Supererogatory Actions? Part 4

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So, one might have noticed that the posting of my paper stopped kinda in the middle and I’ve been generally inactive on the blog for a while (or you might not have noticed at all because you’re just here for the more intelligent posters here). The reason for this is that my hard drive crashed and I lost everything on it and I’ve had endless troubles getting my computer back into full working condition. I was able to recover this paper from email so here goes the next installment of my paper on supererogation.

Now, to deal with some objections. A fairly powerful objection that I must attribute to my fellow undergraduate philosopher Jeremy Mann, has to do with the human practice of gift giving. The objection runs something like this: it would seem that we understand gift-giving to be “by definition,” something that is not compulsory; it cannot be expected. However, if there is no supererogation, than it seems that gift giving is a duty, which would radically change our understanding of gift giving. I grant that this is a fairly powerful objection. However, I think that Scripture demands that we alter our conception of gift giving as Christians. If we refer back to James 4:17, it seems clear that if at any time we know we ought to do something that has moral value, then to not do it is sin. Gift giving would seem to be a kind of supererogatory act of kindness. According to James 4:17 however, we ought to do kind actions whenever the opportunity presents itself before us.

Furthermore, it seems a little odd to think about our normal concept of gift-giving in light of “God’s economy.” In reality, nothing is ours anyways. What gift giving really is for the Christian is a reallocating of God’s resources from one person to another. We are mere stewards over our presumed possessions, with the responsibility to use God’s resources as He would wish. If one thinks that God would wish us to give someone of the bounty He’s entrusted to us, then we are morally obligated to give.

A final observation about gift giving is that it is unclear that what I refer to as our “normal understanding” has always been the understanding of the practice of gift giving. If one picks up classic works such as Homer’s The Odyssey, one might find a very different idea of gift giving indeed. Specifically, one might find an idea in which gifts are expected. Much more could be said in response to this objection (especially in light of the virtues of charity and generosity), but this should be enough to cast doubt on the objection’s validity.

Another concern was brought to my attention by my fellow undergrad Peter Van Elswyk. His worry was that given such a stringent system of ethical demands which no mere mortal would seem to be able to follow, moral responsibility itself would become meaningless. Responsibility would seem to become practically universal if we were required to love and care for all human beings. While I understand the intuition behind this objection, I must confess that I simply disagree that this makes responsibility meaningless. I think it’s true that humans have immeasurably weighty moral responsibility. Every time the opportunity to perform an act of kindness presents itself to the Christian, the Christian ought to act. Is it true only Christ can perfectly bear such a responsibility? Of course. That’s why repentance is a never-ending process. This is why petitions for forgiveness are found in the Lord’s Prayer, because we will always need forgiveness.

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2 Responses to “Supererogatory Actions? Part 4”

  1. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    “Is it true only Christ can perfectly bear such a responsibility? Of course.”

    As a former save-the-world person who got burned out on feeling responsible for everyone, I have come to believe that this can only be accomplished through union with Christ – deification. I still want to save the world, but now I feel it is best done through prayer, and being inner driven (not through burdensome guilt) with Christ’s genuine love and grace which cannot be exhausted. We also have to know how to prioritize our responsibilities through prayer. Some may find peace mainly sacrificing for their family, others may feel lead to let their family do without, somewhat, for a broader cause. This can only be known through relationship with Christ and strengthening through prayer, and I believe, the Sacraments. Still I believe you are right to stress that nothing belongs to us, and everything belongs to the Lord, and must be thus appropriated, even when we don’t “feel” like it. And He may call us to receive from others with thankfulness, but we are not to demand that they give. Expect nothing from “princes and the sons of men from whom there is not salvation”, pray to the Lord, and “He will give you the desires of your heart”, mainly through other people. And hopefully He will also grant a growing generosity towards others, like unto His.

  2. pdve Says:

    I wonder if I could motivate my objection a little more.

    Generally when we say that x is morally obligatory, we are simultaneously saying that an agents not doing of x is morally blameworthy. For example, if you have a moral obligation not to lie, if you do in fact lie than we could assign you moral blame. The inverse seems to be true. If someone fulfills a moral obligation we generally assign them moral praise. If you refused to tell military secrets despite undergoing torture, then its appropriate to call that a morally good deed. It seems difficult for me to come up with counterexamples when this would not be the case. This implies these two premises:

    (1) Every morally good act is morally required.
    (2) Every morally required act is morally praiseworthy.

    Thus, every time you do not do a morally good deed when you could you are morally blameworthy. This provides a framework for a number of intuitive counterexamples. Right now I am morally blameworthy for replying to this post instead of charitably helping others find the books they need in the library. Right now as you read this you are morally blameworthy for the fact that you’re using a computer which you could have given to the family in your apartment complex that struggles to pay their bills on time without the luxury of microsoft excel and online banking. Etc, etc, etc. If responsibility has no limits, then there are seemingly no limits to what i’m blameworthy for. This to me seems counter-intuitive.

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