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September 12, 2014


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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.

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.


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.


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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