It’s widely believed that maximising consequentialism implies that supererogatory action is impossible. And many philosophers, finding the idea of supererogation intuitively plausible, regard this as a reason to reject maximising consequentialism (and perhaps to adopt some form of “satisficing” consequentialism instead). As I shall argue, however, supererogation — properly uderstood — is perfectly compatible with maximising consequentialism.
Let’s begin with the following (rough) formulation of maximising consequentialism.
Maximising Consequentialism (MC): An action is permissible if and only if its outcome is at least as good as that of every alternative.
(A more complete formulation might have more bells and whistles, but this will do for our purposes.)
Now, in the usual idiom, a supererogatory action is one which goes “beyond the call of duty”; to engage in supererogation is to act so as to produce more good than was required for one to have acted permissibly. This rough characterisation suggests the following definition.
Definition 1: An action X is supererogatory if and only if there exists some alternative Y such that (a) X‘s outcome is better than Y‘s, and (b) X and Y are both permissible.
Clearly, MC implies that no action is supererogatory in this sense. Given MC, clauses (a) and (b) in our definition of supererogation are inconsistent: if X has a better outcome than Y, then Y is impermissible, according to MC.
However, there is a deficiency in our definition of supererogation, which the following example reveals. Suppose that you’re a college student with $80 spare cash, and that you’re deciding what to do with it. Among your options are the following:
(A) Give $40 to charity, and spend the rest on beer.
(B) Give $40 to charity, and spend the rest on philosophy books that you need for a course you’re taking.
Now, suppose we judge that A is permissible but not supererogatory. In our view, A produces the minimum amount of permissible good; any less would be impermissible. Plausibly, however, the outcome of B is better than that of A, since you will be more greatly benefited by reading philosophy books than by drinking beer. Hence, it follows, on our definition of supererogation, that B is supererogatory. But that seems quite odd. Sure, B produces a surplus of good over the minimum permissible amount, but that surplus is all your own good. Yet is doesn’t seem that promoting your own good could make your action supererogatory — at least not as that term is ordinarily used.
Let us, then, revise our definition as follows:
Definition 2: An action X is supererogatory if and only if there exists some alternative Y such that (a) X‘s outcome is better for others than Y‘s, and (b) X and Y are both permissible.
On this revised definition, action B is no longer supererogatory, since, although its outcome is better than A’s, it’s not better for others (where by “others” is meant everyone besides the person whose actions are in question); B’s outcome is better, but only for you.
But notice that, on our new and improved definition, MC allows for the possibility of supererogatory acts. Consider, for example, utilitarianism — the paradigm exemplar of MC. And suppose you face a choice between two actions, C and D, whose outcomes are as follows:
(C) total of others’ utilities = 80; your utility = 20
(D) total of others’ utilities = 70; your utility = 30
In either case, the total of all utilities — both others’ and yours — is 100. Hence, utilitarianism says that both actions are permissible. But, although the outcomes of the two actions are equally good (by utilitarian lights), the outcome of C is better for others. Hence, utilitarianism implies that C is supererogatory.