The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.
Good desires, in turn, are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. For an account of how desires can be evaluated, and the sense in which agents can have motivating reasons to promote and inhibit desires, please see A Harmony of Desires
I am writing a series of posts to show how these propositions explain a number of the elements that we find in this institution we know as “morality”. In this post, I focus on acts above and beyond the call of duty.
The term that moral philosophers use to refer to these acts is ‘supererogatory’.
Act utilitarian theories have a difficult time accounting for supererogatory actions. To the act utilitarian, one is obligated to do the act that maximizes utility. That act is not “above and beyond the call of duty.” It is one’s duty.
However, we do recognize that some people perform heroic actions that we do not expect people generally to perform. These are actions that we praise – and typically praise strongly. Yet, we do not assert that everybody has a duty to act as the praised individual acted. It is morally permissible to fall short of that ideal.
In desire utilitarian terms we begin with the recognition that people are not all alike. When it comes to malleable desires, some people’s desires are more malleable than others. Of these, some people’s desires are subjected to stronger effects of social conditioning than others.
As a result of these factors, we can actually expect a bell curve of effects of social forces on molding desires. This means that we can reasonably expect a “top five percent” or even a “top one percent” when it comes to adopting good desires.
When it comes to supererogatory actions, our attitude is that, “Yes, it would certainly be a good thing if everybody had that desire. Furthermore, we have many and strong reasons to encourage everybody to have that desire.
However, the laws of human nature are such that we cannot actually expect everybody to have that desire. It is within the realm of possibility only for a small number of people to qualify. Still, our interest in promoting that desire translates into an interest in praising and encouraging as much of that desire as we can get away with.”
So, while charity is a good thing and something we have reason to promote in ourselves and others, there are limits to what we can expect to accomplish in molding people’s desires.
Those who do better than we have reason to expect are those who go above and beyond the call of duty. They become the role models that we encourage others to strive for, even if it is reasonable to expect that they will fall short of the target. It is at least worth aiming for.