Supererogation, Repetition and the Experience of Morning Coffee

An act is said to be supererogatory if it is “above and beyond the call of duty”. We might put this in less Kantian terms: a supererogatory act is one which generates moral value but whose execution is not demanded but praised. A moral agent, in failing to execute a supererogatory act, cannot reasonably be censured on the basis of this omission. Nobody would realistically have blamed Sydney Carton were he to have taken the view that “a far, far better rest”, could be deferred just a little longer.

We might wonder whether such an act is even possible. If an act generates moral value then we might wish to argue that ipso facto we are obliged to do it. The alternative might seem to acknowledge at least a dualistic account of moral value: that certain values demand their instantiation whereas certain others do not. On what basis could such a discrimination be made? A many-valued theory of value might seem to beckon. Especially if -as seems reasonable- we wish to agree that a flourishing moral conversation requires that we are able to describe certain acts and agents as being deserving of praise.

The situation seems to be further complicated by the issue of repetition. Supererogatory acts, when repeated, seem to lose lustre. What is exceptional, and therefore praiseworthy, can become quotidian, and thereby expected. I found this recently when, having moved home, I established a morning coffee routine in the local cafe. The first few times I was in there I decided to save the waitress some time and returned my used coffee cups etc to the counter before leaving. After about two weeks I noticed that the waitress (and it is the same waitress) was lingering over her morning newspaper, seemingly unperturbed by the detritus littering my table (by this time I had taken to ordering several coffees, partly to test her out). By week four she was clearing the tables around me, but leaving mine untouched.

Now I accept that as supererogatory acts go, returning the coffee cups did not involve an excess of spiritual expenditure. It was not Sydney Carton-esque, in that sense. But small, local kindnesses are important too, either as rehearsals for the big league or because for many of us they are about as much as we can offer. But what had happened here was that my act, through repetition, had been denuded of its supererogatory character. What had begun as an act of generosity had been transformed into an obligation. And this transformation was not simply a matter of the waitress perceiving the situation in the wrong way, since in that case I would not feel the obligation also, yet I did. When I described the experience to my brother, who has a gift for taxonomy, he categorised it as a “Larry David” situation. I like to think deeper issue are in play.

But what deeper issues? Discussions of supererogation tend to loudly affirm the separation of act from agent but in examples such as the above the character of the act seems clearly to supervene in some way on the mental states of agents and observers alike. The lesson seems to be this: you repeat a supererogatory act at your peril since pretty soon you will notice that the act flips from “good to do but not bad not to do” to “bad not to do but not good to do” without even a passing acquaintance with “neither good to do nor bad to do”. Or to put it another way: if you’re going to throw yourself on the unexploded hand grenade, best not do it more than once.

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