Saints and the problem of supererogation



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Philosophers hold different views concerning whether actions referred to as supererogatory pose a problem for ethical theory. I support J. 0. Urmson's thesis that this class of actions does pose a problem for the traditional division of ethical actions into only three categories; duties, forbidden actions, and indifferent actions. Yogendra Chopra takes the position that the traditional system is adequate for ethical theory, but I show why I think his defense of the traditional system is in error. In addition, I cite a detailed analysis of the three-fold system by John Ladd, and his criticism of it. Contemporary discussions of this problem are examined; namely, R. M. Chisholm's proposea conceptual scheme for wider expansion of the ethical categories, J. N. Findlay's distinction between hortatory and obligatory duties, and Joel Feinberg's discussion of our need for conceptions of excellence which are not patterned on the rule-model. A proposal by Neil Cooper of the possibility of a morality without rules is examined and rejected. Kant and Kill's ethical theories might classify supererogatory acts as imperfect duties, but this does not solve the problem of the inadequacy of the three-fold scheme. For to divide the duty category into two types of duties, those whose non-performance is censured, and those whose nonperformance is not censured is, in effect, to create a fourth category. The implications of supererogation for the current discussion regarding rule-oriented and virtue-oriented ethics is considered, and the suggestion made that certain saints might be presented as moral paradigms.