, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”

Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.

But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. What recent conversations stimulated me to realize is that obligation plays and should play a significant but small role in our thinking about goodness and the good life – which is to say, in my view, about ethics. There’s nothing in the word “ethics” or its history that should require us to limit it primarily to duty and obligation. More substantively and importantly, though, our preexisting motivations and perceptions of what is good include many things beyond obligation – not just our own pleasure (though that counts) but the likes of aesthetic appreciation. The onus to prove that our obligations extend to nearly every action, it seems to me, is on those who claim it – especially when, as seems to be the case nearly always, they themselves refuse to live up to their own views.

The most notable finding described in Schwitzgebel’s Aeon article is that while ethicists’ behaviour is not significantly different from non-ethicists’, they nevertheless advocate more stringent norms – of the sort that Singer would advocate. They were much more likely to describe eating red meat as morally bad – even though they were no less likely to eat it themselves! This seems to be the general tendency of analytical ethics – to make one believe that morality demands more of us, without actually doing anything more whatsoever. What analytical ethics seems to do in practice is fill us up with what has often been called “Catholic guilt” – except that the analytic version is likely to feel considerably worse, since Catholics at least have a procedure to get forgiveness.

It is this extremity of analytical ethics’s demands, I think, that motivates much of the question “Why be moral?” (A friend of mine who did a degree in ethics once commented off the cuff that all it had done was leave her with an enhanced sense of guilt. My similarly off-the-cuff comment was “that’s why you need Nietzsche.”) For many premodern views, which to my mind take a far more sensible approach to ethics, the answer to that question is significantly easier. I don’t think utilitarians have ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of why one should do what their morality calls for, which is one of the reasons I stopped being one. (In this respect, at least, the differences between John Rawls and utilitarianism are not that important.) So to return to Betsy Barre’s original question, about how problematic the question “Why be moral?” is, I would reply: it’s extremely problematic for utilitarians, and that’s possibly the biggest reason I’m not one.

By contrast, a view like Aristotle’s or Mencius’s points out the way in which responses to obligation are already present in our everyday ways of thinking and being – even in terms of making us happy, but also in terms of preexisting states of empathy. Our responses to obligation are relevant, but they are far from the majority of what we should be considering in a good life. Our thoughts about justice – which, in Aristotle, seems relatively close to morality in the stricter sense – are a significant part of the good life, but only one part, and they gain their sense and salience from being part of that larger whole, a whole which is not constantly under pressure from the nagging claim that we are not doing enough.

Now I think in such approaches there still remains one sense in which we are not doing enough, which is the sense in Śāntideva that I described last time. Even with respect to what is good for ourselves, we do not do the good we want to do, but the evil we do not want to do. So human weakness and frailty remain essential to conversations about ethics. We undermine ourselves all the time; whatever our ideals are, the chances are sadly high we won’t live up to them. In Christian terms, we are always living in sin. There’s a reason Buddhists often assume that nirvana or bodhisattvahood is only attainable in a future birth; I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone in this world about whom I could confidently say they reached the ideal. Since I don’t believe in rebirth, I have needed to reject the Third Noble Truth. Being a good person is hard, really hard.

The key, though, is that this point does not apply merely to justice and obligation. It applies just as much to self-discipline, to mindfulness, to courage, even to zest. (Even when it does apply to justice, it could be that one habitually does less for oneself than one should.) And this is one of the many things I find valuable in Śāntideva’s approach, what I think Stephen Harris is right to call our attention to in his article on demandingness: being fully good may be beyond our reach. We still have reasons to strive for it, but the fact that we do not, does not mean we should be condemned or feel guilty. Being virtuous, with respect to most of the virtues, is supererogatory – and that’s what most of a good life consists in.