DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 23, 2020, from

5. Supererogation, virtue, and vice

The third approach accepts the partial definitions of obligatory action and supererogatory action with which the previous approach began. But it proposes that we regard both obligatory action and supererogatory action as supported by morally conclusive reasons. This proposal is backed by the suggestion that considerations about personal inconvenience are not really full-blown moral considerations, on a par with considerations about human wellbeing, fairness, loyalty, honesty, and so forth. Thus helping others can be ‘the moral thing to do’, this approach says, regardless of whether it happens to require self-sacrifice.

Here is the puzzle for this third approach: whenever an action is supererogatory, it must be morally permissible to refrain from acting altruistically. But how can it ever be morally permissible to act against morally conclusive reasons?

We might solve this puzzle by making a distinction between first- and second-order moral judgments. Think of first-order judgments as being about agents’ actions, while second-order judgments are about the motivation or perhaps the character agents display in their choice of actions. Judgments about the moral conclusiveness of the considerations at stake are first-order judgments. Now in some cases, when the cost to the agent is negligible and the human value at stake is great, to disregard morally conclusive considerations would be to show a degree of callousness, indifference, or smallness of spirit so great that it could only be called a vice (see Virtues and vices §§4–5). This is why refraining from acting in accordance with the first-order reasons is impermissible in this case, and why acting in accordance with those reasons is therefore obligatory.

In other cases, for instance when the cost to the agent is substantial, although to disregard the first-order moral considerations would be to display a less-than-ideal level of motivation, it would hardly be to sink so low as to warrant the imputation of vice. This is why it is permissible to refrain from acting in accordance with the first-order reasons in this case, and why acting in accordance with them is therefore supererogatory (see Trianosky 1986).

Finally, we can add to this third approach a more nuanced account of overridingness. On this account, morally conclusive first-order considerations will be rationally overriding if and only if to disregard them is to display some vice (and hence to do what is morally impermissible). Thus this third approach makes room for the rational pursuit of personal concerns just to the extent that morality is lenient in its judgments about virtue and vice.

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