Untying a knot from the inside out: Reflections on the “paradox” of supererogation

Social Philosophy and Policy 27 (2):29-63 (2010)
Abstract
In his 1958 seminal paper “Saints and Heroes”, J. O. Urmson argued that the then dominant tripartite deontic scheme of classifying actions as being exclusively either obligatory, or optional in the sense of being morally indifferent, or wrong, ought to be expanded to include the category of the supererogatory. Colloquially, this category includes actions that are “beyond the call of duty” (beyond what is obligatory) and hence actions that one has no duty or obligation to perform. But it is a controversial category. Some have argued that the concept of supererogation is paradoxical because on one hand, supererogatory actions are (by definition) supposed to be morally good, indeed morally best, actions. But then if they are morally best, why aren't they morally required, contrary to the assumption that they are morally optional? In short: how can an action that is morally best to perform fail to be what one is morally required to do? The source of this alleged paradox has been dubbed the ‘good-ought tie-up’. In our article, we address this alleged paradox by first making a phenomenological case for the reality of instances of genuine supererogatory actions, and then, by reflecting on the relevant phenomenology, explaining why there is no genuine paradox. Our explanation appeals to the idea that moral reasons can play what we call a merit conferring role. The basic idea is that moral reasons that favor supererogatory actions function to confer merit on the actions they favor—they play a merit conferring role—and can do without also requiring the actions in question. Hence, supererogatory actions can be both good and morally meritorious to perform yet still be morally optional. Recognition of a merit conferring role unties the good-ought tie up, and (as we further argue) there are good reasons, independent of helping to resolve the alleged paradox, for recognizing this sort of role that moral reasons may play.
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