# Supererogation and Imperfect Duties

Suppose that S has the following imperfect duty: an imperfect duty to perform at least one of x, y, and z (where these are three distinct act-tokens). And assume that S does not have a perfect duty to perform x, nor a perfect duty to perform y, nor a perfect duty to perform z. Furthermore, assume that S performs both x and y.

Did S do anything supererogatory (that is, did S do anything that went beyond what duty required), and, if so, what?

Should we say both (1) that S’s performing x was supererogatory in that it went beyond what S’s perfect duty required and (2) that S’s performing y was supererogatory in that it went beyond what S’s perfect duty required? Or should we say (3) that S’s performing both x and y was supererogatory in that this went beyond what S’s imperfect duty required, but neither (1) nor (2)? Or should we say all of (1), (2), and (3)? Something else?

## 18 Replies to “Supererogation and Imperfect Duties”

1. Jamie says:

I’ve always had trouble with imperfect duties. Can you say what an imperfect duty is? Or is the first sentence supposed to be a definition?

2. Doug Portmore says:

I was afraid that someone might ask that.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a definition. But perhaps it is enough, for the purposes of this example, if I say the following: (i) If S has a duty to perform at least one of x, y, and z (where these are three distinct act-tokens), then this is an imperfect duty. (ii) If S’s refraining from performing x isn’t morally wrong (where x is an act-token), then S doesn’t have a perfect duty to perform x.

3. Jamie says:

Hm.
But then I’m pretty sure the answer to your questions is that it depends on the case. No?
Here’s one example:
Suppose I promised to invite one of the chipmunks to my party. But everyone knows that when more than one chipmunk comes to a party, the party is ruined.
So let x = I invite Alvin, y = I invite Simon, z = I invite Theodore. By (i) I have an imperfect duty to invite one of the chipmunks, and by (ii) I have no duty to invite any particular one of them. But if I invite Alvin and Simon I haven’t done anything supererogatory.
But I have a feeling there is an intuitive concept of an imperfect duty that I simply haven’t grasped and that my case doesn’t fit it at all. So probably I will keep out of the rest of this thread.

Another side question – one that always bothers me:
Does it make sense to say someone has a duty to perform an act-token instead of a duty to perform an act of some type?
Imagine that you propose that someone has a duty to perform a certain act-token of turning on the light.
My worry comes from Davidson (modified to apply to duties rather than wants):
If I have a duty to perform an act-token of turning on the light, then I must do it at a precise moment, in a particular way — every detail is fixed. But it makes no sense to demand that my duty be directed to an action performed at any one moment or done in some unique manner. Any one of an indefinitely large number of actions would satisfy the duty and can be considered equally eligible as its object.

5. Doug Portmore says:

Jamie,
I should have stipulated that S’s performing x and y is morally better than S’s performing only one of x, y, and z. That would take care of your proposed case.
I have that worry as well.
All,
To avoid these kinds of worries. Let’s suppose that x, y, and z each involve helping different people: Tom, Rick, and Harry, respectively. Assume the respective benefits are the same. Assume that the performance of any one of these three acts would be personally costly to S. And assume that performing two of them would be twice as costly as performing only one, and that performing three of them would three times as costly as performing only one. So I’m asking you to suppose that S is required to help one of these three, but that S isn’t required to help more than one.

6. My vote is for option (3), assuming the case is such that performing both actions is better than just one (cf. Jamie’s worry).
Performing x is a way of fulfilling your imperfect duty (to do x or y or z), it does not seem to go “beyond” it in the way that performing x and y does.

7. Doug Portmore says:

Given what I just said above. We should throw out the original stipulation that x, y, and z refer to act-tokens. Let ‘x’, for instance, refer to providing Tom with some specific sort of benefit (e.g., rescuing him from some specific harm that now threatens him).

8. Doug Portmore says:

Richard,
I agree that we should say,
(3) S’s performing both x and y was supererogatory in that this went beyond what S’s imperfect duty required
But should we deny both (1) and (2)? And let’s suppose that x and y are performed simultaneously.

9. Just to help clarify what an imperfect duty is (or, given my blogging luck, to throw more dust in the air), there are a few different accounts of what they are.
One is that they are *impersonal* duties, that is, duties that are not owed to anyone in particular, and so do not bestow a reciprocal right on the person. (For instance, duties to be charitable, say.) I think there is some controversy over whether there are any of these or not, but it seems pretty cogent to me.
Another conception is that they are not duties to perform some particular act, but rather duties to pursue some goal. If I am duty bound to ceteris paribus make the world a better place, I have a duty to pursue that goal, but that doesn’t (normally) entail doing any particular act of bettering.
There may be other conceptions, but in any case, both of these conceptions of imperfect duties appear to present a problem for the possibility of supererogation–one that was much discussed many years ago. The problem is that it is difficult to say when one has discharged the duty, since there’s no right that goes away after some performance and no definite stopping point for saying when we have succeeded in pursuing a goal. There are some ways of getting supererogation in there, but it’s not worth dragging all that out here.
Still, it seems that the puzzling part of the initial problem (to me at least) is thinking of imperfect duties that are duties to do some particular act. I don’t really conceive of imperfect duties as that sort of duty.

10. Doug Portmore says:

Robert,
both of these conceptions of imperfect duties appear to present a problem for the possibility of supererogation–one that was much discussed many years ago. The problem is that it is difficult to say when one has discharged the duty, since there’s no right that goes away after some performance and no definite stopping point for saying when we have succeeded in pursuing a goal.
I don’t see the problem. In this case, at least, it is not difficult to say when S has discharged this imperfect duty even though there is no right that goes away after discharging this duty. S has discharged this imperfect duty when S has performed at least one of x, y, and z. And there is a definite stopping point for saying when S has succeeded in pursuing the goal of helping at least one of Tom, Rick, and Harry. So it seems to me that, on either of your two conceptions, S’s duty to perform one of x, y, and z counts as an imperfect duty. And that neither of them present the problems that you mention — at least, not in the case that I’ve described.
So it seems to me is that we definitely want to say that S went above and beyond the call of duty in doing both x and y. But it also seems a bit odd to say that S went above and beyond the call of duty while none of his actions went above and beyond the call of duty. But which act or acts went above and beyond the call of duty in this case?

11. Jussi Suikkanen says:

Could imperfect duties be scalar? On this view, there’s not cut-off point where you have satisfied the duty. Rather you can satisfy the duties to different degrees – more or less. Maybe at some point you go off the scale to supererogation. So, the more you help the poor, the more you satisfy the duty to help the poor. At some point, you are dedicating your life so much as to do the supererogatory. You would have done all the duty would have required much earlier. I’m not sure thinking of S doing x, y, and z is very helpful in this case. I case I would think that imperfect duties are lifetime duties – where the mode of assessment is the agent’s character more than individual cases or actions.

12. Doug Portmore says:

Jussi,
I think that it’s coherent to suppose that morality might be scalar such that we can judge only that one act is morally better or worse than another, but not that an act is permissible or impermissible, required or not required. I don’t know, though, whether it’s coherent to suppose, as you’re suggesting, that acts can satisfy a duty to more or less degrees. That’s sounds a bit like saying that a child can more or less satisfy the requirement of being at least four feet tall in order to ride on a certain roller coaster. It doesn’t sound coherent to me to suppose that some children satisfy this requirement to greater degrees than others do.
By the way, I accept that most imperfect duties are, as you say, “lifetime duties – where the mode of assessment is the agent’s character more than individual cases or actions.” But I don’t see why all imperfect duties have to be lifetime duties. And I don’t see why it might not be helpful to ask how we should deal with supererogation in the sort of less complicated case that I’ve constructed.

13. Imperfect duties are not duties to perform some particular act. They are duties, for instance, to pursue some goal. So if someone does something supererogatory under that heading, it is because he has, for instance, pursued some goal further than was required of him, not necessarily because he has performed some particular act. It does seem to me that one way to under “further than required” is along the lines Jussi suggests. All we need is some point at which we can say that you have succeeded in, for instance, making something your goal. That could be a vague threshold.

14. But it also seems a bit odd to say that S went above and beyond the call of duty while none of his actions [considered in isolation?] went above and beyond the call of duty.
That sounds fine to me (especially with the parenthetical addition — maybe you’ll object to that?). Indeed, this kind of case is precisely what should convince us that there’s nothing “odd” about saying this. S went above and beyond the call of duty by performing more good actions than was required of him. But it isn’t the case that any one of those actions (considered in isolation) was more than required — each, alone, merely satisfies the minimum required, nothing more.
But now let’s cut out my ‘considered in isolation’ clause. It does seem plausible that supererogation is a matter of performing some supererogatory action. Presumably if one act was decided on and performed after the other, then we could simply say the second was (in context) supererogatory. But to bar us this easy solution, you stipulated: “let’s suppose that x and y are performed simultaneously.” In that case, however, I’m inclined to think that they constitute a single action, namely, the doing of x and y. (An action is something you do ‘all at once’, so to speak, and that’s just what you’ve stipulated to be the case here.) So there is indeed an act which is supererogatory here, namely, the conjuctive act of ‘doing x and y simultaneously’.

15. Doug Portmore says:

Richard,
Yeah, that sounds about right. I think that’s probably the way to go. But I’ll be interested in hearing if anyone can think of any problems with it.

16. Jamie says:

Robert,
I did think of the distinction between duties owed to a specific person and duties owed to nobody in particular, but someone told me that is a different distinction from perfect/imperfect.
But the other distinction I do not get. I can’t pursue a goal without performing an act. When I perform and act in pursuit of a certain goal, I have performed the act of pursuing that goal, and it looks like I had a duty to do that. Of course, I might have pursued it in a different way consistent with my duty, but that’s always true for all duties (I could have acted in a slightly different way consistent with doing my duty).

17. Campbell says:

Let’s suppose that x, y, and z each involve helping different people: Tom, Rick, and Harry, respectively.

What happened to Dick?

18. It sounds like ethical problem is just about practical concerns (instrumental value). I don’t see how you could possibly get supererogatory actions out of it.
However, if you do mean this to be about something that really matters (intrinsic value), then why aren’t imperfect duties by definition supererogatory? It’s not bad to not do them and it’s good to do them, so isn’t it above the call of duty?