Questions about Supererogation

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.

3 Replies to “Questions about Supererogation

  1. Hi Heath,
    Some people, such as Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2005) and myself (following Walter), make a distinction between (1) supererogatory acts — acts (or, more likely, sets of acts performed over time) that go beyond the call of both perfect and imperfect duty and (2) superperfecterogatory acts — acts that go beyond the call of perfect duty. So not giving to charity on a particular occasion would be superperfecterogatory even if this along with your past failures to ever help others indicates that you have not, as the imperfect duty of beneficence requires, adopted the welfare of others as a significant, life-shaping end. So I agree that there an ambiguity there.
    But I don’t think that we should understand supererogation in terms of the act’s being meritorious or praiseworthy. Someone can do what’s beyond the call of duty and yet her act may not be meritorious or praiseworthy given her bad motive. I think of supererogation as a deontic status that a possible act can have. It can be supererogatory for me to do x even though whether my x-ing would be supererogatory would depend on my motives and intentions in x-ing.

  2. Hi Heath,
    Interesting stuff! Here are some thoughts on your cases.
    Kant: I don’t either version of the case captures something supererogatory. The imperfect duty to help others that Kant actually argues for in the Groundwork is a very minimal duty: we should not absolutely refuse to help others. A stronger Kantian version of this duty is something like this: we should respect others as ends, which includes sometimes adopting their ends as our own and acting to achieve them. On this version of the duty, it is not supererogatory in the instances when we do in fact adopt others’ ends as our own and seek to help achieve them, it is simply fulfilling the duty.
    If someone really assiduously helps others, even say to the detriment of their own development and the achievement of their personal ends, I’m not sure this is supererogatory. It may just be sad, or perhaps annoying, depending on the person’s motivation for this kind of dramatic self-sacrifice. (In the “annoying” case, I’m thinking of someone who likes to lord their self-sacrifice over others.) Of course, one who authentically dedicates herself to the service of others could certainly count as engaging in supererogatory acts – I don’t mean to deny this as a possibility within Kantian moral theory.
    Ross: I’m not sure the vagueness here is, or is only, in the concept of moral obligation. I think the uncertainty rather applies to the specific judgment about whether the guy should turn himself in. Since prima facie (or pro tanto) duties can be superseded by other factors, the question I think is only whether this is a case like that. Even if the concept of obligation is (more or less) clear, we might still find uncertainty in particular cases. Is throwing himself on the sword in this way actually good, especially in the light of other obligations he might have to his family, his employees, and so on? Perhaps it is, and if so then it would count as supererogatory, I think, but it really depends on our moral assessment of the particular situation.
    Graceless forgiveness: I’m with you in that I’m not clear the guy is actually morally praiseworthy here.
    The banker: Maybe. For me, it depends on the background justice of the society in which this exchange took place. If we’re talking about a reasonably just system of institutions in which this particular contract took place, then to me it looks supererogatory (though the bank’s shareholders might feel differently). If we’re looking at a society with severe inequality and so on, then it isn’t clear to me the loan could be considered rightful in the first place – for example, was there exploitation involved? – and this infects my assessment of the moral nature of the loan forgiveness.
    FO1: I take it that if something is morally objectionable not to do, it shouldn’t count as supererogatory if one does it. I agree that it would be morally objectionable not to go, in this case, unless of course there were other factors in the case (a sick child at home, a long-standing feud with the grandparents, etc.).
    FO2: If there is no moral import to buying a headstone for one’s parent, then I’m not sure buying a headstone is supererogatory, because it isn’t clear that it is a good or virtuous action. I think that providing a headstone could be seen as falling under a more general duty of respect or perhaps a duty of care to one’s parents, depending on the more particular community norms present in the case. So, I either think it’s some kind of duty, or if it isn’t a duty, then it isn’t necessarily good, either.
    With regard to your more general comments about supererogation, I think it can be a useful concept, even if it is vague. But, I’m not sure it’s all that vague. In your cases, their isn’t generally vagueness at the level of concepts, but rather there is the uncertainty inherent in applying moral rules, concepts, and values in particular cases. Is supererogation as a concept helpful in those cases? I’m not sure.

  3. Doug,
    Supererogatory vs. superperfecterogatory is a useful distinction. (I assume you meant that GIVING to charity would be superperfecterogatory?)
    For ‘meritorious or praiseworthy’ I should have said ‘morally good or morally desirable.’ I agree that we are looking for act statuses not agent statuses.
    Pete,
    Thanks for the extensive comments. In many of these cases I have some similar intuitions. On the Kantian case, it appears that your understanding of the imperfect duty of care for others is somewhat different from Doug’s (“a significant, life-shaping end.”)

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