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Saints, Heroes and Moral Necessity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 September 2015

Alfred Archer*
Affiliation:
University of Tilberg in The Netherlands

Extract

During The Second World War somewhere between fifty thousand and five hundred thousand people risked their lives, and often the lives of their families, to help rescue Jews from Nazi persecution. These acts included helping Jews sustain their lives in the face of persecution, escape from incarceration centers, maintain an underground existence and escape the country. Their acts were clearly morally worthy, yet given the actual and potential costs involved, many of these acts seem to go beyond what could be morally demanded of agents in that situation.

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Papers
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2015 

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References

1 Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews In Nazi Germany (New York: Free Press, 1988), 20.

2 John Bierman Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of The Holocaust (Middlesex: Penguin, 1981), 114, 141. Bierman casts doubt on the claim that Wallenberg was killed in 1947, suggesting that he may have remained alive in Soviet captivity until the 1980s, Ibid, Ch.17–19.

3 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., 168.

4 Anne Colby and William Damon Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 70.

5 Colby and Damon op. cit., 127.

6 Those who endorse the claim that supererogation involves sacrifice include Jonathan Dancy Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 127, James S. Fishkin The Limits of Obligation (Binghampton NY: Yale University Press, 1982), Jacobs, R.A.Obligation, Supererogation and Self-sacrifice,’ Philosophy 62 (1987), 101 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Gregory Mellema Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation and Offence (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991), 179.

7 McGoldrick, PatriciaSaints and Heroes: A Plea for the Supererogatory,’ Philosophy 59 (1984), 523528, 525CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 For example, Harwood op. cit., and Vessel, Jean PaulSupererogation For Utilitarianism,’ American Philosophical Quarterly 47 (2010), 299318 Google Scholar.

9 Eg. Dorsey, Dale (2013). ‘The Supererogatory, and How to Accommodate It.’ Utilitas 25 (2013), 355382 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Dancy op. cit., 118.

11 See, for example, Overvold, Mark Carl ‘Self-Interest and the Concept of Self-Sacrifice,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 10 (1980), 113114 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Overvold op. cit., 108, makes this point.

13 Dorsey op. cit., 358.

14 Henry Sidgwick The Methods of Ethics Seventh Edition (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981;1907), 253.

15 Bierman op. cit., viii–ix.

16 Of course, things could have turned out that differently. Wallenberg could have survived the war and then made a successful living describing his heroic exploits in books and lectures. If this had been the case then his act would not have involved a sacrifice. Nevertheless, it would have involved the risk of sacrifice. Moreover, it seems reasonable to think that a subjective or prospective view of costs would have viewed this act as involving sacrifice. We might also wonder if there are some risks which are so great compared to the possible benefits that the act is ‘foolish’ rather than supererogatory. For a defence of this view see Curtis, BarryThe Supererogatory, the Foolish and the Morally Required,’ Journal of Value Inquiry, 15 (1981), 311318 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Bernard Williams ‘Practical Necessity’, in B. Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

18 Williams ‘Practical Necessity’, op. cit., 125.

19 Williams ‘Practical Necessity’, op. cit., 128.

20 Williams ‘Practical Necessity’, op. cit., 128.

21 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 59.

22 Williams, BernardMoral Incapacity,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1993), 5970, 59CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Williams' ‘Practical Necessity’, in B. Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

23 Williams does not use the term ‘moral necessity’ though clearly if practical incapacities to perform any alternatives lead to practical necessities then moral incapacities will, in turn, lead to moral necessities. Williams uses the more general term as he wishes to include necessities that are to do with aspects of one's practical identity that are not moral such as aesthetic or religious norms .The term ‘moral necessity’ is used by Cowley, Christopher in his ‘Moral Necessity and the Personal’, Croatian Journal of Philosophy 4 (2004), 123138 Google Scholar.

24 Though we might think that in order to be a moral incapacity there does at least have to be a moral reason to act as he did.

25 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 62.

26 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 62.

27 It has been suggested to me by Christopher Cowley, that the following example from Peter Winch ‘Moral Integrity’, in Peter Winch Ethics and Action (London: Routledge), 171–191, may serve as a counter-example to this view of moral incapacity. Suppose a gang of bank-robbers are hiding from the police in a farm of a strict religious community, whose fundamental guiding principle is non-violence. One of the gangsters is on the point of killing a young member of the community when an elder grabs a pitchfork and throws it into the gangster's back. Winch says that this act does not show the elder to be uncommitted to the principle of non-violence, nor that this principle must be abandoned in favour of a qualified one which specifies the circumstances in which violence is permissible. Moreover, he may have felt that he had to act in this way, Ibid, 186. However, as has been suggested to me, the elder may well have felt beforehand that he was morally incapable of performing a violent act. This example, though, shows only that people's judgements about their moral incapacities can be mistaken. The elder may have judged that he was incapable of acting violently but his act shows this judgement to be false. Of course, this does not show him to be uncommitted to non-violence but rather that he is capable of violence.

28 It should be noted that on some theories of act individuation this would no longer be the same act. See, for example, John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1863; 2001),18 Fn.2.

29 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 60.

30 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 63.

31 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 65.

32 Taylor, CraigMoral Incapacity,’ Philosophy 70 (1995), 273285 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Taylor, op. cit., 278.

34 Van Den Beld, TonMoral Incapacities,’ Philosophy 72 (1997), 530 Google Scholar.

35 Unless, of course, she had a moral incapacity at the time of utterance but has lost it at the time of acting.

36 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., 169.

37 Colby and Damon op. cit., 70.

38 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., 169.

39 Bierman op. cit., 25.

40 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., 186.

41 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., 154.

42 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., Ch. 7.

43 Bierman op. cit., 27.

44 Williams ‘Moral Incapacity’, op. cit., 59.

45 Oliner and Oliner op. cit., 1.

46 Bierman op. cit., 82.

47 Many thanks to Christopher Cowley for incredibly detailed and helpful comments on multiple drafts of this paper.

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