Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-c97xr Total loading time: 0.349 Render date: 2022-05-27T21:55:25.888Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

Can Virtue Ethics Account for Supererogation?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 September 2015

David Heyd*
The Hebrew University


In his classical article, ‘Saints and Heroes’, James Urmson single-handedly revived the idea of supererogation from it astonishingly long post-Reformation slumber. During the first two decades after its publication, Urmson's challenge was taken up almost exclusively by either utilitarians or deontologists of some sort. On the face of it, neither classical utilitarianism nor Kant's categorical imperative makes room for action which is better than the maximizing requirement, on the one hand, or beyond the requirement of duty, on the other. Nevertheless, both utilitarians and Kantians, as well as deontic logicians, offered more flexible and sophisticated versions of their respective theories which could accommodate supererogatory action. In my 1982 book on supererogation I tried to address the question whether virtue ethics could capture that new category of actions which are praiseworthy though not strictly required. But the focus of my discussion was mostly Aristotle (and Seneca) and accordingly more interpretive in nature. However, that was just before the tremendous surge of interest in virtue ethics and the vast literature debating the merits of agent-based vs. action-based approaches in moral theory. It turned out that fitting supererogation into virtue-based moral theory proved to be a more difficult task than doing so in consequentialist and deontological theories. Some argued that supererogation could nevertheless be accounted for in aretaic terms; others held that it could not and that this fact attested to either a theoretical weakness – even if not a refutation – of virtue-based ethics, or to the incoherence of the concept of supererogation.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 James Urmson, ‘Saints and Heroes’, in A. I. Melden (ed.), Essays in Moral Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958), 198–216.

2 A few notable examples of this ‘first generation’ of philosophers writing on supererogation are Joel Feinberg, Roderick Chisholm, John Rawls, Joseph Raz, David Richards, Thomas Hill and Michael Stocker.

3 David Heyd, Supererogation: Its Status in Ethical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), chap. 2.

4 All quotations are taken from the W. D. Ross translation in Richard McKeon (ed.), The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941).

5 Michael Slote, ‘Agent-Based Virtue Ethics’, in Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (eds.), Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 244–5. See also Das, Ramon, ‘Virtue Ethics and Right Action’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81 (2003), 324339 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Das talks about the risk of the ‘insularity’ of pure virtue ethics that strives to break the circularity of Aristotle's description by detaching virtue from right action.

6 Slote, p. 240. “[I]t is once again not simply true that agent-based theories inevitably treat human actions as subject to no moral standards or requirements. Rather, those requirements and standards operate and bind, as it were, from within.” p. 244 (emphasis in the original).

7 Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 28.

8 Johnson, Robert N., ‘Virtues and Rights’, Ethics 113 (2003), 810834 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hursthouse also speaks about helping a wounded stranger lying by the roadside as ‘absolutely required’, and although she says that it is a requirement of charity rather than of justice, it is clearly a typically deontic category. On Virtue Ethics, 6.

9 Cf. Roger Crisp, ‘Supererogation and Virtue’, in Mark Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 13–34.

10 Mellema, Gregory F., ‘Moral Ideals and Virtue Ethics’, Journal of Ethics 14 (2010), 173180 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Mellema speaks about trying to realize moral ideals, which is sometimes obligatory and sometimes supererogatory, like in the case of generosity (in which we would blame a person for never giving any free donation). But it is not clear that we can make sense of a duty to attempt ‘from time to time’ to perform courageous acts or to display temperance in particularly difficult actions that could be described as supererogatory.

11 Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b.

12 For a discussion of such attempts, see my Supererogation chaps. 3 and 4.

13 One should, however, note that although signing up as a member of the organization is optional, once serving patients in a war zone the doctor is under an obligation to continue treating them.

14 There is some debate in the literature on the possibility of promising to supererogate and the question whether fulfilling such a promise (e.g. offering you a ride to the airport in the middle of the night) is an obligation or a supererogatory act. I find this debate odd, since it seems clear that making a promise is always supererogatory while fulfilling a promise always, prima facie, obligatory despite the supererogatory nature of the promising act itself. See, Kawall, J., ‘Promising and Supererogation’, Philosophia 32 (2005), 389398 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Heyd, David, ‘A Comment on Kawall's “Promising and Supererogation”’, Philosophia 32 (2005), 399403 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Benn, Claire, ‘What is Wrong with Promising to Supererogate?’, Philosophia 42 (2014), 5561 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.”

15 Onora O'Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 207–8.

16 Brännmark, J., ‘From Virtue to Decency’, Metaphilosophy 37 (2006), 589604 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kawall, Jason, ‘Virtue Theory, Ideal Observers, and the Supererogatory’, Philosophical Studies 146 (2009), 179196 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 C. Swanton, ‘Satisficing and Perfectionism in Virtue Ethics’, in M. Byron (ed.), Satisficing and Maximizing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 187. For a critical response, see Kawall, ‘Virtue Theory, Ideal Observers and the Supererogatory’, 182–4.

18 We do not know what Aristotle would have thought on the soldier throwing himself on the hand grenade, but we do witness some of the tension between what is simply virtuous and what is ‘grandly’ so in his discussion of magnificence (1122a–1123a). On the one hand, magnificence is identified as a separate virtue from that of liberality, magnificence being a virtue of only those who have a lot of money and are spending it in style. In that respect it is a sub-category of liberality, of the right disposition in behaviour related to money spending. But I am not sure that magnificence has a parallel sub-category in the field of actions related to danger, namely courage, and that there is an extra sub-category of courage that relates to people who have a particular natural or circumstantial property of being able to sacrifice their lives by throwing themselves on hand grenades. The reason is that unlike magnificence, the resources required for acting courageously are not external (like money) but internal (an acquired disposition) and hence an attainable (or morally required) goal for any human being.

19 Research about the “Righteous among the Nations”, as non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust are called, demonstrates the heterogeneity of motives (not to speak of social class, gender, religious belief and education) of these people. They could be religious, humanitarian, ideological, or personal acquaintance. It is nevertheless a fairly good generalization that the supererogatory saviors share one character trait-modesty. “We did what we were supposed to do”, or “what else could we do” are typical responses to the question “why did you take that risk of death to you and to your family?”.

20 Chisholm, Roderick M., ‘The Ethics of Requirement’, American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964), 147153 Google Scholar.

21 Michael Slote, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Virtue’, in Rebecca C. Walker and Philip J. Ivanhoe (eds.), Working Virtue (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 291.

22 There is rich literature (including, among others, Thomas Hill, Marcia Baron and myself) on the interpretation of Kant on the subject of supererogation but I will not enter this debate here.

23 Kawall, ‘Virtue Theory, Ideal Observers and the Supererogatory’, 187 (and see 187–195). I am in agreement with Kawall's critique of virtue theories that fail to accommodate supererogation, but not with his positive proposal for an alternative explanation.

24 Kawall, 189.

25 Ibid .

26 Roger Crisp, ‘Supererogation and Virtue’, in Mark Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 13–34.

27 Crisp mentions the three “Evangelical Counsels” (referring to them as “recommendations”) of poverty, chastity and obedience as allowing for actions which go beyond the call of duty according to the Catholic doctrine of the Church Fathers. These were strongly rejected as absurd by Luther and Calvin, who argued that every religiously valuable act or way of life must be obligatory. And since Crisp reads Aristotle's virtue ethics as subjected to the concept of duty (“the duty to be angry”), he finds it closer to the Protestant world view than to the deontologically open-ended view of the Catholic church.

28 Crisp, 20.

29 Crisp, 28

30 Crisp, p. 29.

31 In an appendix to his article, Crisp criticizes my attempt in chapter 2 of my book Supererogation to read some passages in Aristotle as containing elements of supererogation. I accept much of that critique although it is partly based on his strict interpretation of virtue as a duty in Aristotle. As Crisp himself notes at the end of his article, I explicitly come to the conclusion that supererogation cannot find a place in virtue ethics due to its rejection of the correlativity condition, that is to say the conceptual dependence of the supererogatory on the obligatory with which it is contrasted.

32 Qualified supererogationism explains the category of supererogation in terms of satisficing (in contrast to maximizing) or in terms of what one is excused for not doing due to the difficulty of the act or the imperfection of human nature, or in terms of degrees of virtue or special vs. ordinary vocation, or – as suggested by Crisp – the toleration of people who cannot perform difficult obligatory actions.

33 A similar reductio argument is offered by Dreier, who distinguishes between ethical and rational satisficing, the latter being incompatible with supererogation. He consequently draws the conclusion that the idea of supererogation serves to justify ethical satisficing (and reject rational satisficing) rather than the other way round (namely, accepting rational satisficing and rejecting supererogation). James Dreier, ‘Why Ethical Satisficing Makes Sense and Rational Satisficing Doesn't’, in Michael Byron (ed.), Satisficing and Maximizing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 148–9.

34 Crisp, p 17.

35 Crisp, 29.

36 Although one can convincingly claim that the case already assumes a certain conception of ‘cost’, not to speak of the ‘innocence’ of the young child, including its exemption from responsibility and other concepts implied in the allegedly irreducible concept of ‘fitting’.

37 Crisp himself notes the difference between ‘praiseworthy’ as deserving praise and ‘praiseworthy’ as creating a reason for praising (16). Supererogatory action is necessarily praiseworthy in the former sense but only occasionally and contingently in the second.

38 J. O. Urmson, ‘Intuitive Moral Thinking’, in Douglas Seanor and Nick Fotion (eds.), Hare and Critics: Essays on “Moral Thinking”’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 167–9. I am grateful to Marcia Baron for having turned my attention to this article.

39 This is not to deny that in the overall evaluation of a person's life and character we do take into account a systematic avoidance of any supererogatory action as a moral defect of virtue, even if not a blameworthy one. See also Sherman, Nancy, ‘Commonsense and Uncommon Virtue’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988), 97114 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I would add that in the same way as we recoil from moral saints, so do we feel moral unease with people who fanatically confine their moral choices to their duties and rights, never deviating from them in a supererogatory way.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Can Virtue Ethics Account for Supererogation?
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Can Virtue Ethics Account for Supererogation?
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Can Virtue Ethics Account for Supererogation?
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *