Skip to main content Accessibility help

Disjunctive duties and supererogatory sets of actions

  • Matthias Brinkmann (a1)


James Urmson famously claimed that all ethical theories which only operate with the three deontic categories of the required, the optional, and the forbidden were ‘totally inadequate to the facts of morality’ because they fail to recognise a fourth category of actions, which we can call the supererogatory. Supererogatory actions should be seen as ‘meritorious non-duty’, as something which is good but in no sense required. A number of examples can be provided to make the existence of such a realm outside duty plausible: the soldier throwing herself on a live hand grenade to save her companions, the torture victim who forgives her tormentors even though they do not regret, or the doctor who voluntarily travels to a war zone to treat the wounded.


Corresponding author


Hide All

1 J. O. Urmson, ‘Saints and Heroes’ in A. I. Melden (ed.), Essays in Moral Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958), 198–216, at 189–90.

2 Feinberg, Joel, ‘Supererogation and Rules’, Ethics 71 (1961): 276–88, at 282.

3 David Heyd, Supererogation: Its Status in Ethical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 115.

4 Ibid., 63.

5 The label is Feinberg's, though he argues against this position; op. cit. note 2, 282.

6 Hill, Thomas, ‘Kant on Imperfect Duty and Supererogation’, Kant-Studien 62 (1971), 5576 ; Heyd, David, ‘Beyond the Call of Duty in Kant's Ethics’, Kant-Studien 71 (1980), 308–24; McCarty, Richard, ‘The Limits of Kantian Duty, and Beyond’, American Philosophical Quarterly 26 (1989), 4352 .

7 Baron, Marcia, ‘Kantian Ethics and Supererogation’, Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987), 237–62; Guevara, Daniel, ‘The Impossibility of Supererogation in Kant's Moral Theory’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999), 593624 ; Timmermann, Jens, ‘Good but Not Required?—Assessing the Demands of Kantian Ethics’, Journal of Moral Philosophy 2 (2005), 927 .

8 This corresponds roughly with the distinction made (under different labels) in David Heyd, ‘Supererogation’ in E. Zalta (ed.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Winter 2012, 2012 <>.

9 Urmson, op. cit. note 1, 211.

10 Heyd, op. cit. note 3, 172–8.

11 I will explain these last caveats in subsections 6.3 and 6.4.

12 As discovered and analysed in-depth by Ulla Wessels, Die gute Samariterin: zur Struktur der Supererogation (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002).

13 See Archer, Alfred, ‘Supererogation and Intentions of the Agent’, Philosophia 41 (2013), 447–62.

14 Millard Schumaker, Sharing without Reckoning: Imperfect Right and the Norms of Reciprocity (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992), 4–6; Rainbolt, George, ‘Perfect and Imperfect Obligations’, Philosophical Studies 98 (2000), 233–56, at 233.

15 One action can be disjunctively required as a member of different sets.

16 E.g., Stocker, Michael, ‘Acts, Perfect Duties, and Imperfect Duties’, Review of Metaphysics 20 (1967), 507–17, at 508–9.

17 For similar definitions, see ibid., 508–9, and Statman, Daniel, ‘Who Needs Imperfect Duties?’, American Philosophical Quarterly 33 (1996): 211–24, at 213.

18 E.g., Heyd, op. cit. note 8; Thomas Hill and Adam Cureton, ‘Supererogation’ in H. LaFollette (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Chichester: Blackwell, 2013), vol. 8, 5070–78; Gregory Trianosky, ‘Supererogation’ in E. Craig (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1998), vol. 9, 232–5.

19 Omissions can also be supererogatory. Assume that a homeless person starts living in Sindhu's garage. Sindhu has not invited or encouraged that person to stay, but she also does nothing to expel the homeless from her garage. This, plausibly, is a supererogatory omission. But for simplicity's sake I will only talk of ‘actions’ rather than ‘actions and omissions’ in the main text. (Thanks to an audience member at the Dublin conference for pointing this out.)

20 Derek Parfit calls it a ‘mistake in moral mathematics’ to ignore the effects of ‘sets of acts’, but he has inter-personal, not intra-personal cases, in mind (Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), sec. 26).

21 I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on these issues.

22 I will return to this case in sec. 6.

23 This reply has been suggested to me by David Heyd.

24 For the objection that it isn't, see below.

25 This might be Urmson's response. See discussion below, and Burchill, Lorenne, ‘In Defence of Saints and Heroes’, Philosophy 40 (1965), 152–7, at 152–3.

26 I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

27 Op. cit. note 1, 205.

28 See also the examples in subsection 5.1.

29 Op. cit. note 3, 63.

30 This is inspired by Parfit-style cases; see op. cit. note 20.

31 Op. cit. note 2, 280.

32 Heyd, op. cit. note 3, 125. Emphasis in original.

33 Guevara thinks that for this reason we should not define supererogation in terms of acts which do not fulfill any duties (op. cit. note 7, 595–7).

34 This is a modification of an argument in Gregory Mellema, Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation, and Offence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 34–6. Cf. Mellema, Gregory, ‘Supererogation and the fulfillment of duty’, Journal of Value Inquiry 25 (1991), 167–75, at 171–3.

35 E.g., Baron, op. cit. note 7; Hale, Susan, ‘Against supererogation’, American Philosophical Quarterly 28 (1991), 273–85.

36 Statman, op. cit. note 17, 214.

37 Marcia Baron's term.

38 Statman, op. cit. note 17, 212–3; Baron, op. cit. note 7, 250–2.

39 I thank Johannes Himmelreich, Jessica Laimann, and Maxime Lepoutre for comments, the audience at the Dublin ‘Supererogation’ conference, and an anonymous reviewer. I also received helpful feedback on an early version of this paper from Hasko von Kriegstein, Marco Meyer, and Andreas Schmidt. Lastly, I thank Matthew Braham without whose encouragement this paper would not exist.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Disjunctive duties and supererogatory sets of actions

  • Matthias Brinkmann (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.