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

2. The contemporary argument for supererogation

The Reformation disputations over the coherence and the legitimacy of the notion of supererogation are echoed in contemporary secular debates. It is often argued that if one were always obliged to promote wellbeing, then the demands of morality would be far too strenuous. Our own personal projects would never get off the ground; and even once launched they would constantly be held hostage to the needs of others (Wolf 1982). On the other hand, it is said, if morality recognized a category of supererogatory action and assigned many of the more personally demanding acts of beneficence to this category, then we would have some opportunity to pursue our own interests without moral penalty (see Help and beneficence).

This argument assumes, first, that there are two distinct and competing perspectives: the moral point of view and the self-interested point of view; and that these can recommend conflicting courses of action in the same circumstances (see Egoism and altruism). Second, the argument locates the cause of the conflict in a too-narrow, tripartite conception of the moral realm. This conception recognizes only three categories of action: the forbidden, the required, and the morally indifferent (morally permissible) (Urmson 1958). After all, the reasoning goes, since presumably acts of beneficence are never morally indifferent, on the tripartite conception (unless they are forbidden) they will be obligatory. Hence the conflict with self-interest.

But does the mere prospect of such conflict, however extensive, really require the introduction of some notion of the supererogatory? Why not just accept that such conflicts can occur? Alternatively, why not take the possibility of such widespread conflict with personal concerns to de-legitimize the very conception of the moral on which that possibility turns?

These questions show that our two assumptions do not force the introduction of a category of the supererogatory. However, if we are willing to set aside the option of rejecting our working conception of the moral, we can introduce a third assumption that makes the need for a category of the supererogatory more urgent. This is the assumption that moral reasons are rationally overriding. Suppose that moral reasons always outweigh reasons of self-interest, and that beneficent action is (nearly always) obligatory. It follows that to the extent that beneficence and self-interest are in frequent and fundamental conflict our pursuit of personal projects will be contrary to reason. This conclusion seems entirely unacceptable. To see whether admitting the idea of supererogatory action will avoid this conclusion, however, we must understand how supererogation is to be defined.

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