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.
According to the fitting-attitudes analysis of value (the FA analysis), to be valuable is to be a fitting object of a pro-attitude. For instance, on one version of the FA analysis, what it is for an object to be valuable for its own sake is for there to be reasons to desire the object for it own sake. However, as Rabinowicz and Ronnow-Rasmussen (R & R-R) point out in their recent paper in Ethics entitled “The Strike of the Demon: On Fitting Pro-attitudes and Value,” there is a problem with this sort of analysis, for it appears that in some situations one can have reasons to desire an object for its own sake even though the object it is not valuable for its own sake. Imagine, for instance, the following situation: an evil demon will inflict severe pain on me unless I desire a saucer of mud for its own sake. In this case, there is a certainly a reason for me to desire the saucer of mud for its own sake, for adopting this attitude toward the saucer of mud will shield me from punishment by the evil demon. Yet it is implausible to suppose, as the FA analysis would seen to entail, that the saucer of mud is valuable for its own sake. This problem for the FA analysis is what R & R-R call the wrong-kind-of-reasons problem (or WKR problem for short). Now in their paper, R & R-R consider a number of possible attempts to salvage the FA analysis in light of the WKR problem, but they all fail. Now here’s a solution that I’ve thought of that involves revising the original formulation of the FA analysis. The revised FA analysis (or RFA analysis) goes as follows: X is valuable for its own sake if and only if there are reasons to desire X (for its own sake) apart from those stemming from the effects that having such a desire would have. Unlike the FA analysis, the RFA analysis doesn’t fall prey to the evil-demon counterexample, for there are no reasons to desire the saucer of mud apart from the effects that desiring the saucer of mud would have. In fact, the only reason to desire the saucer of mud is that doing so will have the effect of shielding oneself from punishment by the evil demon. Thus the saucer of mud has no final value on the RFA analysis, as it should be. This seems to me to be an adequate solution to the WKR problem, but I would be interested in what others think.