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8 June 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 11:01am

Can you really do more than what duty requires?

Accepting low moral standards that we can easily exceed has caused a great deal of suffering throughout history.

By Roger Crisp

Your legal duties are what the law demands of you: to pay your taxes, and not park on yellow lines. Moral duties are what morality demands of you: keep your promises, don’t kill the innocent.

Most think it’s possible to “go beyond” your moral duty. Imagine you’re one of the thousands of people who have taken the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10 per cent of their income to charities. It’s unlikely anyone would blame you for not giving any more, since it looks as if you’re already fulfilling any plausible duty of beneficence. But what if you now start giving 50 per cent? This is not your duty, but of course you won’t be criticised for doing more. You will be praised for going beyond – way beyond – your duty.

This notion – that we can go beyond duty in a praiseworthy way – is central to our contemporary conception of morality, and it has a name rarely heard outside philosophy and theology: supererogation (erogare is Latin for “to pay out”, super for “beyond”).

Where did the idea come from? In Western culture, one important source is Christian theology. The Gospel of St Matthew (19: 16-21) tells us about a conversation in which a rich young man asks Jesus how he might attain eternal life. Jesus tells him he needs to keep the commandments – avoiding murder, adultery, and so on – but then adds that, if the young man is looking for perfection, and “treasure in heaven”, he should give his wealth to the poor and become a disciple of Jesus.

In the third and fourth centuries, the Christian Church Fathers used this passage to justify the vows of poverty and obedience required for a monastic life. As Christianity developed, the notion that one could go beyond the commandments – beyond duty – gained further support from distinctions drawn by the saints Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas between what is strictly required for salvation, and what is merely recommended for achieving it more effectively.

The view that one could go beyond duty was also used by the Church to support the institution of “indulgences”, in which the moral merit of Jesus and the saints, who were taken to have gone beyond duty, was thought to be stored in the “Spiritual Treasury of the Church”. The Pope could use this as compensation for taking part in a Crusade, and it was also offered for sale as a way to cancel posthumous penalties for worldly sin.

Supererogation, along with the institution of indulgences, came under serious attack during the Reformation. According to Martin Luther, the saints did only what was required of them by God, and so there is nothing in any moral bank to help those who are, as he put it, “lazy”.

[See also: Charity in a time of austerity: great expectations in hard times ]

Luther’s teachings helped put an end to the sale of indulgences, and his charge of “laziness” indicated a deep problem with the idea of supererogation. As the great Cambridge moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick put it over a century ago: “A truly moral man cannot say to himself, ‘This is the best thing on the whole for me to do, but yet it is not my duty to do it though it is in my power.’”

In short, Sidgwick thought it was paradoxical to suggest that morality does not demand that you do the morally best thing you can do or be the morally best person you can be. So, if giving 50 per cent of your income to charity is the best thing you can do, then you haven’t fulfilled your moral duty by only giving 10 per cent. You’ve been morally lazy.

Since supererogation involves the paradox of accepting moral duties that do not require one to do what is morally best, why do we continue to find the idea so compelling?

One reason might be that we think that without supererogation the dictates of morality would be unacceptably demanding. If each of us has a genuine duty to benefit others as much as we can, then, given the vast number of individuals in serious need, most of the better-off would be required to make major sacrifices to live a virtuous life. Supererogation puts a limit on such requirements.

The idea that we can go beyond our duty in a praiseworthy way may be attractive, then, because we need to balance morality with self-interest. Here we ought to remember that each of us reasonably attaches a certain amount of importance to how our own lives go. So, each of us has reason to advance our own happiness independent of our duty to benefit others (which is why we describe some cases of helping others as a “sacrifice”). The need to strike a balance between our moral duties and our self-interest may explain why the notion of supererogation is so appealing.

But this doesn’t get us out of Sidgwick’s paradox: anyone who knows the morally best thing to do, but consciously decides not to do it, seems morally “lazy”.

[see also: Why Stoicism isn’t just about you]

Given the current state of the world, this means that morality is much more demanding than we typically think. Many of us should be doing a great deal more to alleviate the suffering of others, and doing this may cost us not only resources, but to some extent our own happiness or well-being.

In making donations to help strangers, we must ask when our reasons to keeping resources for ourselves are outweighed by reasons of beneficence. Under a more demanding view of morality, I should donate the money I could use to upgrade my TV to a charity that can save someone’s sight. Similarly, if the billionaire class could eradicate world poverty by donating 50 per cent of their wealth to development agencies, then they should do so immediately.

This may sound austere to our contemporary ears, but the Ancient Greeks and their philosophers thought morality could be rather demanding, and yet they never even considered the idea that duty was something you could go beyond. According to them, there are right things to do, and we should do them, making us virtuous and praiseworthy. And if we don’t, we are acting wrongly, we deserve blame, and we should feel guilty and ashamed.

It’s plausible to think that, once our health and wealth have reached certain thresholds, the things that really matter for our well-being – friendship, family, meaningful activities, and so on – are largely independent of our financial position. So, making much bigger sacrifices than we currently do may not be nearly as difficult or demanding as we tend to think.

But either way, supererogation, combined with the great weight we give to our own self-interest, has enabled an undemanding understanding of our duties of beneficence to survive for thousands of years. This has led to much preventable misery. And if we drop the idea that it is possible to go beyond our duty in a praiseworthy way and instead face up to the fact that morality is significantly more demanding than we’d thought, we will stand a better chance of offering real salvation to those who are suffering today.

Roger Crisp is Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford and Uehiro Fellow in Philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the author of Sacrifice Regained: Morality and Self-interest in British Moral Philosophy from Hobbes to Bentham (Oxford University Press).

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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