Supererogatory Acts and the Indifferents

So, last week I talked about supererogatory acts and their relation to the abortion debate. But it’s worth taking a look to see how supererogatory acts — acts that we think a good or better person would do but that they aren’t morally obligated to do — could fit into my preferred Stoic view. And it turns out that they raise pretty much the same problem for the Stoics as they do for Kant: if the supererogatory acts follow from virtue, then it would seem that they are morally demanded, but if they don’t, then it’s hard to see how it could possibly be the case that good people will tend to do them, and we can call someone a better person if they are willing to do them. Good people follow virtue, and everything that virtue prefers is morally demanded. How can we have an act that a good person or the best person would do but that isn’t morally demanded?

For the Stoics, what we need to note is that most of the supererogatory acts involve things that the Stoics would consider indifferents. Since the Stoics consider everything up to and including your own life to be an indifferent, this isn’t much of a surprise. However, what’s important about it is to remember that for the Stoics indifferents are neither virtues nor vices. As per Seneca, indifferents aren’t something to avoid and even potentially are something that someone can even seek out, as long as they do so in accordance with virtue and are willing to live without them if virtue or the universe deprives them of them. My own view is that if we apply reason we can see that some indifferents are preferable to others, such as that being alive is, in general, preferable to being dead but being rich — because how can you use wealth if you’re dead? — and so a rational — and thus Stoically-ideal — person will not only act virtuously, but will also act rationally wrt indifferents and when they pursue them and when they don’t pursue them.

By this, then, we can see that since a properly rational and thus properly good Stoic will know the exact relative “value” of the indifferents, and will note that having indifferents is not a bad thing and that achieving them can be at least pragmatically good, they will want to help others who are striving — properly and in accordance with reason — for indifferents to achieve them. They will be even more moved to do so the higher on the scale of indifferents the indifferent they are striving for is. We should want to try to help people avoid dying, for example, or being in extreme poverty, because those are deprivations of an “important” indifferent, one that is greatly limiting to people and one that all rational people will want to maximize if they can do so in accordance with reason. So, naturally, a properly rational person will feel a drive to help people with these, especially the important ones.

But by the same token, a properly rational person can never feel obligated to help others achieve indifferents just for the sake of having them achieve indifferents. The first reason is the reason that these things are indifferents in the first place: no one can guarantee that they are actually able to achieve them. Someone cannot be obligated to help someone become rich, for example, because they cannot guarantee that their actions will provide that. That outcome is not under their control. The second reason is that as all of these are indifferents they actually don’t have proper or real value, and so someone cannot be obligated to sacrifice their indifferents to help someone else achieve theirs. Ultimately, from the perspective of the Stoics, indifferents have no real value and so while that might encourage people to give them up for the indifferents of others, it would be trading something of theirs that has no real value for something of someone else’s that has no real value. As the choice is between things that have no value, virtue makes no strong demands.

So a properly rational person will want to help others to achieve their desired indifferents and will even be willing to sacrifice their own lesser indifferents to help others achieve greater indifferents, but will also realize that there is no moral demand there and so they are not obligated to do so. If they decide that they want to, say, go to the movies instead of giving money to charity, they can do that without guilt because all they are doing is choosing their own indifferents over those of others.

Well, most of the time. There are cases when someone would, in fact, be morally obliged to ensure and protect the indifferents of others under this, when they are in a specific relationship to the person that makes it an obligation and they can do so without unduly sacrificing their own indifferents. There was an example of this that I discussed in my examination of “A Defense of Abortion”. She comments that it would be a supererogatory act for Henry Fonda to come and save her life by placing his cool hand on her fevered brow. I argued that it wouldn’t be and would be morally obligated because he was the only person who could do that and it would cost him extremely little to do. I also argued that if someone was the only person who could donate an organ or give blood to save someone’s life they could be morally obligated to do that as well. While those are both indifferents, rationality would seem to demand that if we are the only person who could do it and the loss is minor that we should sacrifice our indifferents for theirs. If others could do that as well, we have no special burden to do it over them, and so it can be supererogatory; we would like someone to step up and do it, but we can’t point to anyone in the world and say that they are morally obligated to do so. And if we are the only person who can do it but the loss is too expensive, then we can again return to the question of whether we can be obligated to trade our indifferents for theirs. But if we are the only person who can do it and the loss is minor, then we are clearly morally obligated by the virtue of Compassion, I submit, to do so.

There’s another case where we might even be morally obligated to do it even if the loss is extreme: if we had promised to do so and so entered into an agreement to provide it. Even though I’m not required to bankrupt myself to provide material support (food and shelter) for someone, if I entered into an agreement to provide them with food and shelter and circumstances mean that it will be much more expensive than I’d like, I might in that case be morally obligated to bankrupt myself to keep them provided. After all, I agreed to provide them with material support and I can’t simply back out of that agreement when it becomes inconvenient. And since keeping promises and agreements would follow from virtue but my own life is merely an indifferent, I may well be obligated to sacrifice my own life for them if they themselves don’t let me out of the agreement. Even if they are doing so capriciously, I am responsible for my own actions, and not theirs, and so if they demand I live up to my agreement I am required to do so, and am required to do so as a strong moral obligation.

There’s a reason that Stoicism can be a harsh moral system.

The thing is, though, when it comes to supererogatory acts at least my view of Stoicism seems to align with our own intuitions. I’m not required to trade my indifferents for theirs, but a person who can and does do so is a better person than someone who doesn’t. If I have some sort of obligation to them, then I am required to trade my indifferents for theirs. Thus, if I have a specific virtue that pushes the trade, then I’m obligated to do so, but if I don’t, then I am not required to do so. So while Kant’s commitment to duty can get him in trouble wrt supererogatory acts, the Stoic recognition of indifferents gives them a relatively clean and simple out, as long as we treat indifferents not as vices, and neither as virtues themselves. Then there will always be cases where how to handle the interaction of the indifferents of different people will be up to the person who has the choice, and cases where virtue will dictate the only acceptable move.

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