DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

Article Summary

Supererogatory actions are usually characterized as ‘actions above and beyond the call of duty’. Historically, Catholic thinkers defended the doctrine of supererogation by distinguishing what God commands from what he merely prefers, while Reformation thinkers claimed that all actions willed by God are obligatory. In contemporary philosophy, it is often argued that if morality is to permit us to pursue our own personal interests, it must recognize that many self-sacrificing altruistic acts are supererogatory rather than obligatory. The need for some category of the supererogatory is particularly urgent if moral obligations are thought of as rationally overriding. There are three main contemporary approaches to defining the supererogatory. The first locates the obligatory/supererogatory distinction within positive social morality, holding that the former are actions we are blameworthy for failing to perform, while the latter are actions we may refrain from performing without blame. The second holds that obligatory actions are supported by morally conclusive reasons, while supererogatory actions are not. On this approach the personal sacrifice sometimes involved in acting altruistically counts against it from the moral point of view, making some altruistic actions supererogatory rather than obligatory. The third approach appeals to virtue and vice, holding that obligatory actions are those failure to perform which reveals some defect in the agent’s character, while supererogatory actions are those that may be omitted without vice.

    Citing this article:
    Trianosky, Gregory Velazco Y. Supererogation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L101-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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