SUPEREROGATORY DUTY

“Charity is the gravitational force which keeps civilization in its orbit.” – Arthur Koester

My final category of ethics – ‘supererogatory duty’ – is not often the subject of philosophical discussion, but its sporadic appearance in my reading suggested to me a potential role it could play in human ethics. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy1 defines supererogation as action beyond the demands of duty, noting that such actions are praiseworthy to perform, but not blameworthy to omit. Traditionally such acts are seen as those of a saint or a hero. However I see supererogatory duty as the best means to resolve one of man’s most difficult conundrums, that of guilt and the myth of ‘original sin.’

Most Christians and many non-Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin, where the disobedience of the first humans, Adam and Eve, eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In this tradition, as we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, we inherit their sin and thus come to the world as sinners or impure, fallen creatures. I struggled with the fairness of this assertion in my youth, and only later philosophical study opened for me window of understanding.

It dawned on me that man’s ‘fallen’ status or ‘original sin’ is best seen as a metaphor of the imperfection of being human and the universal and perhaps unavoidable propensity to error and vice as viewed from at least four vantage points:

1)    Biologic – Non-human life exists instinctively, is untroubled by reflexive thinking, and incapable of immoral behavior so remains intrinsically a part on nature. Man lives deliberately beyond instinct, ruminates constantly, and acts in ways contrary to his environment, thus separating himself from nature.2

2)   Psychological – Man has a protracted period of dependence and societal immaturity during which he makes errors of judgment and causes harm to others

3)   Existential – Man has unlimited desires, imagination, and freedom, but is confined to a limited body and lifespan, and is a result overwhelmed by the universe.3

4)   Cosmological – Eastern traditions depict negative karma lingering from prior lives as causing suffering in our current life.

If we are in fact ‘fallen’ creatures, imperfect and impure for most or all of our lives, making countless mistakes, and hurting others, even if unintentionally, the question remains, how can we expect to find redemption or salvation? For Christians, belief in Christ completes this process. For the rest of us, supererogatory duty (combined with humility) seems to me the best means to psychological and spiritual cleansing. Culturally this is labelled as charity (not accidentally one of the Christian virtues- despite the presumption of salvation through faith, the Church fathers understood: personal salvation demands supererogatory duty). For the wealthy, this is financial munificence (noblesse oblige); for others it may be volunteer work, a heroic or pious occupation (e.g. firefighter or monk), or taking on a cause.

Added to atonement and self-forgiveness, I believe supererogatory duty offers the final ethic in personal apotheosis.

1Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 903.

2Tolle, Eckhart, Living a Life of Inner Peace. New World Library. 2003.       

3Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 144.

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SOCIETAL DUTY – PART II (continued)

As members of society, the benefits and rights we derive from social order impel the correlative responsibility to discharge our duties to promote that order. In addition, some duties are simply incumbent upon us as members of humanity.

Table 1  is my list of the duties needed in modern societies ranked in order of priority (See Appendix – Table of Duties).  For most of us, all of these duties will apply and in general when duties conflict, the higher rated duty should be chosen.

Readers will note that I consider responsibility for one’s own physical needs as the highest duty to society thereby relieving society of providing for him or her. With the exception of the ill and disabled this is the logical first duty each adult has to society as it allows one to meet the other duties of a full member of society.  Ayn Rand states it succinctly, “Living in a society, instead of a desert island, does not relieve a man of the responsibility of supporting his own life.”I am aware this is likely to be controversial.

The logically second most vital duty is support for social justice, that is, all lower ranked duties must meet the tenet of equality and fair treatment for all. It is also a critical element of a constitutional republic for members of the majority to look after the rights of the minority and to oppose inequality. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrated brilliantly and unforgettably the ethical course of peaceful disobedience in the case of injustice and oppression. Violent revolution is only justified in the case of persistent tyranny and the suspension of human rights.

Items 3,7, and 8 define the individual’s duty to communal government specifically the duty to follow laws and obey authorities in the absence of ethical conflict. When one must disobey a law for ethical reasons, one should be prepared to suffer the consequences with honor – consider the incarcerations and punishments of Sir Thomas More or of Nelson Mandela.

The fourth and fifth items represent humanitarian duties to others – everything from helping a handicapped person cross the street to saving a drowning child when it is within your means.  In addition, as long as there is poverty and vulnerability in society, the more fortunate are morally bound to offer charity to the less fortunate – this is the great humanist teaching of Christ.

Sixth is the personal obligation to aid in the security and defense of one’s community and nation. This is the fundamental justification of military and police actions by governments and those serving in those roles although even security concerns must be subject to the constraint of avoiding injustice and unnecessary evil. Here too the ill and disabled are ethically absolved of direct responsibility.

The ninth and tenth items are moral duties of participants in capitalist societies necessary to the logical continuation of that economic system and are essentially the fulfillment of contracts. The first is to reciprocate fair labor for fair pay, the duty implicit in employment arrangements. The second is to provide market quality services and merchandise in return for a fair price; which is the duty implied by business-customer relationships.

The eleventh item recognizes the desirability of civil behavior to the quality of communal life and free exchange of views. The last two items delineate the civic duty to stay current in world events and to critically evaluate information in order to facilitate good decision making in voting, political action, and social conduct.

Readers may wish to create their own version of Table 1 or change the prioritization, but fulfilling societal duties is essential to the virtue and personal contentment of a meaningful life.

1Hadas, Moses, The Basic Works of Cicero. The Modern Library, 1951, pages 3-60.

2Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet Books, The New American Library, 1964, page 52.

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SOCIETAL DUTY – PART II

“The acknowledgement of duties signifies that the holder of rights recognizes their limited or conditional character.” –  Syntopicon I, Chapter 19, The Great Books.

In the last two posts we  looked at four general approaches to societal duty. Now I would like to consider and define a more concrete list of duties. The prototype of societal ethics in classical philosophy comes from the stoic tradition most systematically outlined by Cicero in his essay On Moral Duties1, ostensibly a letter written to his son encompassing personal as well as societal ethics. Cicero list includes the following duties:

  1. Respect the rights of others.
  2. Observe contracts faithfully.
  3. Do not mistake the unknown for the known and give it blind assent.
  4. Do not waste time on barren studies.
  5. Do no violence except in self-defense.
  6. Create no privileges in public rights.
  7. Respect others’ private property.
  8. Perform acts of kindness.
  9. Employ your talents, industry, and resources in strengthening the bonds of human society.
  10. Do not acquire money through unjust means.
  11. Defend others from injustice.
  12. Work for the common good.
  13. Resolve disputes by discussion not force.
  14. Show beneficence to the worthy.
  15. Achieve honor in military actions.
  16. Participate in government when you have the ability.
  17. Govern without regard to personal interest.
  18. Maintain decorum, that is steady and consistent demeanor.
  19. Choose a career that uses your better nature and abilities and persevere.
  20. Support peaceful and honorable policy.
  21. Avoid immodesty and that which shocks the eye or ear.

This is still an excellent list even for modern times, but of course society has changed over the millennia and the obligations of living in a modern constitutional republic may justify some modifications.

(continued next post)

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ETHICS – THE PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN CONDUCT

“Philosophy is ethics, or it is nothing at all.” – Dagobert Runes

As I discussed in the introduction, the essential function of philosophy comes down to the question: how should I live my life?  Until now, we have been discussing the nature of reality which is the more static dimension of philosophy, and is, over the course of history, increasingly falling into the domain of science. Ethics is more dynamic and has defied scientific analysis to date. It is about how we live our life, about our actions, particularly determining right and wrong action.

Ancient philosophers called right action ‘virtue’ and wrong action ‘vice.’ Modern philosophers seems to prefer the word ‘morality’ over ethics and more recently the trend is to  dissect morality further into its atomic level of values. Perhaps these modified concepts of ethics will prevail in the future, but I still prefer the time honored terms of the ancient thinkers and will mostly address human conduct from that vantage point.

Of course the crux of ethics comes down to deciding what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean. This is an example of where one’s understanding of the nature of reality becomes critical. For instance, in the aristocracies of ancient empires or the middle ages, property rights and local order were maintained by a small group, so strength and honor were the highest virtues (think of King Arthur or the movie Gladiator). In modern history where the ultimate reality is a society or a nation (‘the state’), sacrifice and duty become the highest virtues (think of the soldier in World War II). In Christianity, where loving one’s neighbor is most highly regarded, charity and selflessness are the highest virtues (e.g. Mother Theresa).

The role of philosophy is to define a basis for ethics and conduct that is logically consistent with one’s picture of reality. Since people vary in their view of reality, there is room for variation in ethics. This is not to say that ethics are relative. Rather ethics tends to be tailored to historical and individual circumstances and one’s personal understanding of reality. In any case the carefully thought out ethical systems and principles of the great thinkers should not be discarded in the absence of careful reflection. One such example is abortion – forbidden by Hippocrates-  but after extensive medical, political, and judicial deliberation is legal today, and no longer part of the modern Hippocratic oath.  This site cannot determine what makes for right and wrong action for all its readers, but it can encourage critical analysis of one’s beliefs and actions, and offer robust systems for consideration.

As in our discussion of the nature of reality where there were multiple tiers, human behavior falls into five tiers:

 1.  Self-Mastery                                                                                                                      2.  Direct Interaction with Others                                                                                3.  Societal Duty                                                                                                                    4.  Relationship to Ultimate Reality                                                                              5.  Supererogatory Duty

We will now discuss each tier in some detail.

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