Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A puzzle about supererogatory actions

Roughly speaking, when one acts supererogatorily, one does more than one is obligated to. A typical case looks something like this:

  1. It would be permissible to bestow a benefit x1 on an individual A at a personal cost of z1; instead, you permissibly bestow a larger benefit x2 on A at a larger personal cost z2.

It’s important here that both x2 > x1 and z2 > z1. If x2 isn’t bigger than x1, then one isn’t doing anything more. And it’s also important that the alternative be permissible.

Now, here is an interesting case. Assuming—as I think we should—that we have self-regarding moral duties, there will be cases where bestowing a benefit on A at a personal cost will be impermissible because the cost to self outweighs the benefit to A by too much. Thus, it is wrong to sacrifice one’s life to save someone from losing a toe. Now suppose that in (1), x2 is only slightly bigger than x1 while z2 is much bigger than z1, so that we are close to the permissibility boundary: a slightly larger personal cost or a slightly smaller benefit would mean that we have an action that violates our self-regarding moral duties. In that case, it could be the case that bestowing x1 on A at a cost of z1 is easily permissible while bestowing x2 on A at a cost of z2 is barely permissible.

In such a case, we shouldn’t say that the action is supererogatory, though it is both permissible and more self-sacrificial than another permissible option. Why not? Because in this case the barely permissible action is not as good qua action (even if better for A) as the easily permissible action. In other words, we should think of supererogatoriness in terms of the value of the action than in terms of how much sacrifice there is or how much good we do to others.

But this in turn suggests an oddity. Suppose that you have a choice between two actions:

  • Action X bestows a small benefit on A at an enormous cost to you, such that X is barely permissible.

  • Action Y bestows a great benefit on yourself at a tiny cost to A, such that Y is easily permissible and nearly obligatory.

Then it seems that action Y is a better action. And it seems that an action that is better than a permissible action is superogatory. So, Y seems to be supererogatory. But it sounds very strange that a supererogatory action would be one that benefits you over another.

Here is an inchoate thought on this. Supererogatoriness compares two actions in toto. But such comparisons are fraught and maybe a little arbitrary. Saying that an action is impermissible or permissible or obligatory is non-arbitrary. But assigning an overall value to an action is problematic, except in some clear cases. In general, when we are dealing with two permissible actions, all we can say is that one action is better than the other in this or that respect. Thus, X is better in respect of benefits to others and Y is better in respect of benefits too self. Maybe there is some overall evaluation which makes Y overall better, but that may be rather arbitrary. And it’s not surprising that when dealing with somewhat arbitrary things that sometimes we have to say things that sound strange.

1 comment:

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

When my Mom was doing her pediatrics residency, she and the other residents were told by one of the doctors that if they feared contagion from their patients that they should not inhale when their patient sneezed or coughed. This was back in the 1950s.