Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation (2) – Doing More Than You Know You Can

As mentioned in the previous post, supererogation means going above and beyond. In moral philosophy it is often applied to acts that are good and praiseworthy, but not required. So anyone not doing these acts could not be criticised from a moral point of view. But when people do them, we are nonetheless pleased and think they deserve special merit.

[Previously, I discussed how it relates to the principle from moral philosophy that “ought implies can.” I wrote about the fact that the unequal distribution of what people can do, means there is also an unequal distribution of what they ought to do. This opens up some space for a discussion about whether some supererogation stems from that unequal distribution.]

In fact the principle that “ought implies can” relates to supererogation in another way as well: It is not always clearcut and obvious in advance what someone can. Two people with similar abilities may therefore take different actions, based not so much on a different assessment of what they can do, but based on differing ideas about what to do when they are not entirely sure whether they can or can’t do it. One person may take on the relevant ought on the basis that he possibly can, another may not, on the basis that maybe he cannot.

I recently read Michael Lewis’ fascinating book The Undoing Project about psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who founded the field of behaviourist economics. It contains this episode:

“By late 1956, Amos was not merely a platoon commander but a recipient of one of the Israeli army’s highest awards for bravery. During a training exercise in front of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, one of his soldiers was assigned to clear a barbed wire fence with a bangalore torpedo. From the moment he pulled the string to activate the fuse, the solider had twenty seconds to run for cover. The soldier pushed the torpedo under the fence, yanked the string, fainted, and collapsed on top of the explosive. Amos’s commanding officer shouted for everyone to stay put—and leave the unconscious soldier to die. Amos ignored him and sprinted from behind the wall that served as cover for his unit, grabbed the soldier, picked him up, hauled him ten yards, tossed him on the ground, and threw himself on top of him. The shrapnel from the explosion remained in Amos for the rest of his life. The Israeli army did not bestow honors for bravery lightly. As he handed Amos his award, Moshe Dayan, who had watched the entire episode, said, “You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won’t get away with it again.” Occasionally, people who watched Amos in action sensed that he was more afraid of being thought unmanly than he was actually brave. “He was always very gung ho,” recalled Uri Shamir. “I thought it was maybe compensation for being thin and weak and pale.” At some point it didn’t matter: He compelled himself to be brave until bravery became a habit.”

Clearly, Tversky was able to pull off this feat (even though taking some shrapnel in the process). Equally clearly, no one knew for sure in advance that it could be done. In fact, people must have thought that it couldn’t. The commanding officer would not have given the order to stay put if he had thought that it was possible to rescue the collapsed soldier. The act in question, was called, even after its successful conclusion, “stupid” and “gung ho.” It was also praised as “brave” and given the highest award for bravery. If it had been only foolish and suicidal, it could not have been called brave. But if it had been just brave and good, it could not have been called stupid.

What is in play, perhaps, is Tversky’s perhaps unusual decision that he ought to rescue the soldier, even though he couldn’t be sure that he could.

This example also sheds some light on the vagueness of the principle “ought implies can.” It is not entirely clear, for example, what constitutes “can.” Most people would probably not think that doing something while losing one’s life, would constitute the kind of “can” that would be implied by an “ought.” What about doing something that carried the risk of losing one’s life? Or doing something that meant having shrapnel in one’s body for life?

None of the other soldiers could be criticised for obeying their commanding officers instruction. And yet, had everyone acted on it, a life would have been lost unnecessarily. The difference between Tversky and his fellow soldiers was unlikely to be that Tversky was the only one who had the ability to rescue the collapsed soldier. It’s more likely that he was more prepared to think “I ought to do this,” without knowing whether he would be able to do so unscathed. Or that he was more prepared to take on the risk of damage to himself in shouldering an “ought.”

[Let’s leave aside for now the fact that it was Tversky’s life work to show that human beings are ill equipped to make rational assessments of costs and benefits to ourselves. And let’s leave aside also the separate debate in ethics about how many thoughts one ought to have in this kind of situation.]

Supererogatory acts are not necessarily reliant on physical ability alone. They may, for example, also include finding forgiveness for someone who has wronged us grievously. In that case too, forgiveness may be a process that someone enters into without knowing whether they can do it. They may not know whether ultimately they will truly be able not only to say that they have forgiven, but also feel it for themselves. Or they may not be sure in advance that forgiving wouldn’t mean trading off too much of their own personality or what is important to them. Nonetheless, some people might set off on the journey of forgiveness under those circumstances. Others may not. The latter shouldn’t come in for criticism. The former are making a supererogatory effort.

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