In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Supererogation

  • Introduction
  • Monographic Overviews and Anthologies
  • Historical Origins in Christianity
  • The Deontic Structure
  • The Suberogatory
  • The Justification of Supererogation
  • Moral Reasons versus Rational Reasons for Action
  • Critique or Denial of Supererogation
  • Paradigm Cases of Supererogation
  • Supererogation and Bioethics
  • Can Corporations and Governments Act Supererogatorily?

Philosophy Supererogation
David Heyd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0329


Etymologically, the term “supererogation” refers to paying more than is due. Philosophically, it relates to the category of actions that lie beyond the call of duty. Historically, the concept was formed in Roman Catholic theology in the times of the Church Fathers but, following the fierce attacks on it by theologians of the Reformation, has almost become out of use. It was revived by J. O. Urmson in his article “On Saints and Heroes” (see Urmson 1958, cited under the Deontic Structure) and since then has played a major role in (nonreligious) ethical theory. Supererogation serves as a significant challenge to major ethical theories: Can utilitarians accept that obligatory action may be suboptimal (and that the very best action possible for an agent may often be supererogatory)? Can deontologists acknowledge the privileged moral value of actions that are not part of one’s duty but rather lie beyond it? Can virtue ethicists relate supererogatory action to a particular character disposition? Adherents to strict versions of these traditional ethical theories typically indeed deny the very possibility of supererogatory action (as did the Lutheran Reformers). Supporters of the idea of supererogation hold that ethical guidance to action has a double-tier structure: what one must do (the obligatory) and what one can only be encouraged to do (the supererogatory), the latter being concerned with nonobligatory yet (often highly) valuable action. Possible justifications of this two-tier structure lie within a wide spectrum of arguments and distinctions: what can or cannot be expected of average moral agents (on the basis of the “ought-implies-can” principle), accepting omissions of optimal action in terms of excuse, the value of leaving some space in moral action to free personal choice to go beyond given norms, basic conditions of social cooperation versus personal expressions of sympathy and solidarity, the moral as distinct from the rational, maximizing in contrast with satisficing, enforceable as against nonenforceable norms, universalizable norms versus self-imposed ideals, and the general gap between duty and (moral) value. The contested category of supererogation is often discussed through typical examples such as heroic actions, self-sacrifice, volunteering, forgiveness and pardon, and gifts and charity, as well as favors. The discussion of these examples exposes the two levels of the debate about the concept of supererogation: the first, which is mostly conceptual (although informed by normative concerns), relates to the issue of whether we need such a concept at all; the second, which is straightforwardly moral, focuses on the disputed demarcation line between the obligatory and the supererogatory.

Monographic Overviews and Anthologies

Book-length studies of supererogation are only few, and most of them are fairly old. Some are not easily accessible (e.g., Schumaker 1977). There are just two collections of articles on the subject (Byrd, et al. 1998; Cowley 2015). This should not however mislead the reader that supererogation cannot be approached in a systematic way or that it does not play a central role in modern ethical theory, as well as in the interpretation of traditional moral systems (Heyd 1982). There are numerous PhD dissertations on the subject that address the concept in a comprehensive way, but since they have not been published, they are not cited here. All the general surveys of supererogation include some reference to the historical origins of the concept in the Christian theology (particularly Schumaker 1977; Mellema 1991; and Byrd, et al. 1998), as well as more-detailed discussions of the problem of major ethical theories to accommodate supererogation: virtue ethics (Flescher 2003), deontology (Heyd 1982), and consequentialism. Naturally they all acknowledge the importance of supererogation in ethical theory, while the anti-supererogationist arguments are expressed in journal articles (see Critique or Denial of Supererogation).

  • Byrd, Sharon B., Joachim Hruschka, and Jan C. Joerden, eds. Special Issue: Altruismus und Supererogation / Altruism and Supererogation. Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik / Annual Review of Law and Ethics 6 (1998).

    The whole journal issue is devoted to altruism and supererogation. It consists of articles in German and English, the abstracts of which can be accessed online (although the printed volume is not easily accessible).

  • Cowley, Christopher, ed. Supererogation. Papers presented at the annual conference of the Royal Institute of Philosophy held in June 2014 at University College, Dublin, Ireland. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 77. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    A useful anthology, although with no particular unified theme. The editor’s introduction criticizes the usual understanding of the supererogatory in the context of action and free choice and suggests replacing it by focusing on the agent’s attitude. Most articles are analytical in style, but some articles have a theological focus.

  • Flescher, Andrew Michael. Heroes, Saints & Ordinary Morality. Moral Traditions. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003.

    Critical of J. O. Urmson’s and David Heyd’s deontic (act-focused) framework for conceptualizing supererogation, the book focuses on the virtue of saints and heroes and the way they serve as the focus for emulation by ordinary moral agents. It analyzes some real-life cases of heroic action such as Martin Luther King Jr., Holocaust rescuers, and the firefighters on 9/11.

  • Heyd, David. Supererogation: Its Status in Ethical Theory. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    Combines a historical review of the idea of supererogation with an analytical study of its conceptual structure and normative justification. It examines the way that ethical theorists and theories (Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, utilitarianism, John Rawls) deal with the challenge of supererogatory action, and analyzes some paradigm cases of such action (charity, forgiveness, sacrifice, and others). Proposes a nuanced multifactored analysis of supererogation and argues against offenses.

  • Heyd, David. “Supererogation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2015.

    A comprehensive review of the literature on supererogation, with periodic updating and extensive bibliography. Recommended as an introduction to those who are starting to research the subject.

  • Mellema, Gregory. Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation, and Offence. SUNY Series in Ethical Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

    A serious overview of the debate about the possibility of supererogation, defending it in virtue-ethical terms and through the theological notion of vocation. The book adds the category of “quasi-supererogation”—actions that are praiseworthy but whose omission is blameworthy.

  • Schumaker, Millard. Supererogation: An Analysis and a Bibliography. Edmonton, AB: St. Stephen’s College, 1977.

    A markedly theological perspective on supererogation. It is the first monograph on the subject and includes a detailed (although by now slightly old) bibliography.

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