Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation -Going Beyond the Call of Duty

“Supererogation” has long been one of my favourite words and concepts. (In saying that, I’m not claiming to live up to it much…) It stems from the Latin words “super” meaning “over” or “above” and “erogare” meaning to “expend / pay out.” So it’s about expending above what might be expected, also known as going beyond the call of duty, or going the extra mile.

In ethics, the concept describes ways of acting that are morally good and praiseworthy, but acts that are not necessarily required. Supererogatory acts are those that are good and such that we definitely would want people to perform them, but at the same time such that we couldn’t criticise people for not performing them. Heroic acts spring to mind, like running into a burning building to rescue others. Or saintly acts such as giving up all and any comforts in order to devote oneself to caring for the poorest, sickest people.

Some people, let’s call the supererogation enthusiasts, see the concept of supererogation as a good criterion for whether a given moral theory looks plausible. Any reasonable conception of morality, they argue, should allow a place for supererogatory acts. If a theory has no such place, say because it too stringently requires human beings to do whatever achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in such a way that for every good act there might have been an other better act, and even for the best possible act a human being could have done, it was just what he should have done, then that is a reason to be suspicious of that theory. We would want there to be a category of good acts, or ways of acting, that deserve special merit, rather than just a shrug and the acknowledgement that “he just did what he had to.”

Others, let’s call the supererogation deniers, argue exactly the opposite: That there is no place for supererogation in any plausible moral theory. In the history of theological uses of the concept, supererogatory acts, such as making large donations to a church, were initially seen as being able to wipe out sin for the supererogatory agent and those around him or her. Against that, a view was taken that human beings were so flawed, so unable to live up to the expectations and requirements of God, that there was no possibility of supererogation. In that view of the world, whatever anyone managed to do, would fall short of what was required. Human beings are so dependent on God’s mercy and grace, that there is no point in talking about going above and beyond.

The denial of supererogation doesn’t need to make any theological assumptions about the relationship between person and God. It could simply be argued, for example, that human beings are such weak and stupid animals, so incapable of ensuring their own flourishing or supporting that of others, that our societies are so unhealthy and corrupt and the world such a sub-optimal, inhospitable and degraded environment, that even incredible, super-human acts could not do good at the level required. In such a context, it might then be unrealistic and unhelpful to acknowledge and applaud a category of specially good acts. It would be better simply to require of each and every agent to do his or her utmost. There would almost be a duty to go beyond the call of duty.

“Ought Implies Can”

There is a principle in ethics that “ought implies can.” It is often taken as axiomatic without further argument. To some extent hat makes sense. It would be strange for a moral theory to require something from someone who is unable to do that. I think the principle “ought implies can” sheds an interesting light on the possibility of supererogation.

First of all “ought implies can” creates an inequality in terms of what can be required from individuals. Some people can achieve more than others and therefore ought to try harder than others. Say person A is a strong swimmer while person B is physically weak and has never learned to swim. They stand at the seashore and suddenly spot someone out there in the sea frantically waving his arms and shouting for help. The weather has suddenly turned stormy and the waves are high in the strong wind. Let’s say in this scenario there happens to be no alternative means of rescuing the drowning man, than for person A or person B to jump in and rescue him themselves: no coastguard to be alerted, no rescue boats or helicopters, and no other devices at all. Person A could very likely rescue the drowning man without any great detriment to herself, but person B would equally likely fall victim to the elements before getting to the drowning man. “Ought implies can” means that the requirement to jump in and rescue the drowning man falls asymmetrically on A and B. While A could be criticised if she didn’t make the attempt to rescue the drowning man, B could probably escape criticism even if he didn’t make the attempt.

Supererogation enthusiasts and deniers may place a different emphasis on the analysis of the situation but may find they’re not as far apart as it originally seemed.

“Person A just did what was required of her,” says a supererogation denier.

“But because of her superior skills, so much more could be required of her, and the drowning man got rescued. Now isn’t that worth celebrating?” replies the supererogation enthusiast.

“It’s worth celebrating perhaps that the outcome was a happy one and that person A had this great ability to swim and rescue drowning people. But if she hadn’t made the attempt, she would have been open to severe criticism, so she really just did what could have been expected,” responds the supererogation denier.

The supererogation enthusiast then has at least one further point to make: Let’s assume that person A’s ability to rescue the drowning man was down to more than just inborn physical ability. Let’s say she trained her swimming abilities a lot and spent some time doing a course in rescue swimming. Let’s say she did that while person B was playing video games and eating pizzas. Couldn’t the supererogation enthusiast point out that person A never had a duty to lead that lifestyle and person B can’t be criticised on moral grounds for choosing his way of life? She wouldn’t have been in the situation where she could rescue someone from drowning, and therefore ought to have done so, if she hadn’t set out on a certain path, that of honing her abilities long ago.¬†Wouldn’t the acts of supererogation have started with the lifestyle chosen and the skills developed, rather than just with the act of jumping into the water to rescue someone?

The supererogation sceptic could try one counter to that. He could refuse to accept that person B cannot be criticised on moral grounds. Or at least he could say that narrow moral grounds aren’t the only consideration here, and that broader ethical issues arise. He could say that we could call B’s lifestyle lazy, self-indulgent and selfish and that this are precisely words of criticism. He could also say that we would call A’s lifestyle industrious, committed to self-improvement and altruism.

But at the same time, person A could have trained in rescue swimming, a non-moral skill, all her life, but never got into a situation where she could perform the morally valuable task of rescuing someone. It would be merely bad luck that she never had the opportunity to perform that good act. In the same way as it is bad luck for agent B to be stuck in a situation where rescue swimming abilities would have carried moral weight, rather than video-gaming skills. And at the same time person A could have been quite useless in a situation where a different kind of skill might have been required, say rock climbing, in which we assume she had no ability. No human could possibly train to be able to perform excellently in every situation, he or she could get into. That would take us to the realm of superheroes. Nonetheless, the situations where someone happens to be able to perform morally excellently due to work they have done to prepare themselves, are those where supererogatory action is relevant. (Of course, some people train themselves and seek out such situations, e. g. by choosing careers where they might be first responders in critical situations.)

The other way in which “ought implies can” creates a space for supererogation comes from the fact that it is not always clear-cut what a person can¬†achieve. This might only become clear in the attempt. The opportunity for supererogation would then arise from where someone takes an optimistic view of what he or she can, and is therefore taking on a higher burden of what he or she ought. But I’ll write about that in the next post.




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