Southwest Philosophy Review 24 (1):79-86 (2008)

Alexander Jech
University of Notre Dame
What should we make of the intuitions marshaled on behalf of the existence of supererogatory actions, or actions that are “good but not required”? Are they trustworthy or dissembling? This question is important considering the great respect many writers give to them. The attitude of Daniel Guevara is not unusual: "My discussion relies upon the intuition that certain acts, such as those described by Urmson, are supererogatory, indeed, that they are paradigms…I shall proceed on the assumption that a theory is discredited if in fact it makes supererogation impossible." There is thus a widespread attitude that the supererogatory status of certain acts should be taken to be one of those elements out of which a moral theoryshould be constructed, something like one of Rawls’s “considered moral judgments” or “considered convictions of justice.” The comparison with Rawls’ methodology is sometimes quite explicit. My purpose is to throw this conviction – that the supererogatory status of these actions can be accepted with a confidence not too much less than that with which we accept that slavery is wrong – into doubt. Whether there is a category of the supererogatory acts is a matter for another paper; personally I see no conceptual incoherence but merely doubt that it is instantiated very often. My goal shall be rather narrow: to cast doubt upon the reputation of the intuitions. First I shall describe my conclusion abstractly, and why I think the intuitions are much less indubitable than supposed. Then I shall discuss a few common examples of supererogatory acts and show how my account explains them. Finally I shall consider how most important intuitions of supererogatory status – those associated with extreme self-sacrifice – might be integrated into my overall account.
Keywords Conference Proceedings  Supererogation
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ISBN(s) 0897-2346
DOI 10.5840/swphilreview200824123
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