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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.

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21 Comment on this post

    1. Thanks, Attlee. If you mean that he might allow supererogation as part of some other, equally acceptable moral system, then I think not. His ethical view is based on a conception of *human* nature, and he shows no sign of limiting his claims about the good life to any particular time or place (though he does make room for a certain amount of contingency in institutions of justice — see Nicomachean Ethics 5.7).

  1. Perhaps we do not have moral obligations to always do what is right, but rather, have a strong moral obligation to avoid doing harm. Kant seems to capture this well, but suggesting all positive duties, are imperfect duties, since they can't logically be pursued continuously like negative duties seem to demand.

    Utilitarians might be wrong in always maximizing utility, but instead should aim for something closer to minimizing pain and suffering, (Not that this would necessarily be any less morally demanding than the other formulation).

    1. Perhaps, Wayne. But this conception of ethics seems to me to run into the paradox I mentioned. Even if it's more important to avoid doing harm, the fact remains that, on this conception of imperfect duty, I am allowed by morality to do less than I have moral reason to do. And — on this conception of moral reasons — one might have thought that I should always act on the balance of reasons — that is, to do what I have strongest moral reason to do. Maybe there's a limit to what I can do to help others, but why am I not required to go right to that limit? (It's particularly ironic to find in Kant — the arch rationalist — permission to act against the balance of reasons!)

      Your revised version of utilitarianism is highly counter-intuitive. Imagine a world with a tiny bit of suffering, and huge amounts of positive well-being which clearly outbalance the suffering (even for those who are suffering). On the revised view, one would be required to end all sentient life in this world if one could.

      1. Hmm yes.

        But I think Utilitarians are also caught in the dilemma of when to stop giving. Singer proposes things like comparable moral significance which is just a fancy mask for an intuition. In fact, it might just very well be better, consequentially, for most of the developed world to donate money to the poor, to the extent that they become so poor, that they cannot continue their massive consumption of resources. The lack of a supererogation forces the typical westerner to become impoverished to the point which they are slightly better off, or equal in standard of living to those that she is trying to help (unless you subscribe to a inequitable distribution of goods maximizing utility).

        I think there needs to be a brake somewhere, otherwise it endangers the possibility of anyone taking our obligations to the needy seriously. Appealing to a Kantian imperfect duty model would give us a reasonable brake. I'm normally a flag waving Utilitarian, and I donate to the poor regularly, but clearly not to the extent that Utilitarianism would suggest.

        1. That seems right to me, Wayne, and in the spirit of the way that Mill, Sidgwick, Singer and other utilitarians have tried to deal with supererogation: it's a good way of setting a minimum, below which you can blame anyone, and above which people who go the extra mile can be praised. The question, as you imply, is where to set it. In my view, our common-sense morality sets the bar far too low. I remember reading recently that the 400 richest Americans own more than the poorest 150 million of their fellow citizens. That this has been permitted by our morality suggests to me it is insufficiently ambitious.

          1. Do you think your colleague Toby Ord has set the bar at a reasonable level?


            It certainly seems doable to me. However, I would query what the effect would be on the economy if everyone started giving such a large amount of income to charity. Presumably it would create quite a few jobs in the charity sector, but wouldn't there be big losses in retail and manufacturing? Or perhaps if charitable donations managed to ultimately boost the purchasing power of poor countries, people in those countries would make up for it? On the other hand, if people felt less pressure to own as many new gadgets or other expensive things as possible, people might be happier, and it would certainly be better for the environment.

            In terms of rich Americans, the work of Buffett and Gates seems very promising:

  2. Nice to see someone else defending utilitarianism. 🙂
    I agree with Roger in finding negative utilitarianism (avoiding suffering rather than maximizing pleasure) unappealing, and for exactly the reason he cites. (The real reductio ad absurdum here is if we could simply destroy all life. Bye-bye suffering, but that's not quite what we want, is it? What we should be doing is maximizing net pleasure, i.e. Pleasure minus suffering. If that means in practice putting more effort into avoiding suffering (e.g. because it's easier to do or because suffering tends to be more intense than pleasure, or because pleasure is difficult to achieve when suffering is present), then fine. But the overall goal is still to maximize net pleasure.

    Could there however be a case for some version of supererogation within rule utilitarian (IMO the only practicable form of utilitarianism)? It would work as follows: we have obligations, according to agreed rules (chosen on a utilitarian basis), to avoid certain harms, keep certain laws etc. No ifs, no buts. "Above and beyond" that however, according to the rules, we might say it should depend how you feel. This allows those of a more naturally altruistic nature, or with a special emotional connection with Japan, or whatever, to do more, without culpabilising those who prefer to focus on other things (whether overtly altruistic or not).

    1. I think utilitarianism, rule or otherwise, is going to demand that individuals regardless of whether they feel a particular connection, or emotional attachment to Japan, or the impoverished wherever, give. It generally maximizes utility to give to the needy, so one ought to. Compared to the rule, "Give to the needy, depending on how you feel," the former rule would clearly do more good.

      1. Yes, quite agree, Wayne, though doubtless there comes a point when demanding too much from people becomes self-defeating.

        1. Agreed. If giving is obligatory, then it may essentially be responded to like a tax. Beyond a certain point, expecting more will result in less being given overall, because there is less motivation for people become higher earners in the first place or to start up a business, and thus be able to donate more. See the 'Laffer curve'.

          1. Thanks, Matt. On your question about Toby's threshold. I think he'd say it is a reasonable aim for many people, but that it might need to be adjusted in the light of the consequences of large numbers of people signing up.

    2. Thanks, Peter. Yes, this seems right to me — but the bar should be higher than it is at present (see my response to Wayne above).

  3. "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?"

    I'm not seeing the paradox. Isn't this question the same as the question of whether it is not always *immoral* to knowingly fail to act on a moral reason? But why should we think that it is? Isn't there any space for being moral but yet not perfect? Can't two alternative actions be moral although one is yet morally *better* than the other? Must we always blame those who are anything less than perfect?
    I wonder whether you would raise the same objection to the correlates of supererogation in non-moral domains of reasons? Is it always *imprudent* to knowingly fail to act on a prudential reason for example?
    Suppose I'm deciding whether to give to charity. It occurs to me that although I don't *now* need that ten pounds in my wallet, it could *possibly* save me from starvation at some point in the future, if I keep it under my mattress instead of giving it away. Of course, the chances of this are very small, but I clearly have a prudential reason for keeping the money. Will you say that I would be imprudent then for doing what (on a utilitarian view) is morally required? It would surely be more plausible to say (as Aristotle would say!) that prudence and morality make room for each other. Thus, no morally required action is imprudent, even if sometimes a more prudent alternative action which may be morally prohibited is available.

    1. To some extent this is down to semantics, isn't it? Do we want to reserve the word "moral" to mean "the best we could possibly have done in the circumstances", or "meeting certain well-defined minimum criteria". Or perhaps something in between, such as "the best we could reasonably have been expected to do in the circumstances".

      The thing I love about rule utilitarianism is precisely that it reflects *both* the idea that, ultimately, we should be trying to maximize overall happiness (defined in some suitable way) *and* the idea that we shouldn't spend our entire lives worrying about whether this or that action was "the best possible": instead we commit to following certain rules, and we make sure we choose, review and if necessary change those rules with utilitarian principles in mind. The idea of supererogation is then a way of saying, "Yes, as long as you're following the rules you're being 'moral'". We might, for example, decide that it's better not to have a rule with regard to when people should give money voluntarily, yet we may still wish to praise those that do (especially those that don't then brag about it).

      1. It's certainly not mere semantics insofar as it's connected to blame or other actions, Peter. When we wonder who is to be blamed, we're wondering what to do, not just how to define a word!

        1. Fair point Simon. I guess the question then would be whether take "moral" as a synonym for "not blameworthy".

          By the way by saying that it was "to some extent…down to semantics" I was not suggesting that it's unimportant. On the contrary I think semantics – i.e. how we use words, and in particular ensuring that we all mean the same thing when we do – is essential, not least for the kind of reason you mention.

    2. Thanks, Simon. Actually I'm not that keen on terms like 'moral' myself. But the 'paradox' (I'm using that term loosely) is analogous to the one in the notion of satisficing — which seems to allow that is rational to do less than what you have strongest reason to do. I suspect many people would think that, to the extent that you don't do what you have strongest reason to do, you are open to rational criticism (call it 'blame' if you like, but it doesn't matter greatly). I would be inclined to think that it's imprudent to act on a prudential reason — if that reason is the strongest reason you have. Like Aristotle, I can't make sense of a conflict between virtues.

      1. Satisficing makes sense if it means we judge it not worthwhile to continue calculating (better a quick imperfect decision than a slow perfect one, the 80/20 rule and all that). This is precisely what rule utilitarianism allows. "Conflict of virtues" is also OK with me: for example "patience" may conflict with "decisiveness". But you're right that we should not shirk doing what we know is best because we have satisfied some minimum level. Rather we must define and judge "best" in such a way that includes all relevant factors, including temperament, opportunity cost and so on.

  4. Marco Antônio Oliveira de Azevedo

    Hi Roger. Jesus actually demanded too much from people (and utilitarians too). This is a well-known problem with Christian Morality conceptions of moral obligation (CM). CM partners usually demand supererogatory actions; but we cannot demand supererogatory behaviors. But the paradox is a paradox only for the CM conceptions, that is, for a partner of a CM conception of *moral obligation*. A defender of a non-CM conception can also accept the consequence that not all human actions are morally required, even if they can be appropriated objects of *moral* praise. (Nietzsche for example, but not only Nietzscheans, for some right-based theorists, like the John Stuart Mill of “On liberty”, so I think, can be included here). But the fact that those actions can be objects of praise does not imply that those supererogatory behaviors must be, even for the sake of coherence, required or demanded. I cannot demand an action unless it can be in the same time the object of a claim (that is, the action must be claimable by someone from someone else). Of course, if a praiseworthy action would imply some duty, yes, then the action can be also morally required (in the strictest sense of requirement – Jesus first group of required actions, that is, actions required by justice). Hence, I prefer to reserve the word ‘moral’, or better, the expression ‘moral obligation’, for required behaviors like those included in the Jesus first group. Anyway, we can praise people by their actions or characters even if it is true that we cannot legitimately demand those actions or demand that people develop those of character traits. Why all praiseworthy actions or character traits must be required for being praised? (Excuse-me, I wrote this without revisions; it can have some problems with English readability).

    1. Thanks, Marco. Good point about the demandingness of Christianity — on *some* interpretations. Even that passage I quoted from Matthew shows that it's not clear whether Christ is requiring the rich to surrender all their resources to the poor. On rights and demandingness. The demands I was thinking of come not from other people, but from rationality itself (see my response to Simon above). Even if no can demand that I perform some action, if it would be morally praiseworthy to do so, why won't moral rationality require me to perform it?

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