Supererogatory Actions?

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For those that don’t know, supererogatory actions are basically actions that go “above and beyond the call of duty,” actions that are good, but are not required deontologically.  A paradigm case for a supererogatory action would be self sacrifice.  Think of a soldier jumping on a grenade to save his comrade. 

Well, this is all well and good for most systems of ethics, but does this category fit within the Christian paradigm?  I may be controversial in my position, but I think there is good reason to think that there are no supererogatory actions for the Christian.  Here are a few simple arguments to try to motivate my intuitions on this:

1) In James 4:7 we are told that “to him who knows to do good, and does not do it, to him it is sin.”  This seems to me to be saying that anytime there’s a good thing that could be done, you ought to do it.  To not do it is sin.  Thus, if self-sacrifice is good, you ought to do it. 

2) Ethics by example:  The primary way ethics is taught in Scripture is by pointing to examples.  Philippians is a paradigm case of this.   Paul presents the Philippian believers with the example of Christ’s completely self-sacrificial/self-empting life and says that they ought to think and act this way as well.  The dialogue form would be something like:  Paul:  Be humble.  Philippian:  What’s humility?  Paul:  Look at Jesus.  That’s humility.  Be that.  In the same letter, Paul also provides the Godly examples of humility and self-sacrificial love in Epaphroditus and Timothy to teach them as well.  He tells the Philippians to honor men like Epaphroditus because he suffered for the sake of the gospel.  Finally, Paul describes his own journey to salvation, his own self-emptying; acknowledges that he’s not perfect yet, but must keep striving; and tells the Philippians to imitate him. 

If our paradigm cases for what constitutes proper Christian behavior are Christ and the saints (who are all martyrs in one way or another), what actions could possibly be considered supererogatory? 

3) Think about the deontological commands that are given in Scripture.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  We’re to love God with complete and total abandon; we’re to give everything of ourselves to him.  We’re also to love our neighbor as our very self because we are all members of one another.  So again, what would qualify as supererogatory actions under this deontological system?

4) In another place, Christ says that if anyone is to be His disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Him.  This is not some weak acknowledgment the troubles we’ll all face in life or some pithy nonsense like that.  Christ is calling us to recapitulate all His suffering unto death, even death on a cross, and nothing less.  We’re called to total and complete self-denial.  So, again, what could be a supererogatory action in this system of ethics?

 

These are only a couple of arguments running through my head right now.  I’m going to be writing a paper on this topic for my ethics class so I would appreciate any thoughts or feedback.  I will be posting more of my thoughts on this topic in the weeks to come.  Specifically, I will post some thoughts on virtue ethics, deification, ontological views of salvation vs. legal views, etc., and the effect these things have on the possibility of supererogatory actions. 

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6 Responses to “Supererogatory Actions?”

  1. pdve Says:

    1):

    I’ve never known what to make of this verse. Its far from being a defeater, but it definitely makes trouble for supererogation.

    2):

    If an agent is told to do ‘that’ there are a variety of possibilities of how that demonstrative could be classified ethically: (a) morally required, (b) morally good, but not required such that not doing it would not be a moral wrong, (c) cultivates moral virtue, etc. That the Martyrs were immensely sacrificial does not mean they never did morally good actions which were non-obligatory.

    3):

    That there are deontological commands in scripture does not mean that there are no zones of conduct that are morally praiseworthy but not required. As you note at the top of your post, most advocates of supererogation grant that their are deontological duties that form the foundation for human conduct but assert that there are certain actions that while moral are not duties that exist beyond the foundations.

    4):

    There is some promise here. But, to be successful (and assessable) you would need to explicate a link between self-denial and supererogation that shows that total self-denial closes all zones of supererogatory acts. On first glance it doesn’t do that. There is still the possibility of there being a handful of supererogatory acts that are not linked to self-denial per se and thus still around.

    I think if you’re willing to jettison supererogatory acts you also have to be prepared to defend moral responsibility as infinite (in a loose sense of the word). Supererogation is the conceptual bulwark against the claim that every single morally good action is morally required. So, for instance, you committed a moral wrong if you’ve ever walked past a homeless person and not emptied your pockets to them. Although you may be OK with advocating a psuedo-Franciscan view of the good life (especially with regards to resource disparity and poverty), most see at as counter-intuitive and for good reasons. For example, J.O. Urmson has argued that without supererogation, ethics would cease to be able to perform its essential role as something that guides human action. This is because a sense of responsibility collapses if one is responsible for next to everything.

    In short, supererogation isn’t without its problems. But i think the difficulties that plague it, both textually (with the bible) and conceptually, are far worse for the alternative.

  2. Mark Krause Says:

    Peter, thank you very much for taking the time to read and respond. My ideas on this subject are obviously still somewhat in their infancy, so I really appreciate the criticism. I don’t have time to respond right at the moment. I think I ought to meditate on your responses for a while before I reply. Thanks again.

  3. MG Says:

    Peter–

    “So, for instance, you committed a moral wrong if you’ve ever walked past a homeless person and not emptied your pockets to them.”

    Unless there is ethical justification for having done so, right?

  4. pdve Says:

    Krause –

    No problemo. Supererogation, i think, is one of the more interesting topics in ethics. So i’m glad you’re writing about it. Hopefully i’ve been of some help. If I were back on campus i’d lend you some books i have solely on supererogation. Sadly, I am not.

    MG –

    Do you mean ‘unless there is ethical justification for [not] having done so’? To that i’d agree. If there was a overriding conflicting obligation then one wouldn’t have to give to the homeless person. Yet, If there was no conflict of duty, giving is morally good, and if there is no morally good act which is non-obligatory, then it would be a moral obligation to always give to the homeless person. Or the santa ringing the bell. Or to world vision. Or to invisible children. or to the ‘one’ campaign. Or to red cross. Ad nauseam until one is incapable of giving much more because of conflicting obligations to oneself, and one’s family, etc. In other words, Saint Francis is the logical terminus, in many ways, to the dismissal of supererogatory acts. Some may see that as a good thing. I see it as the makings of a reductio.

  5. John Says:

    Don’t forget Jesus’ words in Luke 17:

    “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”

    I figure that’s why we say “Lord, have mercy” so many times in the Liturgy. We do our best, and we know it’s still not enough, so Lord, have mercy!

  6. Krause Says:

    John, you know, that is one of the best proof texts there is for what I’m arguing. I don’t know how I missed it. Thanks.

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