Supererogatory actions are those which are (1) morally meritorious or praiseworthy, but (2) not the fulfillment of a moral obligation or duty. I was having a conversation about this with a colleague today and upon reflection, it seems to me that both clauses in the definition are vague. This means that whether an action is supererogatory is sometimes vague, possibly for more than one reason. I am curious if others share my intuitions/diagnosis about this.
Vagueness in the concept of moral obligation or duty:
Kantian Imperfect Duties. I help an old lady across the street. Was my action supererogatory? Variation: I often and assiduously help old ladies across the street, much more than most people. Are any of these actions supererogatory? Are they collectively supererogatory? (Does that question make sense?) I’m not sure what to say.
Rossian Prima Facie Duties. A real estate developer has been using government loans, intended for the development of low-income housing, to develop more lucrative properties. The practice is widespread and the government bureaucracy winks at it. The developer, however, has an attack of conscience. Instead of merely altering his business practice, he turns himself in to authorities, with the foreseen result that he loses his business and livelihood. The point of the example is that one might say that while there is a prima facie duty to follow the law, including to confess to crimes one has committed, this kind of action goes above and beyond what is morally required, all things considered. Is the confession supererogatory?
Vagueness in the concept of moral merit or praiseworthiness:
Graceless Forgiveness. A man’s business partner cheats him. Later she repents, apologizes, and makes restitution. He holds a grudge and refuses to forgive her for decades. Years later, he decides this is old news and sends her a note that he forgives the wrong she did him long before. I take it forgiveness is not a duty, and it is good, but this doesn’t seem all that good. Is the forgiveness supererogatory?
Remission of unpayable debt. A rich banker is owed a sum by a poor farmer. The sum is small to the banker but unpayable by the farmer. Instead of foreclosing on the farm and bankrupting the farmer, the banker forgives the debt. Is this supererogatory?
Vagueness in both concepts:
Family Obligations 1. A woman attends her grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary to help them celebrate. She would be a heel if she did not go. Is her attendance supererogatory? I am inclined to say that there is not a lot of merit attached to something like this—it’s just expected—but neither is it really a moral duty. However, it would be morally objectionable, not just from an etiquette standpoint, not to attend.
Family Obligations 2. A man’s father dies and he buys a nice headstone for the grave. I’m a little doubtful that there is a moral duty to mark the graves of one’s parents, and I don’t think you get much moral credit for doing so. But it would be morally objectionable, I think, if you failed to do this for trivial reasons. Is buying a headstone supererogatory? Is it more supererogatory if the headstone is nice?
As I think about these cases, my main thought is that the concept of “[no] moral duty” is useful in a few areas of the moral life but not all that many. Where it does work well, the concept of supererogatory action is likewise clear. For example, I think I clearly have no moral duty to sacrifice my life for needy strangers and therefore, if I do so in a praiseworthy way, the action is clearly supererogatory.
But I have enough sympathy with virtue ethics to believe that many other areas of the moral life are less black-and-white, where the concept of “moral duty” is not all that useful. I think imperfect duties and prima facie duties are not really best thought of under the rubric of “duties,” the concept doesn’t apply well to areas of character traits like mercifulness and generosity, nor do personal relationships between family and friends lend themselves to this quasi-legal category. And in such cases, the concept of supererogation is not all that useful either. At best, we can say that supererogation in such cases is vague.
I’m curious what others think.