Christian ethics

Above and Beyond …?

After the tsunami of 11 March, many thousands of people in northern Japan have lost their homes or are in dire need of medical and other supplies. The Oxfam website has a special page on the disaster through which you can donate using a debit or credit card. Other pages enable you to help Ivory Coast refugees or the poor in Zimbabwe, or to join Oxfam and contribute to its general funds.

Once you’ve decided you have the resources to make a donation to Oxfam, then, difficult questions arise about which cause to support. But a more fundamental issue concerns the nature of the reason you have to donate in the first place. If you make a donation — unless your money is, say, stolen or committed elsewhere — I shall think your action highly admirable. But if you decide to keep your money, even if you spend it on some luxury for yourself, I shall not blame you. In other words, you appear to have no duty to donate; but going beyond your duty is morally praiseworthy. It is this phenomenon to which theologians and philosophers have given the name supererogation (literally, ‘what is above what is demanded from one’).

Supererogation is a fascinating concept. Its origins are Christian, one of the most famous expressions of the idea being in Matthew xix.16-22. Jesus is asked by a rich young man how he might gain eternal life, and he says: ‘keep the commandments – in particular, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, but do honour your father and mother and do love your neighbour as yourself’. He then says that if you want to be perfect and thus have treasure in heaven, you have to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. Understandably, the rich man is disappointed to hear the point about perfection (he clearly didn’t interpret Jesus as requiring him to love his neighbour as much as he loves himself, as he says he’s already kept all those commandments).

The fact that supererogation remains central to the common morality we live by, whether Christian or not, is one of the clearest pieces of evidence of the continuing influence of Christianity on the way we think. Aristotle, for example, had no room for the concept. According to him, the virtuous person would do what was appropriate to the circumstances. This is his so-called ‘doctrine of the mean’, and in that doctrine virtue itself is an extreme. There is no ‘going beyond’ virtue. Yes, you can give too much or to the wrong people. But that is not praiseworthy. It is the vice of wastefulness. Likewise, in more recent centuries, the idea plays no significant role in the consequentialist or utilitarian tradition. You are morally required to make the world as good as possible, and to the extent that you fail to meet that goal then you are to be blamed.

It seems to me a great advantage of these positions that they do not incorporate supererogation, since the very idea seems paradoxical. If you know you have a moral reason to donate to Oxfam, and you knowingly fail to act on that reason, how can that not be morally blameworthy? At the very least, we might want to reflect upon the origins of the idea in a pretty undemanding conception of morality and ask ourselves whether we want to retain it. And if we don’t, but continue to believe there is a moral reason to donate to Oxfam, then we might conclude that we have a duty to do so.