Thursday, July 2, 2020

Generalizing supererogation

My preferred way of understanding supererogation is that an action is supererogatory provided that it is permissible and more burdensome than some permissible alternative (see here for a defense). This suggests an interesting generalization. Let J denote an individual or a group (perhaps described relative to the agent). Then an action is J-supererogatory provided that it is is permissible and more burdensome for J than some permissible alternative.

Then supererogatory actions are, in the new terminology, agent-supererogatory. On the other hand, we have a new category of actions, others-supererogatory. These actions are permissible but more burdensome to others than some permissible alternative. An action can be both agent-supererogatory and others-supererogatory. For instance, suppose that by sacrificing two arms I can save two people from losing two arms each, but by sacrificing one arm I can save one person from losing one arm. And suppose I have no special duties here, so it is permissible for me to make no sacrifice at all. Then, the action of sacrificing one arm is agent-supererogatory (it is more burdensome than the permissible alternative of no sacrifice) and others-supererogatory (it is less burdensome than sacrificing both arms).

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