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2010-12-30
SUBerogation
Hello, philosophical world:

Often I and many people I know categorize other people's actions as either 'morally permissible' (right, in the weak sense), 'morally impermissible' (wrong), or 'morally obligatory' (right, in the strong sense).  What we ascribe to the actions is known as a /deontic status/.  A deontic status differs from evaluative statuses such as 'good', 'bad', or 'neutral'.  For one thing, deontic statuses apply only to actions, whereas evaluative statuses apply both to actions and to many other sorts of things.

Many people believe in supererogation.  Here's an example of that: Sam's donation to the Red Cross is supererogatory if it was not obligatory for him to do, not impermissible, but also goes 'above and beyond' what is merely permissible.  (Sometimes people call such actions 'above and beyond the call of duty', which we might abbreviate as ABCD.)

I take it that supererogation is a 'mixed' concept: mixed in the sense that it has both deontic and evaluative components, viz., 'permissible' and 'good', respectively.

Now, the purpose of this post is to inquire about a much less-discussed category for assessing people's actions: SUBerogation.  A suberogatory action is both 'permissible' and 'bad' in a sense parallel to a supererogatory action. 

A candidate example [1] might be the following: John spends $400 on a haircut (when he easily could've saved his money by getting a haircut costing $40, or even $12).  He's not harming anyone and not clearly breaking any rules, but it's bad, not only for him, but for the people he could have benefited or to whom he might have special obligations.  A second [2]: James (a normal, autonomous adult) buys a copy of a violent and sexually explicit video game made by a company which he knows is not prevented from distributing violent and sexually explicit games to children.  A third (from Jonathan Haidt) [3]: Person P buys a chicken (carcass) from the grocery store, takes it home, has sex with it, cooks it, and eats it.

Please answer any of the following questions for me:

i) Why is there so little discussion of suberogation in ethics (meta-, normative, or applied)?

ii) Do you know where can I find discussion of suberogation?  I know of only a couple of sources: [a] Paul McNamara's "Making Room for Going Beyond the Call", where he labels these actions "permissibly sub-optimal"; [b] I've heard that Michael Zimmerman discusses it in his The Concept of Moral Obligation, where it is largely dismissed; [c] I've heard that Richard Swinburne discusses it in Repsonsibility and Atonement.  [d] Finally, there is the following passage from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on "Supererogation":

"a critical examination of this artificially invented category demonstrates both the difficulty in filling it with content and flaws in the general schema itself (Heyd 1982, Mellema 1992). Examples for typical [suberogatory actions] are hard to come by. At most one can think of permissible bad action in relatively trivial cases, like taking too long in a restaurant while others are waiting. These are uninteresting cases from a moral point of view as are their supererogatory counterparts of small favors or acts of politeness. Once we look for examples of morally vicious or villainous action that is nevertheless permissible (which is the counterpart of a morally heroic action), we see there is nothing there."

iii) Is it legitimate to cateogorize actions as suberogatory (i.e., is suberogation a real category)?  Why or why not?  (Should I agree with the above quotation from the SEP?)

2011-01-03
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
Julia Driver (1992). The Suberogatory. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 70 (3):286 – 295.

2011-01-03
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
Great topic!  My vague recollection is that Julia Driver has done some work on it; trying googling her....

2011-01-03
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
See above!

d

2011-01-10
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
Paul McNamara has a number of papers on how this concept (and other concepts) can be represented in deontic logic. For example, 1996.

He doesn't call it suberogation, but the permissibly suboptimal.

2011-01-11
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
Thanks for your references, ladies&gents.  C'mon, though: I could at least use some affirmation.  Does it seem that my cases [1]-[3] are non-trivial cases which work, and if so, does that help indicate that the SEP author seems misguided to state that "at most one can think of permissible bad action in relatively trivial cases"?

One reason to think that [1]-[3] are non-trivial is that it would seem appropriate to aim criticism at the agent in each case, yet it also seems inappropriate in each case to call the action morally wrong.

2011-01-12
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
Being able to aim criticism at the agent does not seem to me to be a very adequate criterion (or even part thereof) for distiguishing the trivial from the non-trivial (a contestable distinction itself). But why ddon't you write to David Heyd about it, after reading the papers he cites criticizing the category (his own and Greg Mellema's)? There are certainly issues worth discussing here.  

2011-01-18
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley

The reference from Don Loeb to Driver is apt. Her paper is the place to go first. She gives examples that have affinities with yours. Heyd and Mellema's books discuss suberogation of course, both skeptical in their own ways, Heyd rejecting outright, but Driver takes up the issue and adds fresh arguments (over Chisholms's and Chisholm-Sosa's earlier ones).

There is a somewhat technical paper of mine, not yet out, and an associated predecessor, which is out that talk about this and related matters:

"Praise, Blame, Obligation, and DWE: Toward a Framework for the Classical Conception of             Supererogation and Kin." Journal of Applied Logic, forthcoming. [Invited expanded version of next publication.]

"Praise, Blame, Obligation, and Beyond: Toward a Comprehensive Framework for the Classical Conception of Supererogation and Kin." Deontic Logic in Computer Science. Ron van der Meyden   and Leendart van der Torre. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 5076. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2008.

The latter sketches quickly the argument against suberogation of the sort Heyd and others give. John Kleineg is right in pointing to criticism-worthiness as not enough to distinguish trivial from non-trivial cases, but you are right that the issue of non-trivial cases is reflected in Heyd's remarks (see esp 2nd argument below--he endorses this essentially):

Two anti sub args: A) a sub act would be blameworthy by def, but all blameworthy acts are impermissible, so a sub act would have to be impermissible, but optional--impossible; so no sub acts. B) If suberogation exists, it would be symmetrical with supererogation in that you could have cases of blameworthy sub acts just as extreme in their blameworthiness as the most extremely praiseworthy sup acts are extreme in their praiseworthiness, which acts can be extremely praiseworthy indeed; but all heniously blameworthy acts are clearly impermissible, so suberogation does not exist.

I argue that as far as the logic of normative concepts goes, you can have extremely blameworthy acts, that are not impermissible, so both arguments fail.

Permissible suboptimaility is not identified with suberogation, but rather with that condition conjoined with blameworthiness, in these papers. Likewise for supererogation as not action beyond the call but that plus praiseworthiness. You need the agent-evaluative concepts for sub and sup, not for action beyond or permissibly suboptimality.

There is a less formal paper coming out in spring or summer in the new series with OUP in normative ethics stemming from the Arizona Workshops in normative ethics that Mark Timmons is organizing:

“Supererogation: Inside and Out.”  first volume of the series, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics.

It focuses on supererogation but discusses suberogation as well.

Ish Haji and I drafted a presentation on suberogation and some issues in debates in the metaphysics of determinism and the PAP principle that tacitly support the 1st argument by relying on the principle that blameworthiness entails impermissibility), but not sure when that will be polished. Can ask him if we can snip out the slides on args for sub., but they're just slides.

I wish I had more time, but swamped with various things, including migrating my primary email accounts, and all the mess that goes with it.

Cheers,

Paul

2011-01-22
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
Very interesting topic!. You are right. Suberogation is a real category- the action is by nature( positive) valueless, but cannot be considered as wrong, if performed. In traditional ethics, we find little discussion regarding this topic because the main objective has been to formulate principle telling us what we ought to do. We are chiefly concerned with those actions which are either harming or doing good to others. The examples , you have mentioned  belong to the category of self- regarding action. I have doubt regarding the third example. Anyway, the moment such actions crosses the boundary i.e. becomes other-regarding , they are bound to be considered as morally wrong. 

2011-04-18
SUBerogation
Reply to Jay Quigley
I'm certainly not up to speed in the professional field, but I can give a data point where this sort of thing is practiced in the real world, not just the hypothetical.

I am an Orthodox Christian. It is currently Lent. In the Orthodox Church, strict adherence to the Lenten fast (no animal products at all, no oils or alcohol except on weekends) is "supererogatory". Then there are folks who go even further and both adhere to the dietary restrictions, eat no cooked food, and drink nothing but water. There are Orthodox who merely abstain from vertebrate flesh. There are Orthodox who do not vary their diets at all during Lent. No Orthodox layman is required by the Church at large to adhere to any of the restrictions of the Lent fast. It is all voluntary, and we are even cautioned to not look down on those who fast less strictly or not at all. That being said, though, it is hoped that each of us fasts to the best of our individual abilities. Thus, those who do not meet this standard are acting in a "suberogatory" fashion.

From a moral point of view, at least for the Orthodox, these are not uninteresting, since fasting is thought to have important value in developing discipline in combating the deadly passions, in developing salvific humility, etc.

2011-04-18
SUBerogation
Reply to Bryan Maloney
Much earlier discussion occurs in the context of Christianity. See 3rd-4th sentence here:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supererogation/

Given your description, it does not sound like suberogation, because it does not sound like it is blameworthy to exclude less than the maximum recommended. It sounds like it is suboptimal, and more praiseworthy to sacrifice more, but that is not enough to get that it is blameworthy to sacrifice less than recommended but as much as required.  

2011-05-03
SUBerogation
Reply to Bryan Maloney
Certainly the following actions by an Orthodox Christian might be suberogatory: going to happy hour and then the meat section at the Golden Corral (an expensive American all-you-can-eat buffet) right before Maundy Thursday service.  And/or inviting or convincing one's fellow churchgoers to join one there.  (Never mind that Maundy Thursday commemorates history's most famous wine-consuming event!)

Some might question whether these are moral matters.  There's much one could say about that, but one relevant reason to say that these are at least indirectly moral matters is that combating greedy passions is a way to encourage civil, harmonious ways of life between people.

2011-05-03
SUBerogation
Reply to Paul McNamara
Ah, thanks Paul (if I may). And I never thanked you for your previous wonderful references and comments.

Call the previously described Christian the Golden Corral guy (GCguy). 

I'll agree with you that GCguy isn't *blameworthy* for his acts (whatever that comes to).  He's also in no sense punishable. 

But I think the reason that Bryan and I find the case 'non-trivial' is that GCguy is in some way criticizable.  Perhaps this criticism shouldn't count as blame.  It is probably more akin to the sort of criticism that should be aimed at someone who has done something seriously impolite or disrespectful.

Notice also that, while we're agreeing that GCguy's acts are neither blameworthy nor punishable, the would be grounds for denial of certain (church-related) benefits.  For example, is GCguy has been seeking to become a church member, this specific set of acts would be grounds for at least postponing his opportunity for membership.  Maybe they would also (at least if repeated) constitute a reason for demotion from some role of leadership in the church.

Much more can be said about why GCguy's acts seem fairly criticizable.  Perhaps will have to do with GCguy's disregard for the traditions to which he supposedly adheres. Or the apparent hypocrisy associated with the situation (especially vivid if you imagine the Golden Corral and bar as being right across the street from the church).  Or the extent to which the tradition emphasizes pure motives rather than mere adherence in its adherents' lives.

Contrast to a more 'trivial' case of acting in a permissibly sub-optimal way: DONATION   Kyle goes to a college student play with a suggested donation of $5.  He has exactly four ones and four quarters in his pocket.  He gives only $4.75 to the student play troupe because he wants to buy himself a 25-cent piece of bubble gum using the machine he has seen in the lobby.  Kyle has no special ties to the organization.  Kyle does not seem to display disrespect, disregard, or hypocrisy, and the play troupe does not emphasize pure motives.  It would also seem that the offense is in some further sense less 'severe' (it's not like Kyle gives them nothing, or only a nickel, or exaggerates to the troupe afterward that it was a waste of his time just to reduce pressure from them to donate).