In an earlier post, Supererogation for Maximisers, I tried to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable claims: first, that maximising consequentialism is true; and, second, that supererogatory action is possible. Subsequently, the same topic has received significant attention in the comments to another post, Favourite Objections to Consequentialism, prompting me to revise my position. In this post I shall (1) briefly review my old position, (2) show why I’m no longer inclined to accept it, and (3) propose something new.
The problem of supererogation for maximisers lies in the inconsistency of the following three statements:
Max: An action X is permissible iff there exists no action Y such that (1) Y is an alternative to X, and (2) Y is better than X.
Super: An action X is supererogatory iff there exists some action Y such that (1) Y is an alternative to X, (2) X is better than Y, and (3) X and Y are both permissible.
Existence: There exists at least one supererogatory action.
The statement Max captures the core claim of maximising consequentialism. (For simplicity, I’ve chosen here to talk of actions as the objects of evaluation — i.e. as being better or worse than each other. Some might prefer to say that it is outcomes or consequences that are the proper objects of evaluation in a consequentialist approach. But I don’t see that rephrasing things in terms of outcomes or consequences would make much difference here. We can simply treat “action X is better than action Y” as convenient shorthand for “the outcome of X is better than that of Y” or whatever.) The statement Super is a natural analysis of the concept of supererogation, the basic idea being that a supererogatory action is one that does more good than was required for the agent to have acted permissibly — i.e. one that “goes beyond the call of duty” in the usual idiom. Finally, the statement Existence is just the fairly weak claim that some person has at some time acted in a supererogatory way.
However, as is easily seen, the three statements are jointly inconsistent. (Note: I assume that the relation “is an alternative to” is symmetric.) To some philosophers this has seemed a good reason to reject Max. Yet, for reasons I won’t bother you with here, I’m disinclined to follow them; I want to hang onto Max. And I’d also like to keep my Existence. So, for me, Super has got to go.
In my earlier post, I proposed replacing Super with the following:
Super*: An action X is supererogatory iff there exists some action Y such that (1) Y is an alternative to X, (2) X is better for others than Y, and (3) X and Y are both permissible.
Since one action might be better for others than another, even though the two are equally good simpliciter, there is no inconsistency in the conjunction of Max, Super*, and Existence. Maximising consequentialism allows for the possibility of actions that are supererogatory in the sense articulated by Super*.
However, now there is a new problem. As several commentators argued in their comments to the earlier posts (linked above), the revised analysis of supererogation results in maximisers running afoul of the following:
Better: For any actions X and Y, if (1) X is an alternative of Y, (2) X is supererogatory, and (3) Y is not supererogatory, then X is better than Y.
This states simply that, within a given situation of choice, a supererogatory action must be better than a non-supererogatory one. The problem is that the statements Max, Super*, Existence, and Better are jointly inconsistent. (Note: here I assume that the relation “is better for others than” is asymmetric.)
Earlier I was happy to reject Better, but now I’m not so sure. So, let me instead propose yet another analysis of supererogation:
Super**: An action X is supererogatory iff there exists some action Y such that (1) Y is an alternative to X, (2) X is better than Y, and (3) X and Y are both blameless.
Whereas Super* revised condition (2) in Super, our new analysis Super** revises condition (3). The key change here is that the notion of permissibility has been replaced by that of blamelessness. Obviously, then, Super** will avoid the problems of Super only if it is possible for permissibility and blamelessness to “come apart” in a certain way. That is, although there is no inconsistency in the conjunction of Max, Super**, Existence, and Better, that conjunction is inconsistent with the following:
Blameless: An action is blameless only if it is permissible.
In other words, maximisers can embrace Super** only if they’re willing to allow the possibility of blameless impermissible actions.
But this does not strike me as a bitter pill to swallow. I think we have independent reasons to reject Blameless. Some philosophers, perhaps most notably Derek Parfit, have already given compelling arguments for the possibility of “blameless wrongdoing”. But I want to suggest a slightly different argument, which appeals to a familiar distinction commonly drawn in law: namely, the distinction between a justification and an excuse. As I understand the distinction, a justification is some consideration that shows that the action is question was not wrong, whereas an excuse is a consideration that shows that, although the action was wrong, the wrongdoer ought not to be blamed for it. Unless lawyers are all guilty of hopeless conceptual confusion, the distinction between justifications and excuses suggests that there is sufficient conceptual room to drive a wedge between permissibility and blamelessness in exactly the way that Blameless denies.
Moreover, the distinction is supported by the kinds of things that ordinary folk are apt to say on occasion. Surely we sometimes hear such things as: “I can understand why you did what you did — you’re only human, after all, and I’m sure I would have acted in the same way if I were in your situation — and so I don’t blame you for acting as you did; still, I think that you really ought not to have acted differently.” Intuitively, at least, such statements seem quite intelligible. Of course, philosophical work remains to be done to explicate more clearly the distinct roles of permissibility and blamelessness. Nonetheless, I think, examples of this kind suggest that maximisers could do without Blameless, in which case the analysis given in Super** seems to constitute a plausible way in which they can accommodate the possibility of supererogation.