Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Here is yet another episode in the continuing drama of "moral philosophers wasting their time."

I know . . . it's still too harsh.

This is a problem with much of my writing. I have an idea of what "sells" - what attracts readers - what would boost popularity. However, I tend to find it substantially immoral. Appealing to tribal loyalties, for example, would probably tend to members of the tribe promoting my work. Instead, I argue against tribalism and write against those tribes that would otherwise likely adopt me as one of their own.

People also seem to prefer arrogant and condescending writers. They can certainly generate a lot more comments. But I can only be arrogant and condescending if I immediately apologize for it. That doesn't work.

Anyway, the issue that I want to discuss today is supererogation.

Supererogation are praiseworthy acts that go above and beyond the call of duty. It happens when there is some act that there are moral reasons to do - e.g., donate a substantial portion of one's income or one's extra kidney - to others, yet doing less than this is morally permissible.

Katie Steele presented the dilemma as follows:

(1) If there is more moral reason (it is more praiseworthy) to do act Y as compared to do act X, it is not permissible from the moral point of view (it is blameworthy) to do X. (I have an obligation to pay you $50. If I pay you $40 instead, I still owe you $10 and can be blamed for cheating you out of $10 if I do not pay it.)

(2) There is more moral reason to perform supererogatory acts compared to non-supererogatory acts. (There are moral reasons to give more of your wealth to those in need than less, or to give your unused kidney to somebody who needs one than to keep it for yourself.)

(3) It is permissible, from a moral point of view, to do (some) non-supererogatory acts. (It is morally permissible to give less to charity or to keep your kidney to yourself.)

(4) There are some supererogatory acts (e.g., donating a substantial portion of your income or donating a kidney).

I am not going to go over Katie's suggestion for dealing with this dilemma . . . I believe that the terms of the workshop would not allow me to share her position as it is a work in progress.

However, I can give the desirist answer.

Praise and blame exist to do work. They aim to perform a function - to mold the desires of character, promoting desires and aversions that people have reason to promote.

The effect of praise and blame are not going to be uniform across the population. As with most things, we can expect a bell-shaped distribution curve. They will be more effective on some than on others. There will, in fact, be a segment of the population that they will be particularly effective on. These people will acquire the desired preferences to a particularly strong degree.

It makes no sense to blame people for failure to reach a level of virtue that only 1% of the population is capable of reaching. That would require perpetually condemning 99% of the population where that condemnation would be ineffective. In fact, these unreasonable demands could potentially weaken the effectiveness of blame, reducing its ability to encourage people to adopt good desires and aversions to the degree that a more rational use of this tool would make possible.

On the other hand, there is certainly good reason to praise the top 1% - because we do have reason to encourage these traits to the degree that we are able to do so. We have a reason to invent the term "hero" and apply the term to those who go "above and beyond the call of duty."

These, then, are the supererogatory actions - those that it makes sense to praise, but where it does not make sense to blame or condemn those who fail to perform them.

In the previous argument, this calls into question Premise 1. There are actions that there are more moral reason to perform (praiseworthy) where the failure to perform those actions are not blameworthy. These are the actions of the top X% of what the tools of praise and condemnation make possible.

Oh, I wrote Katie Steele and offered my suggestion above.

Her response: Thanks for this. I think your account sounds here sounds plausible. I think it is roughly compatible though with one of the options that I was suggesting – the idea that the ‘permissible set’ (of non-blameworthy) options represents what is ‘morally decent’, where that may merely be a matter of social convention. Amongst these options, some are still recognisably morally better. You offer a potential story for why these two sorts of judgements might be socially useful…

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