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Moral terrorism, aka supererogation

Notes on Urmson, J. O., “Saints and Heroes”

Editor’s note: In this classic paper in the literature on the idea of supererogation (acts above and beyond moral duty), Urmson argues for recognition of a special class of moral acts that, while clearly moral, cannot be required—at least not generally. In the course of his argument, he makes explicit a masculine assumption about the feminine relation to morality. Susan Wolf reacts to this paper. Together, Urmson’s seemingly off-handed remark and Wolf’s response, are symptomatic of the deep rift in moral perspective between women and men. The underlying clash of principles were first clearly examined by Otto Weininger a century ago. Luno picks up where Weininger left off, using Urmson and Wolf as philosophical occasions.

Urmson sorts out three conventional classes of moral acts:

1. required (duty-bound, obligatory)
2. permitted (morally indifferent)
3. forbidden (wrong)

These classifications, Urmson claims, are “inadequate to the facts of morality.” Though not fitting within any of these classes, the notions of “saint” and “hero” are sometimes also used in moral evaluations.

Three situations where the terms are used:

1. When someone does his duty in circumstances where most would waver or fail to. The saint through “resistance to desire and self-interest.” The hero through “resistance to desire and self-preservation.” These represent the encratic type: a thoroughly principled person.

[Resistance, especially when successful, is a very male mode of being.]

2. Those who do good without effort through a kind of second (or first) nature. We might consider them “lucky or unimaginative” but to Aristotle they were the paragons of virtue. The virtuous type: an extremely “good-natured” person.

3. But Urmson is concerned with the third type: those who go far beyond the requirements of duty or inclination or habit into supererogatory behavior. This is the saint or hero par excellence.

Supreme self-effacement

In the course of imagining a mother in extremis, Urmson delivers his bombshell:

Let us be clear, we are not now considering cases of natural affection, such as the sacrifice made by a mother for her child; such cases may be said with some justice not to fall under the concept of morality but to be admirable is some different way.

The cases Urmson is concerned with are not bound up with emotion…

[Are women, in one of their most defining moral orientations, being dismissed from the purview of morality? Urmson would have to hedge his remark much more than he does for this impression not to be given. It is plain to see how remarks like these fail to endear male formulations of moral theory to many feminists. Urmson cryptically alludes to some other way in which these feminine acts remain “admirable,” other than, that is, a moral way. Probably without meaning to, Urmson points directly to the gulf between male and female moral worlds. Much theoretical mischief has been generated by less than explicit acknowledgment of this by both male and female writers on ethics.

If Urmson is going to disqualify a mother’s emotional attachment as a proper spur to supererogatory acts, he must explain why this is different from the man who is so moved to a conception of duty that he would throw himself on a hand grenade, sacrificing himself to save others. Urmson is wrong on two counts: first in off-handedly dismissing the central role that emotional connection plays in feminine conceptions of morality—or leaving us no indication that there even is a feminine morality. And second, the critical role that emotion plays in male morality as well, albeit a more rarified emotion. Kant would call it respect for the moral law. After all, what could possibly move us by saintly or heroic acts if not the awe they inspire? Is he implying that awe is more universalizable as a conscious act of will than a mother’s love?]

He continues,

We may imagine a squad of soldiers to be practicing the throwing of live hand grenades; a grenade slips from the hand of one of them and rolls on the ground near the squad; one of them sacrifices his life by throwing himself on the grenade and protecting his comrades with his own body.

[There is no time for emotion, Urmson suggests. At that moment for that soldier it is the right thing for him to do and he does it…

But how unimaginably foreign this example is for a woman. A mother may throw herself in the path of an oncoming car to save her child, giving up her life, but any notion of “the right thing to do” passing however briefly through her mind would be almost unseemly, a downright ugly aspersion. The relative speed of thought and emotion as reflex is critical. Urmson asserts the soldier would have no time “to feel.” A woman would have no time “to think.” Both might do the same thing but the impulse of the moment would be different. In an emergency, he may think faster than he can feel. She the opposite. The idea that emotion requires time to have is hard to ascribe to a woman and Urmson seems oblivious of this…

If saints and heroes are important points of edificational reference, then there seem to be two distinct types, not surprisingly, corresponding to the sex of the applicant. This argues for Weininger’s bi-modal nature of morality. Not that Weininger spoke of a feminine morality per se—quite the opposite, he reserved that word for what men pay lip service to. But in spelling out so clearly the differences between masculine and feminine excuses for their behavior, he all but laid the groundwork for its recognition.]

The duty for the soldier is self-generated; it could not have been imposed from without. It is a subjective duty.

[But the very fact that it is characterized as “duty” at all is, again, a proprietarily male thought.]

Self-imposed duties: are they moral duties? No, these are distinguished from objective—that is, applying to all—duties. Supererogatory acts simply “cannot be adequately subsumed under the concept of duty.”

Yet Urmson is certain these acts have moral worth.

These extreme cases point to a whole class of minor supererogatory acts—much larger and more commonplace.

In a club, there are always those who voluntarily do more for the sustenance of the club than others who may just do their duty. (As in any community.)

[How much are supererogatory acts a part of “self” creation: the need we may have to see and create value in our selves? To be minimally moral, for some of us, does not suffice. It is not flattering enough. As supererogatory are these acts really moral at all? Is not the concept of morality here being stretched? Or is this merely evidence of a continuum between morality and aesthetics? For such acts can move us in the way beauty can. A saint or hero as a variety of moral performance artist? (To conflate Weininger and Wittgenstein: logic and aesthetics and ethics are one.)]

Traditional ethical theories seem to have neglected these acts. Urmson considers utilitarianism, Kantianism and intuitionism and concludes they have no “obvious” place for the saint or hero.

[Kant’s ethical theory, taken to its logical limit (as Weininger did, but perhaps not as Kant himself), would raise the bar of duty to engulf the saintly and heroic. And it may be implicit in certain Kantian assumptions that any moral act may be impossible and quixotic. Without diminishing the imperative to act, the skepticism about the mere possibility of a moral act, as Kant defined it, can loom large.*

* Editor’s note: Inspired by Luno, I have addressed this in an as yet unpublished paper on the elusive but necessarily critical “feeling of respect” in Kant’s definition of a moral act and its clash with an equally requisite demanding self-scrutiny.

But far from such transcendental misgivings, even just from the utilitarian side, Peter Singer’s strenuous moral abjurations of material vanity in response to world famine (and the rationing of resources generally) approach what many would consider supererogatory. He suggests as an indubitable moral principle that we are obliged to sacrifice for the benefit of others up to the point that we are in danger of becoming as needy as they. (Of course, he would settle for something less: for lowering the threshold of self-sacrifice to the point where the loss need only be “morally significant,” a concession to the distance of humanity even from that watered down standard.)

We doubt that in its purest, most rigorous form any moral theory fails to embrace supererogatory acts.*

* Editor’s note: Elsewhere, Luno intones: “To be born a woman is already to be committed to a lifetime of supererogation.” He has in mind that she will have to suffer vastly more than her share of largely male criminality—Luno’s word, derived in part from Weininger, for the rule-breaking aspect of male behavior and his lip-service to rules of his own making—than if the moral world were really gender neutral. Rosalind Hursthouse has said that nature bears harder on women. In the background here is also June Stephenson’s “revelations” in Men Are Not Cost-Effective, which go a long way toward explaining the urgency in Luno’s attack on patriarchal power, less from feminist affinity than from sheer old-fashioned misanthropy.

But another way of saying the same thing is that in their common, off-the-shelf varieties—of the sort “good” parents, with the “healthiest” intentions, inculcate in their children for fear of instilling them with neuroses—moralities do indeed fail to draw conclusions that comprise the saintly and the heroic. The impulse to those things happens in full spite** of and almost never because of our parents’ monitions and examples.]

** Editor’s note: For Luno, of course, spite (self-directed) is the engine of (male) moral progress, such as it is.

Urmson defines the class of supererogatory acts.

He thinks “utilitarianism can be most easily modified” to include this type of act.

By glorifying “the higher acts of morality” more good may come. “We should, it may be said, hitch our wagons to the stars…”

[…to avoid being thought rather unimaginative, unambitious moral cheap skates.

We do want to avoid the indictment of Hobbes phrase describing life as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”*]

* Editor’s note: In another place, Luno finds the remark rather less gloomy: “…the bit about being ‘short’ helps to compensate for the rest.”

Urmson: we do recognize a morality that goes beyond duty. He criticizes moralities such as Kant’s for focusing on ideal rational entities and forgetting that morality “should have human needs.” Moralities that don’t serve those needs are a “disservice” because they lend succor to moral skepticism.

[A “disservice”? How is that possible? Moral skepticism hardly needs the help of moral theory. The most lethal form skepticism takes comes from the observation of human history and practice… Moreover, are those “needs” static? How did these needs get to be needs? Urmson thinks that morality should serve man “as he is and as he can be expected to become.” What are the bounds of what “he can be expected to become”? Are there any? Are there bounds to human evil? And can’t he become something whether he can be expected to or not? Urmson is a bit of a moral philistine. In fact, utilitarianism (even Singer’s demanding flavor) places, one has to say, “healthy” limits on the amount of supererogation that can be tolerated. One does not have to give away all one possessions for the benefit of others beyond the point one is threatened with starvation. But Weininger’s demanding Kantianism did seem to beckon him to the grave, as he came to see his essential unfitness for life—this life. The ultimate in supererogation is to realize that every breath taken is one robbed from a being more worthy of it.

In fact, just as Mill accused Kant of resorting to consequentialism in the latter’s justification of such duties as that of keeping promises, so we might detect a bit of idealism in Singer’s application of utilitarianism. Kant’s ultimate justification is not consequentialist, nor is Singer ultimately an idealist, but in their respective practical elaborations it would be remarkable if there were not an infusion of tinctures from the other side.

“Human needs” are too complicated to serve Urmson’s argument well.]

He distinguishes a practical ethics and a kind of superethics, a “place for ideals.” The place of the latter is not “to serve as a basic code of duties.”

[What is the role of ideals if not to harry ‘basic codes of ethics,’ codes that have better than a snowball’s chance in hell of being upheld? Aren’t these codes of etiquette? Rules of thumb and thus not, properly, the province of moral philosophy?

If proper etiquette in the American south of the early 1960s required a black person to sit in the back of the bus, how could this have changed if not criticized from some point of view external to the ruling code of that time and place and societal need?

Underlying the fear of subversive ideals is our need to rest in one form of as yet unacknowledged injustice or other. We may be pardoned for the all-too-human complaint that we are never allowed to rest. But it does not follow that we should be allowed to rest now or at any point in the living future. The gap between ought and can is filled, if at all, with grace.

There is no requirement that our plaints be morally justified. They have authenticity on their side, something that perhaps may trump moral ambitions. But if so, on aesthetic grounds… Sometimes we are beautiful in our depravity, too.]

Urmson offers grounds for distinguishing these “higher flights of morality”:

1. The world would be “impoverished” without them.

[…as it might void of great art.]

2. As he puts it,

The basic moral code must not be too far beyond the capacity of the ordinary man on ordinary occasions, or a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code would be an inevitable consequence; duty would seem to be something high and unattainable, and not for ‘the likes of us.’

He cites the failure of alcohol prohibition.

[There looms the danger (a centripetal force compared to Urmson’s just cited centrifugal one) that ‘the likes of us’ will come to dismiss all allusion to possible higher morality as pathology in a never-ceasing effort to degrade morality to the point that it nearly matches practice.]*

* Editor’s note: Urmson seeks to diminish the tension between practical and ideal moralities. Luno, for one, would have it heightened. For Luno, Urmson is an apologist for the feminine in men—not to be confused the purely feminine, which does not live in the same semantic world and, hence, cannot be made to comport with these Weiningerian standards.

3. A moral code must have a “manageable complexity.”

[…and not tax commonplace powers of discernment.]

4. It must be something we can realistically demand of others.

[…which is to say, that we know compliance to be in their self-interest to do for us.]

5. A little moral pressure can of course legitimately be brought to bear to enforce the code. But it would be “horrifying” to demand heroism.

[Isn’t a little “horror” just the thing to keep alert an always incipient moral stupor? It is important to note what is being called “horror” here. Merely to embody an ideal or put into practice a moral conviction far removed from the baseline is already to engage in moral terrorism to those who cannot bear the example. It is a Kierkegaardian affront to sensibleness that will not go unpunished.]*

* Editor’s note: In an early notebook, Luno once referred to himself as a “spiritual terrorist.”

Personal vs. social morality: “…from the agents point of view it is imperative that he should endeavor to live up to the highest ideals of behavior that he can think of…”

[…just not expect others to.]

There is a passing reference to G. E. Moore’s “beautiful world with no one to see it.” [Principia Ethica] Such a vision, Urmson seems to say, has intrinsic moral worth.

[This very pure male vision is recognizable in Berkeley, in Kant, and, of course, in Weininger, who in one place writes in effect that from the majestic lookout of pure reason (and, properly speaking, the only kind there is) our collective physical disappearance would go unremarked.

But even Hume could write, “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Human Nature (1739), Book II, Part III, Sect. III, par. 6 OF THE INFLUENCING MOTIVES OF THE WILL,

Hume was just a little older than Weininger when he wrote this. Both were still at the age where reason lets things alone in its clarity, before sensibleness surreptitiously suborns it.]

Posted by luno in motherhood, philosophy and sex, sex differences, Deontology, Utilitarianism, Moral Theory (Wednesday October 3, 2007 at 11:31 am)

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