of Orwell's essay. (Soon I will discuss Orwell's treatment of Gandhi's pacifism.) While Orwell insists that Gandhi's tactics and means are not appropriate in all contexts ("Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism"), he also notes that Gandhi was "shrewd" enough to adjust means to context.
In fact, while Orwell denies that Gandhi should be treated as a saint, the whole tenor of his piece is that Gandhi really was saintly compared to any other politician of his age.** Moreover, Orwell insists that Gandhi's "whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant;" the significance does not have to be moral, of course, but these words entail that Orwell thought Gandhi was, if not magnanimous, then certainly an exceptional human being, even to the secular intellectual, a "near saint."
*This is compatible with the teachings of "Jerusulem" being capable of rational evaluation.
**It is an open question how Orwell would view Ghandi in light of more recent evidence.