Supererogation and Responsibility

Although the term "supererogation" is not common in ordinary moral discourse, it is commonly used by moral philosophers to describe a class of moral actions which are familiar to most people. Etymologially it means "the act of paying out more than is required or demanded." As David Heyd writes, superogatory acts are "optional" or non‑obligatory, that is ‑ distinguished from those acts which fall under the heading of duty....they are beyond duty, fulfil more than is required, over and above what the agent is supposed or expected to do" [Supererogation: Its Status in Ethical Theory.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982: p.1].

These features serve to distinguish acts of supererogation from duties which arise, for instance, from the rights of others, and also, from duties which arise from moral responsibilities which do not derive from the rights of others. Unlike acts of pure supererogation, duties, obligations, and moral responsibilities are not optional; they are strict moral duties whose non‑performance is considered to be morally blameworthy (though perhaps not legally so). However, unlike the legal duties that flow from rights, the moral duties which flow from responsibilities cannot be demanded by others ‑‑ they are non‑peremptory. Legal obligations are peremptory and can be enforced by means of the coercive police powers of the state. There are many kinds moral responsibilities that are non-peremptory in this sense, for example, the duty of a child not to lie to her mother. The duty not to lie is not a legal duty except in cases where the agent in under oath or under some other legal requirement that forbids deception. However, truth-telling is not generally regarded as a supererogration; it is generally expected of competent moral agents as part of their responsibility to society.

Joshua Halberstam has suggested that there is a mirror category of what he calls suberogatory actions [Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Everyday Problems. (New York: Viking, 1993), pp. 54-55.] Suberogatory actions are those that while not morally forbidden are nevertheless blameworthy. "It's not that you're prohibited from behaving in these ways, but you'll be considered a moral toad if you do." He gives as examples of suberogatory actions rudeness and obnoxious behavior, for instance, blowing cigartte smoke in a non-smoker's face, might be considered a suberogatory action. There is some controversy as to whether this category of suberogatory actions is real or not. (For an interesting discussion of the notions of supererogation and suberogation see the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). However, I think this is a useful, and indeed, an important category of moral obligations. Suberogatory actions are ones that violate moral responsibilities that are non-optional but also non-peremptory.

We can have responsibilities towards others which require us "pay out" more than can be demanded by others as their right. Doing what is "right" is often more than merely doing what can be demanded as a right, that is, not all morally required actions are peremptory. However, to call an act "supererogatory" also is generally thought to imply that its performance is optional, that it may be omitted without moral fault. Heyd formally defines acts of supererogation as follows:

An act is supererogatory if and only if:

(1) It is neither obligatory nor forbidden.

(2) Its omission is not wrong, and does not deserve sanction or criticism ‑‑ either formal or informal.

(3) It is morally good, both by virtue of its (intended) consequences and by virtue of its intrinsic value (being beyond duty).

(4) It is done voluntarily for the sake of someone else's good, and is thus meritorius (115).

Heyd argues that "it is in the nature of any option that failure to choose it does not incur a critical reaction, while taking the option may win merit. Defining supererogation in terms of this asymmetry serves to illustrate not only the logical difference between duty and supererogation, but also the ethical justification of the distinction, in particular, the right not to engage in some forms of morally good action" (118).

The question I should like to raise here is whether there might not be a class of moral actions which are non‑peremptory but nevertheless non‑optional? I want to suggest that many of our responsibilities fit this description, that is, acts whose performance cannot be demanded by others as observance of their rights can be, but which would be, nonetheless, morally wrong to omit. This would leave us with a three‑fold classification of moral actions: those which are peremptory and non‑optional, corresponding to strict duties and obligations; those which are non‑peremptory and non‑optional, corresponding to substantive responsibilities; and those which are non‑peremptory and optional, corresponding to acts which have traditionally been referred to as supererogatory.

Heyd includes under supererogation saintly and heroic acts; acts of charity, generosity and beneficence; acts of kindness and consideration; acts of mercy and forgiveness; and other voluntary acts. He notes, however, "The very act of volunteering means doing something over an above what is required. One cannot volunteer to pay one's debts, or feed one's children" (p.3).The duty to pay one's debts is generally regarded as a non-optional, peremptory duty in that the person to whom the debt is owed can demand payment. Feeding one's children, on the other hand, is a part of parental responsibility. It is a strict duty of beneficence to feed one's children, and a parent ought to do so whether or not their children can demand to be fed.

Feeding one's children, on my account, represents a non‑optional and peremptory duty ‑‑ it is a strict role-related moral responsibility. Thus, I will argue that some cases which have traditionally been viewed as strict duties are really non-optional, peremptory responsibilities, and some cases of what have been viewed as supererogations are non-optional but non-peremptory responsibilities. This will have the effect of enlarging the set of responsibilities, which will here be taken to mean actions which are morally non‑optional yet whose performance cannot be demanded by others. The term "duty" can be used to denote acts which are peremptory and non-optional such as specific duties which individuals may have as a necessary means of discharging their role-related responsibilities.

That there are classes of duties which are distinct from supererogation can be shown in cases, for instance, we are in a position to benefit vulnerable others without sacrificing or risking anything of comparable value to ourselves. One need not be a saint to pull a drowning child out of a shallow pool when doing so does not involve the risk or sacrifice of anything of comparable value. But one does need to be a saint in order to jump onto a raging torrent to attempt to rescue a child who has fallen in.

The difference appears to lie in the degree of risk which the actor can be reasonably expected to accept, and this, will vary according to the special competences or skills which the agent can bring to the task at hand. One might suppose that a person trained in lifesaving techniques who is a member of a special police rescue squad has a strict role‑related responsibility to attempt to rescue the child from the torrent, even if doing so means taking a considerable risk. However, another bystander on the scene who is not likewise specially trained, would have no such peremptory role-related responsibility to attempt to intervene. For such a person to attempt to intervene would indeed be an act of supererogation and would normally be regarded as heroic even if the attempt was unsuccessful.

Heyd points out that while "the degree of risk and sacrifice involved in actions of a certain type may serve (along with other considerations) as grounds for classifying that type of actions as lying within or beyond the call of duty,...risk and sacrifice cannot be conditions of supererogation, because there are non‑risky supererogatory acts on the one hand, and supererogatory acts which do much good at a relatively small cost to the agent" (145). According to Heyd, although acts of supererogation "go beyond" what is strictly required by duty, they are nevertheless "correlated and continuous with natural (positive) duties." He explains,

A doctor who goes to a remote tribe to cure a rare disease is doing a supererogatory act. But he acts beyond his duty not in the sense that he is extending his social (professional, "institutional") role so as to include the tribe, but rather goes beyond his natural duty, which in this case is confined to the fulfilment of his social duty as a doctor in his community. Furthermore, the social or institutional duty of an Albert Schweitzer cannot be the sole criterion for judging whether an act (e.g. going to that distant place) is supererogatory or not, because even if it is agreed that the act in question lies beyond his institutional duty as a doctor, it may be his natural duty as a human being (who happens to have medial skill) to do so. A policeman touring a foreign country may have a duty to help overpower a violent criminal, because he happens to be trained to deal with such situations. His act is not supererogatory, even though he acts beyond his institutional duty as a policeman (which binds him only to his own country) (120).
These intuitions can best be accounted for by noting that, in Heyd's examples, persons which special knowledge or skill are, by virtue of their possessing these skills, are in a position to benefit others who are especially vulnerable to harm, and this combination of vulnerability and relevant competence, creates a context of action in which special moral responsibilities can arise.

Heyd argues for unqualified supererogationism: "This view not only acknowledges the possibility and existence of supererogation, but treats it as absolutely irreducible to duty. Acts of supererogation are characterized as purely voluntary, optional, and in a sense arbitrary, that is, not determined by universal standards or rules. Underlying such a contention is the view that holds human beings to be autonomous individuals having a basic right to pursue their own ideals and projects, sometimes regardless of the public or general good. People are not just tools for the promotion of good or for maximizing value or happiness in the world. Their duty towards others is limited, and moral considerations of what is obligatory do not come into every moral deliberation" (p.9). He contrasts this view with what he calls "qualified supererogationism" which holds that supererogatory acts are morally binding in some way, a view under which one "cannot regard omissions of these acts as being totally immune from criticism" (125).

On my view, social responsibilities form a category of moral obligations whose non-fulfillment is not totally immune from criticism. Competent moral agents have responsibilities to society which entail non‑optional but non-peremptory duties to protect themselves selves and others who are specially vulnerable which go beyond merely supererogatory actions. There is still a sphere of purely supererogatory actions, to be sure, which does not reduce to either rights or strict responsibilities, but this sphere is smaller than traditional accounts suggest because many of the sorts of actions which would formerly be regarded as supererogatory and therefore optional, should be seen to be non-peremptory, yet non-optional moral obligations that flow from our social responsibilities to protect the vulnerable.

Thus, for instance, when there is a major natural disaster such as a flood or earthquake, and tens of thousands of people are in dire need of relief assistance, I think that everyone has a social responsibility to aid them. Some people may be excused from fulfilling this responsibility for various good reasons, for instance, because they are unable to do anything to affect the situation, or because they have other more compelling responsibilities that conflict with doing something to aid the victims of a natural disaster. But individuals who can do something to help the victims, and have no good excuse for not doing it, are blameworthy, on my view, for they have failed to fulfill one of their standing social responsibilities.

Donating to disaster relief efforts, while generally regarded as an act of charity, and therefore as supererogatory, is, on this view, a non-optional yet non-peremptory social responsibility. In other words, it is something we can legitimately criticize others for not doing, but which we cannot demand that they do.

This way of cutting things up leaves us with the following classification of moral obligations:

A) Obligations which are peremptory and non‑optional, corresponding to strict or perfect duties.

B) Obligations which are non‑peremptory but non‑optional, corresponding to social responsibilities; and

C) Obligations which are non‑peremptory and optional, corresponding to acts which have traditionally been seen as supererogatory.

Logic forbids the fourth category of obligations that are optional but peremptory, since it would be strange to demand that someone do something they are not required to do.

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