Some actions are right, and some are wrong. But aren't some even better than right---the kinds of things that heroes and saints do?
Thanks to Susan Wolf for an interesting discussion. The episode certainly prompted lots of response from listeners. We must have set a record for questions submitted via e-mail. There were also more callers than we could get to.
Susan has a point. There is more to living well than slavishly and single-mindedly devoting oneself to moral perfection -- either of oneself or of the world. I want a life filled with goods of all sorts -- many of them non-moral. I want moments in which I contemplate beauty, even if by such contemplation I achieve nothing for the world at large and merely elevate myself above the mundane demands of the everyday. I want to perfect my abilities as a philosopher and use them to plumb the depths of the deepest philosophical mysteries, even if through my exploration the world remains as morally imperfect as can be. I want to explore the heights of erotic pleasure with my deepest love, to tend my roses, to spend idle hours in the company of those I hold dear or even merely in solitude. If morality were to ask, but not demand -- since we're talking about supererogation and not "mere" duty -- that I forgo the pursuit of such goods and devote all of my energies to pursuit of moral perfection, either of myself or the world, I would refuse the offer.
There are times, of course, when morality demands personal sacrifices, large or small, of us. When morality calls in this way, I hope that I can find it within myself to answer. There is surely something to the idea that the demands of morality (purport to) override any non-moral demands. Someone who would let another perish that he could easily save, just so that he might continue to enjoy even the best imaginable, once in a life time sort of meal, cares too much for his own pleasure and too little for morality.
On the other hand, the presumed overridingness of morality is more complicated than many allow. In particular, I don't think that the demands or morality are rationally inescapable as, say, Kantians would maintain. But that's a complicated issue that I don't want to explore in depth here.
But back to supererogation. As I said, I agree with Susan Wolf that one needn't as a general rule give up the pursuit of all non-moral goods for the sake of a single-minded and slavish devotion to morality. Still, it seems to me that she does inadequate justice to the pull of the supererogatory upon us. The supererogatory isn't something toward which morality is indifferent. The supererogatory isn't a domain of "take it or leave it" sorts of matters. The supererogatory often concerns matters of great moral significance. These aren't, it seems to me, the sort of things that one can greet with a shrug of the shoulders. That's because they have some call on us, even if we aren't obligated or duty-bound to do what is supererogatory.
Suppose, for example, I really and truly could do some great moral deed, perhaps even a heroic deed. But suppose that I choose not to out of a preference for some non-moral good. Though I may not have done anything morally wrong, it seems to me that I am less than fully morally admirable. It is perhaps not quite right to say that I can be blamed for not doing what was supererogatory but not required. But it's also not quite right to say that my failing to do what was merely supererogatory was a matter of moral indifference. The supererogatory exercises some moral pull on us, even if it does not obligate us. Preferring non-moral goods over non-obligatory moral goods is not quite like the preferring jazz over opera. The latter is of no moral significance. But the former strikes me as deeply morally significant.
I'm not quite sure, though, exactly how to characterize that moral pull. It's not quite right to say that we are entitled to blame or punish those who refuse to do supererogatory acts that it is within their power to do. What seems more appropriate is a kind of disappointment either in ourselves or others when we turn away from the supererogatory. At a very minimum, we do not greet such "failures" with mere shrugs of the shoulder, as if they were of no moral moment.
Some moral theorists reject the existence of the supererogatory. One reason for that, I suspect, is that they think there is no way to accommodate the standing pull of the putatively supererogatory with its status as merely optional. Such approaches give too much weight to some of the requests of morality and too little weight to all non-moral goods. These approaches elevate morality into something of a despotic and hegemonic ruler over our lives. On such approaches, it is as if our lives are first given over to morality and only after morality has extracted its due from us are our lives given back over to us. Something like this thought, I think, is behind the idea that at least the commandments of morality are overriding. But if you add the thought that even the supposedly supererogatory partakes of the imperial majesty of morality, you might quickly be led to reject the very idea of the supererogatory. Morality becomes set of inescapable commandments (together with a set of "permissions") all the way down. The "above and beyond" simply disappears.
Though I don't quite no how to articulate it, there must be a middle ground between the view that morality is hegemonic and the view that the merely morally good but not morally required does not partake of the full "majesty" of the morally required. Two things indicate that our common sense morality at least implicitly recognizes the existence of such a middle ground. First, there is the very fact that we do esteem heroes and saints as ideals. Second, there is the fact that our attitude towards "non-heroes" who enjoy both the opportunity and the capacity to step in but, nonetheless, refused to do so involves more than a mere shrug of the shoulders. Though there are many circumstances in which we don't blame or punish such people, there are many circumstances in which our admiration diminishes, in which we think less of the person who "failed" in this way and express various forms of disapprobation toward them.
Of course, as we said on the show, there may be times when extraordinary acts are indeed morally required. And one might be tempted to say that the only time we can legitimately disapprove those who fail to do something heroic is when it is required. But this just repeats Susan Wolf's mistake, on my view. The merely morally good, but not required does not have the same pull on us as the morally required does. But it doesn't follow that it has no pull on us, that we need be merely indifferent to its absence. Depending on the circumstances, when we forgo some moral good in preference for some non-moral good, there is always room for regret or disappointment or shame. Not only is there room, but to feel no such regret or shame or disappointment strikes me as a form of moral blindness.
What follows. Not that we are all called to give our all only for morality. But it does follow that the morally good is always present to us as an outstandingly worthy option, an option that we may rationally prefer to forgo, but always at some costs. Feelings of regret, shame or disappointment are ways of recognize such a cost as a cost.