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Saints and heroes February 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
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Is it possible for an action to be morally good but not morally obligatory? In other words, is there such a thing (in ethics) as going beyond the call of duty?

In his 1958 paper “Saints and Heroes”, philosopher J. O. Urmson brings the example of a doctor who volunteers to join the depleted medical forces in a plague-stricken city (whom we would call a “saint”), or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save his comrades (whom we would call a “hero”). Such actions are considered morally worthy, but are they obligatory? Urmson maintains that while moral obligations “can be extracted from a man like a debt,” we could not say that a doctor who didn’t volunteer for a plague-stricken city, or a soldier who didn’t throw himself on a grenade, has failed in his duty; and no one could ever tell someone else he ought to do such a deed. Therefore, ethical systems must allow for actions that are morally praiseworthy but optional.

Urmson thinks it is essential to distinguish, in principle, between those minimum requirements necessary for us to live together in a society (like keeping promises and refraining from stealing) — which may be grounded in self-interest, or a desire to avoid the worst possible outcome for everyone — and actions inspired by a positive ideal. He offers an analogy to membership in a club: the club rules are basic requirements that are a condition of membership, but there is an important distinction between those members who merely follow the rules, and those who go beyond the call of duty and contribute to the club by doing things that are not (and could not be) demanded in the rules.

According to Urmson, moral obligations must conform to restrictions similar to those we would place on a legal system: moral duties must be “within the capacity of the ordinary man,” and must be “formulable in rules of manageable complexity.” Passing a law which most people are incapable of obeying merely serves to weaken the general respect for the law (as was the case with the prohibition of alcohol in the Unites States in the early twentieth century); and the “ordinary man” must be able to understand and apply the laws on his own — precluding laws that require complex judgment calls (i.e., that do not concern behavior which is almost invariably good or bad). These considerations would seem to bolster Urmson’s argument that saintly and heroic acts cannot be considered moral obligations.

Elizabeth Pybus, however, rejects the analogy between moral duty and legal systems. She argues that the set of obligations we have as moral agents — as people — is not readily codifiable as a list of simple rules. For example, even relatively absolute moral precepts, like keeping promises and avoiding murder, clearly admit of contextual exceptions that may require nontrivial judgment calls — like not returning a borrowed weapon to someone who intends to misuse it, or killing a robber who threatens to shoot a hostage.

Moreover, why should our determination of what is morally right be dependent on how difficult it may be for some people to do it? Pybus maintains that any moral commendation of an action (including the heroic and the saintly) commits us to the view that others ought to do the same in similar circumstances, and that those who do not should be regarded as falling short of the moral ideal. Contrary to Urmson’s assumption, however, it does not follow that we must always go around demanding that other people perform such actions — just as we do not do so for some of Urmson’s “basic rules,” like honesty (though we may still be silently judgmental).

Pybus argues that morality is not a set of socially or legally imposed rules, but a realization of attainable values that we ought to strive for. Morality is a matter of “evaluation and action intertwined,” where our moral evaluations commit us to actions, and our moral actions are an attempt to bring about what we regard as worthwhile. If saints and heroes have done something morally good, then we all ought to be like them.

This does not mean that everyone must do exactly what they have done. It is not necessary (or desirable) for all soldiers to throw themselves on grenades or for all doctors to go to plague-ridden cities, and most of us will never find ourselves facing those specific dilemmas anyway. But if we think that certain acts of self-endangerment or self-sacrifice are good, we must believe that we too ought to perform self-endangering or self-sacrificing actions, in whatever way is appropriate to our own circumstances. Different things are difficult for different people. By praising saints and heroes, we are actually praising certain dispositions or virtues — having the courage to do what is morally necessary. And that is required of everyone: someone who goes through life fulfilling only the most basic moral requirements can be faulted. “Keeping the basic rules is not enough.”

Still, it might seem that an ethical system where every morally worthy deed is obligatory is somehow impoverished. Urmson fears that under such a system, the value of people’s most charitable and courageous acts is diminished, since they are reduced to mere fulfillment of demands. While we have no choice but to force compliance with the basic rules, free choice is generally better than constraint. It would be preferable for goodness to be encouraged rather than demanded, so that virtuous acts are done for their own sake and not from a desire to avoid condemnation.

But this concern seems misplaced. Performing an action that you deem to be morally obligatory does not amount to doing it because others demand it — presumably, you consider the action obligatory because you recognize its value. (And as previously mentioned, judging an action to be a moral duty does not necessarily require public condemnation of those who don’t do it.) Pybus argues that in distinguishing between a morality of duty and a higher morality of aspiration, Urmson unnecessarily lowers the concept of duty, while putting his ideals outside morality altogether: “I cannot at the same time say that something is a moral ideal, and feel that I have no sort of obligation to pursue it.” Moral commendation of an act implies that it exemplifies a morally worthwhile ideal; in which case it follows that we all ought to act in pursuit of that ideal.

So it seems to me that all morally relevant actions fall on a single continuum: there is no principled distinction between basic duties and the actions of heroes and saints, since they all derive their value from the same standard. We can still give special praise to those individuals who managed to do the right thing in especially difficult circumstances where many others might not have; but in doing so, we are recognizing that those saints and heroes have succeeded in being what we all ought to be.