The term supererogation refers to moral actions which go beyond duty, i.e. beyond what is required of people. Supererogationism hinges on a particular view of morality which holds that there are some actions which we are required to do because they are morally good, but also there are other actions which are similarly good but we are not required to do. Two classes of act are included in supererogation: minor trivial kindnesses and favors (such as letting someone else make the first choice of which donut they want), and major actions which normal people would not be expected to do (such as throwing yourself onto a grenade in order to protect the people around you); the latter class is more important in philosophy as in life.

Supererogationism, i.e. the belief in the existence of supererogatory acts, goes unquestioned in the common liberal humanist view of morality. In day to day life, we recognise things which are praiseworthy but which you wouldn't be condemned for not doing. This is part of the basis of many concepts of heroism and saintliness: the US Medal of Honor is awarded for "a deed of personal bravery or self-sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty".

However, for philosophers supererogation poses a number of problems. Many moral philosophers believe that it is possible to formulate a moral law which must be obeyed and which represent all that is morally good. However, if supererogatory acts exist, it means that morality is not simply a matter of required and forbidden behaviour and there is a set of actions which are moral but lie outside the principles of moral law.

Supererogation and traditional moral philosophy

Moral theories which are based around duties (whether they are based on general rules like that of Kant, or on the idea of producing the best outcome, like that of Mill) divide behavior into three categories. According to J.O. Urmson the three categories are the obligatory, the permitted, and the prohibited, or from R. Chisholm1:

(a) things which are good, which we must do
(b) things which are bad, which we must not do
(c) things which are neither good nor bad, which we can do or not do as we choose

It is assumed, then, that the purpose of moral philosophy is to tell me what is a good action for me to do and what is wrong (or bad) for me to do, and once that has been determined I must do everything that is good (which may be called my duty), and avoid everything that is bad.

Supererogation challenges this totalizing view of moral philosophy; it requires another category:

(d) things which are good, but we are not required to do

People who assert supererogatory acts exist still accept that it is possible to differentiate morally good actions from morally bad actions (see moral epistemology). However supererogation threatens the idea that there is a simple relationship between what is moral and what we must do; it divides good actions into two categories, some which you must do, and some which will be recognised as praiseworthy but you need not do. This then raises the question of what the difference is between the moral truths or moral principles governing actions in categories (a) and (d).

If you take the contrary position, that all actions which are good must be done, you must explain why certain actions which are apparently good are not required: most moral philosophers (though not all) believe that if you walk past a man drowning in a river, it is your moral duty to throw him the nearby life preserver. However, it is unclear why a requirement which applies to a person two meters from you in a river should not also govern your actions towards someone two thousand kilometers away starving in a third-world refugee camp. Some thinkers allow you excuses for not acting in the latter circumstances: for instance your duty to other people closer to home or your duty to yourself.

It might also be asked whether there is a comparable opposite to supererogation, called suberogation: things which are bad, but we are not required to not do. There may be a counterpart to the trivial class of minor supererogatory actions; this might include trivial inconsiderate things like leaving your shopping kart in the middle of the aisle, or moaning about the price of stamps. However, there does not seem to be a suberogatory counterpart to major supererogatory acts like self-sacrifice. Therefore suberogation is not an important topic of philosophical debate.

Supererogation and Christianity

While supererogation has only become a topic of consideration in moral philosophy since the 1960s, Roman Catholic doctrine has for a long time considered opera supererogationis (acts of supererogation). The church holds that rules such as the ten commandments set out a basic minimum for behavior, but it is possible to go beyond these in order to attain greater perfection. For example, you might choose a life of celibacy as a monk, which is better than marrying, even though marrying is a valid moral choice. In the medieval period, Catholic theology gave a particular role to supererogation: it would help ensure your own salvation, but it could also be used to earn the salvation of others. This gave rise to the practice of selling indulgences; but while Saint Thomas Aquinas offered a number of reasons why supererogation benefits oneself, the theological justification of the selling of supererogation to others was far more difficult.

Come the Reformation, Protestants objected to the idea of supererogation, on practical and theological grounds. They firstly criticised it based on the corruption in the church that had sprung up around the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther and other Protestants attacked the idea of monasticism, which was one of the main forms of supererogatory action in Catholicism, and believed it was possible to be equally moral in varied walks of life. Luther believed that salvation could not be achieved through works and certainly not through indulgences, but only through the grace of God. Luther criticises the doctrine of supererogation as part of his criticism of salvation through works; he says in his commentary on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians:

Monks, friars, and all the rest of them brag that besides the ordinary requirements common to all Christians, they do the works of supererogation, i.e., the performance of more than is required. This is certainly a fiendish illusion. Christ can no longer be crucified in person, but He is crucified in us when we reject grace, faith, free remission of sins and endeavor to be justified by our own works, or by the works of the Law. The Apostle is incensed at the presumptuousness of any person who thinks he can perform the Law of God to his own salvation. He charges that person with the atrocity of crucifying anew the Son of God. (Luther 1535, Ch 3.)

Instead Luther believed that the ten commandments formed the complete basis of moral law, with no possibility of supererogation. In his Treatise on Good Works, he set out the position that good works lie in doing whatever God wishes for you:

We ought first to know that there are no good works except those which God has commanded, even as there is no sin except that which God has forbidden. Therefore whoever wishes to know and to do good works needs nothing else than to know God's commandments. Thus Christ says, Matthew xix, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." And when the young man asks Him, Matthew xix, what he shall do that he may inherit eternal life, Christ sets before him naught else but the Ten Commandments. (Luther 1520, paragraph I)
Luther therefore takes the contrary position to Catholicism, denying the existence of supererogatory actions. Whatever God wishes for you, you must do. This position is both easier than the Catholic, in that the requirements are simpler, but also harder, because it requires you to follow God's path at all times. These two opposing positions, the Catholic and Protestant, are reflected in most modern thought on supererogation.

Various accounts of supererogation

There are a number of ways of thinking about the concept. Supererogation can be explained by considering the difference between moral values and moral duties. Values or ideals, such as world peace and being a perfect human being, are targets which perhaps can never be achieved. Achieving world peace is not a duty for an individual; it is a goal or a hope which one might work towards. In contrast, duties are things which must be done: you must keep your promises and you must not steal. In this view, duty has a legal quality. Supererogatory acts go beyond duty in pursuit of ideals, and are praiseworthy because the ideals are praiseworthy.

Supererogation can be understood as movement in the direction of moral perfection. Nobody does everything they can do to help other people; there is always room for improvement - you could have given more money to the beggar, spent more time on charitable works, or organised yourself more intelligently to better help others. However, supererogation recognises that while we cannot criticise people for not attaining perfection we can praise them for doing more than is expected of them.

It can also be considered in terms of what actions someone can be reasonably expected to perform. In this view, moral law dictates a set of behaviours which everybody can manage to do while still having time to live the rest of their lives. The moral law might be one of many different things: obeying the Ten Commandments or refusing to use force on other people. If you wish you may choose to go far beyond these rules, e.g. giving all your money to African peasants, letting a homeless person sleep in your spare room, or devoting all your spare time to helping at a soup kitchen, but you need not. While many societies require a little charity (as in the Islamic concept of Zakah), most societies place limits on what is expected of people; the reasons for limiting generosity may be to justify self-interest or to allow people leisure time in order that they may work more productively.

Another perspective would be to consider the difference between things with are legal duties and things which are moral duties: not everything which is morally wrong is a criminal offense, and not everything which is morally right is legally required. Some jurisdictions take different views of what is legally required, e.g. the French law requiring people to help at an accident scene, which has no counterpart in English law. But no jurisdiction requires parents to love their children (only to keep them healthy and ensure they attend school), and while the law punishes lying on official documents lying to your lover is not illegal. This division in law is commonly defended either on the basis that it is too difficult or damaging to legally enforce all moral requirements, or by a belief in minimal government. The relation between supererogatory principles and moral law is analogous to the difference between keeping a promise to a friend and telling the truth on your tax return.

Philosphical perspectives on supererogation

While most philosophers would agree that the acts commonly classed as supererogation are good, there is less consensus on whether supererogation exists as a category separate from other moral actions. In other words, some philosophers assert that categories (a)-(c) above describe all moral action, and there are no actions which are moral but not required.

There are three basic positions taken on the existence of supererogation:

Anti-supererogationism: supererogation it does not exist; all morally good actions are obligatory. However, those who hold this position may allow that there are sometimes excuses for not performing good actions. Anti-supererogationism is the view of Calvinism, and Kant also believed that duty is the only form of moral value (the only way of expressing respect for the moral law). Utilitarianism requires that people do all acts that are beneficial to the public good; however it is commonly dubious about acts of self-sacrifice. Kant was also suspicious of self-sacrifice, seeing it as coming from vanity or self-indulgence. Another criticism of supererogation is that moral laws should be impartial for both the doer and the beneficiary. Supererogatory acts are not required of everybody, but also they do not benefit everybody in a fair way; this is obvious in cases such as the last donut which can have only one recipient, but also applies more generally to many acts of charity.

Qualified supererogationism: there is a weaker or implied duty in supererogation compared to other moral acts, but they still depend on duty. In his version of social contract theory, R.J. Richards states that supererogatory rules are those rules which (while desirable in society) its founders choose not to require, because enforcing transgressions would outweigh the benefits of the acts performed; failure to act in a supererogatory fashion means you may be blamed but not punished. Another theory is that of vocation, going back to Thomas Aquinas; this holds that supererogatory behaviour is required of some people but not others. However, the idea that only heroes and saints have certain moral duties seems unfair. Another view, based on a moral system which excuses you from some good deeds on the grounds of practicality, suggests that superogation may lie in ignoring your good reasons for inaction, and thus in following the claims of duty more stringently than others.

Unqualified supererogationism: supererogatory acts exist outside of morality, with no relation to duty, and it is this which gives them value. It can be justified based on the idea of free will and moral choice; human beings can go beyond simply doing their duty, and this is part of the value of human freedom. The value of such acts lies in the choice involved, since the actions are not required by moral principles. This view holds that merely following rules does not represent the limits of morality, and it is possible to go beyond these rules to be more greatly good. The principal argument against this supererogationism comes from claims about the extent of moral law: surely judging what is a good action requires a moral law.

In addition to these three positions, the field of virtue ethics offers a different perspective. Virtue ethics believes that moral goodness lies in cultivating virtues such as bravery, compassion, patience, and honesty. Supererogatory acts can be seen in such a system as an extension of one's moral being (one's set of virtues) beyond what is required of one by society. The fact that virtue ethics focuses on the moral agent, rather than the morality of deeds, means that the concept of supererogation does not arise in the same way in virtue ethics.

The value of supererogation

It is common to value and praise supererogatory actions more highly than non-supererogatory good deeds. Society holds heroic supererogatory actions as models of good behaviour, praising them highly and often rewarding them with medals, prizes, and acclaim. The supererogatory action, which is beneficial but also voluntary, seems to have an important role as an ideal of what a human being is capable of, which propels people to act in a heroic way to the benefit of society.

However, we perhaps need to look more deeply into the regard we hold for heroism. Eugene V. Torisky, drawing on activist Jonathan Kozol, has pointed out another problem that threatens the doctrine of supererogationism: society often requires apparently supererogatory acts from some of its members. Kozol was critical of those who take attitudes valorising exceptional actions while they allow an environment where heroism is necessary to persist:

If only enough children, we are told, would act the way the heroes do, say no to drugs and sex and gold chains and TV and yes to homework, values, church, and abstinence, and if only enough good parents, preachers, teachers, volunteers, and civic-minded business leaders would assist them in these efforts, we could "turn this thing around" and wouldn't need to speak about dark, messy matters such as race, despisal, and injustice. I am afraid these stories, if they are not qualified, can leave the misimpression that sufficient levels of heroism, reinforced perhaps by charitable help from outside groups ... are all that is required for the evolution, in due time, of what might be referred to as "good ghettoes." (quoted in Torisky)
A society which requires its poorest people to be heroic may create a small number of heroes but also damn a large population to extreme suffering. We may praise heroism, but that does not mean it is good to create situations where heroism is required. As Bertolt Brecht's Galileo says, "Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes".

Even in situations which do not require heroism, the concept of supererogation may also function as an excuse for failing to do what is moral. By making certain moral duties supererogatory, this nominally gives them high value but also makes them no longer a requirement. If you elevate something to the realm of heroes, you remove it from the realm of ordinary moral action. The anti-supererogationist requirement to do all that is good has a powerful ethical force, and allowing exceptions weakens it. If we are forced to do everything we believe is good, that may place an impossible burden on us, but that impossibility may be not a disproof but an ideal of perfection to strive for.

Ultimately, the issue of supererogation has important implications both for the discipline of moral philosophy and for our behaviour in everyday life. For the practice of moral philosophy, it questions the idea that morality can be divided into a simple list of DOs and DON'Ts, and threatens the possibility of any simple moral system. But it also raises important questions about our obligations as moral agents; can we dismiss a wide variety of acts as supererogatory and therefore not required of us, or must we accept an all-encompassing duty before which we may always fall short?

Etymology: According to Breckbill, the word supererogation comes from the Latin supererogare, "to pay over and above"; from erogare, "to pay out public money"; from rogare, "to ask".

1 The discussion of Urnsom and Chisholm is taken from David Heyd, "Supererogation", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed), 2003,

  • Breckbill, W.W., 1973, "Works of Supererogation", This We Verily Believe. Online at John Wesley and What He Believed,
  • Heyd, David, 2003, "Supererogation", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed), 2003,
  • IEP, 2001, "Supererogation", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  • Luther, Martin, 1520, A Treatise on Good Works, Translator unknown,
  • Luther, Martin, 1535, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, translated by Theodore Graebner,
  • Roper, Peter, 1995, "The Medal of Honor", Pueblo Chieftain. Reproduced online at: Home of Heroes.
  • Torisky, Eugene V., 1998, "Integrity and Supererogation in Ethical Communities", Presented at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, in Boston, Massachusetts, August 1998. Reproduced in Paideia (Boston University),

Su`per*er`o*ga"tion (?), n. [L. supererogatio a payment in addition.]

The act of supererogating; performance of more than duty or necessity requires.

Works of supererogation R. C. Ch., those good deeds believed to have been performed by saints, or capable of being performed by men, over and above what is required for their own salvation.


© Webster 1913.

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