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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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.