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Too far beyond the call of duty: moral rationalism and weighing reasons


The standard account of supererogation holds that Liv is not morally required to jump on a grenade, thereby sacrificing her life, to save the lives of five soldiers. Many proponents defend the standard account by appealing to moral rationalism about requirement. These same proponents hold that Bernie is morally permitted to jump on a grenade, thereby sacrificing his life, to spare someone a mild burn. I argue that this position is unstable, at least as moral rationalism is ordinarily defended. The proponent of the standard account of supererogation must either reject moral rationalism or endorse that Bernie is morally required to remain in safety. Along the way, this paper brings together three neglected topics: going *too far* beyond the call of duty, moral rationalism about *permission*, and how to weigh reasons when some reasons have a different proportion of justifying and requiring weight than others.

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  1. Portmore endorses what I call ‘otherism’ in his (2011: 96) (including nt 39), 128–129.

  2. Those who would make such an objection include Curtis (1981: 314), Gert (2014), and maybe Portmore (2011: ch 5, especially pg 139).

  3. Many, not all. Gert (2014) is an otherist who rejects moral rationalism. While I reject moral rationalism, I am sympathetic with Portmore’s (2014) reply to Gert’s brand of anti-rationalism.

  4. Similar accounts are given by Clark (1978), Curtis (1981), and Muñoz (2021).

  5. For example, it is assumed by both Massoud (2016) and Archer (2016).

  6. Here I follow Portmore (2011: 88–89) and Dorsey (2016: 166). I also assume that we always have exactly two options. For how to think about weighing reasons in the context of any number of options, see my manuscript.

  7. Portmore defends 1 in his (2008: 373–375).

  8. For Portmore’s defense of 3, see his (2008: 375, 2011: 127).

  9. Sobel (2007b: 14–16) likely joins Dorsey in endorsing 2′ but rejecting 2. And so would anyone else who takes the demandingness objection to consequentialism to reveal, not that consequentialism is a false moral theory, but that morality lacks final authority over how we are to live.

  10. On Portmore’s view, moral betterness involves a third dimension of reasons, favoring. The altruistic act is morally better than the self-interested act, because requiring reasons (like the altruistic prevention of death) have favoring strength and merely justifying reasons (like self-interested reasons are on his view) do not have favoring strength (2019: 188, nt 4; cf. 2011: 122–124, including nts 6–7, and 128). My view of moral betterness also involves a third role of reasons (see my manuscript).

  11. Where do you draw the line for how much self-sacrifice is permissible? The model in Sect. 6 answers: you are permitted to self-sacrifice until the requiring weight for the self-interested action > the justifying weight for the self-sacrificial action. Portmore can’t complain about this answer because we can always ask him, where do we draw the line for how much self-interested action is permitted? His answer, also given by the model in Sect. 6, is that you are permitted to act self-interestedly until the justifying weight for the self-interested action is < the requiring weight for the self-sacrificial alternative.

  12. Stangl (2016, especially 355) endorses 2*, and Clark (1978: 32) is at least sympathetic.

  13. Massoud (2016: 706) rejects 3*. She mistakenly assumes that if the justifying weight of remaining in safety is great enough it will defeat the pro tanto permission to jump on the grenade. Yet justifying weight is not in the business of making anything impermissible no matter how much of it you have. Only requiring weight does that.

  14. Also see Curtis (1981: 314) and Clark (1978: 32).

  15. See, for example, Portmore (2008, 2011: 43–44), Darwall (2006: ch. 5; 2016), and Murphy (2017: 26). I focus on Portmore’s 2011 presentation of this argument, but he provides the same argument in his (2021: 54–56).

  16. This premise is especially popular. J. S. Mill (1991, ch. 5, para. 14) provides the classic statement of it. In addition to those who explicitly endorse the whole argument, contemporary support for this premise includes Gibbard (1990: 40–45) and Skorupski (1999: ch 7).

  17. Darwall (2016: 269) takes this premise to be conceptually true. Portmore (2011: 44) initially claimed that it was not a conceptual truth, but he seems to have changed his mind (2014: 241). Sobel (2007b) rejects moral rationalism, but even he admits that B is plausible (2007a: 155–156).

  18. The standard presentations of this argument replace ‘is rationally required to ~φ’ with ‘does not have sufficient reason to φ’. This amounts to the same thing, as Portmore (2011: 42–43) makes clear.

  19. It isn’t just the literature on moral rationalism. See, for example, Tognazzini and Coates’ (2018) SEP entry on blame.

  20. Portmore explicitly says he has in mind moral blameworthiness (2011: 43). Dorsey’s (2016: 56–57) objection to the Blameworthiness and Requirement Argument seems to assume that there is just one kind of blameworthiness, but he insists that it is rational blameworthiness.

  21. B1 is a simplified version of Portmore’s 2.17 (2011: 48). 2.17 doesn’t specify that both moral and non-moral reasons are needed, but 2.16 does.

  22. I focus on Portmore’s 2011 presentation, but his (2021: 57–61) provides the same argument that I present as B1–B3.

  23. Suppose B is false: suppose that you are morally blameworthy for φ-ing despite being rationally permitted to φ. Since you are rationally permitted to φ, it seems that your φ-ing can be a flawless response (from the rational perspective) to your moral and non-moral reasons. And yet you are still blameworthy for that flawless response (from the moral perspective). This violates B3. It seems, then, that B3 entails B.

  24. These creatures can do the act that their self-interested reasons require of them; however, they can’t do such acts in response to their self-interested reasons. For example, they might survive another day, not because it is in their best interest, but because they can’t benefit anyone tomorrow if they don’t. Also, thanks to Daniel Muñoz for the name ‘moral weirdos’.

  25. B explicitly says that, if you are morally blameworthy for φ-ing, then you are rationally required to ~φ. After contraposition, B says that if you are not rationally required to ~φ, then you are morally blameless for φ-ing. Now consider the antecedent ‘you are not rationally required to ~φ’. If prohibition dilemmas are impossible—i.e., if it is impossible that both φ and ~φ are impermissible—then this antecedent entails that φ is permissible. And Portmore’s account of reasons entails that such dilemmas are impossible. The only way to get prohibition dilemmas (when there are finitely many options) is for there to be reasons that have more requiring weight than justifying weight [my forthcoming: Sects. 4.1, 7.2]. Yet Portmore denies that such reasons are possible (2011: 137–143). So, in his hands, B entails (in cases with finitely many options) that, if you are rationally permitted to φ, then you are morally blameless for φ-ing.

  26. A referee wonders whether that A* rules out quasi-supererogation (an action that you are praiseworthy for performing but blameworthy for omitting). Maybe, but an appeal to quasi-supererogation would be at odds with Portmore’s approach to supererogation. Quasi-supererogation is supposed to contrast with ‘supererogation’ understood as an action that is praiseworthy for performing but not blameworthy for omitting. Portmore explicitly disavows such approaches to supererogation: “the idea that an act is supererogatory is, for me, solely a deontic notion and does not depend on whether its performance is, given the agent’s motives and intentions, praiseworthy” (2011: 5, nt 4; cf. 97, nt. 41). And, again, Portmore’s B seems committed to A* whatever A* might entail.

  27. Like Portmore, Darwall simply assumes that there is only one kind of blame/blameworthiness: “When we blame someone, we presuppose that the person we are blaming cannot adequately answer for what he has done [from the rational perspective]” (2016: 268; cf. 2016: 270, 2006: 98). X’s blaming Y from a perspective P may presuppose both that X and Y share P and that Y violated a requirement of P (cf. Pufendorf’s point in Darwall 2006: 112). Yet it does not follow that P must be the rational perspective. If an eccentric billionaire pays you a $50k to stop being my friend, I might fittingly blame you for being a bad friend and fittingly take a range of negative reactive attitudes toward you. I might nonetheless hold that you had adequate reason to do what you did (from the rational perspective). A police officer might fittingly blame you and hold you legally responsible for the minor traffic violation by writing you a ticket. The officer might nonetheless concede that you had adequate reason to commit the minor traffic violation from the rational perspective. Fitting blame is not necessarily fitting blame from the rational perspective.

  28. An alternative response would be to revise the two arguments so that they concern underived blameworthiness. Suppose that, contra Portmore, blameworthiness for one’s morally illicit motives or past moral failures can transmit to one’s now performing a morally permissible act. The blameworthiness for now acting rightly is derived from some moral failure or another. The key intuitions behind A and A* is that wrong action can—and right action can’t—be an original, or underived, source of blameworthiness.

  29. Dorsey (2016: ch 2) also understands Portmore this way.

  30. Presumably, there is also some explanation of why MRREQ would be true even though MRPERM is false. Portmore may think he has such an explanation. His principle, META, entails both MRREQ and ~MRPERM (2011: 137). Yet Portmore’s argument for META simply assumes that MRPERM is false (2011: 139), so we shouldn’t take META for granted in a context in which MRPERM is up for debate.

  31. A referee worries that, since requirement is a logically stronger deontic status than permission, moral rationalism about requirement is correspondingly more plausible than moral rationalism about permission. In reply, there is nothing special about requirements or the reasons that generate requirements. A requirement to φ is just the combined deontic verdict that φ is permissible and ~φ is impermissible. To anticipate the model in the next section, permissions to φ are the result of a single competition between the justifying weight for φ (JWφ) and requiring weight for ~φ (RW). Requirements to φ are the result of this same competition and an additional competition which determines the (im)permissibility of ~φ, namely JW vs RWφ. I don’t see why this difference gives us much, if any, reason to expect that moral requirements have a greater connection to rational statuses than moral permissions do.

  32. A referee wonders: if moral rationalism about requirement and permission stand or fall together, does it follow that moral rationalism about requirement also stands or falls with any other normatively significant status (e.g., every morally best action is rationally best)? No. Portmore’s argument for moral rationalism is driven by intuitions about when actions are blameworthy. Whether an action is required or permissible seems to have a tighter connection to when actions are blameworthy than whether an action is morally best. You aren’t morally blameworthy for freely and knowledgeably failing to do the morally best action when it is merely supererogatory; however, you may be morally blameworthy for freely and knowledgably performing an impermissible action or an action that you were required not to do. Furthermore, permissions and requirements are functions of the competition between justifying and requiring weight. Some other normatively significant statuses are not (merely) functions of justifying and requiring weight. For example, Portmore’s account of morally best appeals to a third feature of reasons (recall note 10 above). Consequently, it is less surprising if moral rationalism about requirement and permission stand or fall together than that moral rationalism about requirement and bestness stand or fall together.

  33. Recall that φ is a commitment iff ~φ is impermissible. Since Sacrifice is not a commitment, then Safety is permissible. Since Sacrifice is impermissible, then Safety is a commitment. So Safety is a permissible commitment, which is just for Safety to be required.

  34. Quibbling about whether “ ≥ ” is the right place to draw the line for permissibility won’t be productive. As long as there is some amount of net justifying weight (JWφ–RW) that is sufficient for the permissibility of φ, 3 will entail a version of 3* that works for my purposes. It seems hard to deny that φ is permissible when the justifying weight for it outweighs the requiring weight against it by a wide margin. Given that a mild burn has very little requiring weight, I can weaken (ii*) to: the requiring weight for ~φ is not, by a wide margin, outweighed by MJR’s justifying weight. I would then just need to make the corresponding changes to the assignment rules for Permission and Commitment Scales.

  35. Do not confuse No Overlap with No (Prohibition) Dilemma: there is never a case in which both it is impermissible to φ and impermissible to ~φ. I allow for the conceptual possibility of dilemmas, which partly explains why I distinguish between commitment and requirement. Yet I do not allow for the conceptual possibility that the same act is all-in both permissible and impermissible (see my manuscript for a partial defense of this claim).

  36. I also leave it open that, after a certain point, self-interested reasons are sufficiently weak that they no longer have moral requiring weight at all.

  37. Since self-interested reasons are also systematically correlated with justifying weight (cf. Portmore 2011: 126), Portmore can defend 4 using:

    General Strategy: modify the Liv case so that (1) the alleged alternative is not a candidate to explain Liv’s moral permission to remain in safety, and yet (2) the smaller self-interested benefits make it rationally permissible to forgo the larger potential altruistic benefits.

  38. As usual, I have been extremely fortunate to have the support of many people and institutions. William & Mary provided an invaluable sabbatical and research grant. Helpful comments on earlier drafts were provided by Julia Driver, Josh Gert, Jonah Goldwater, Aaron Griffith, Andrew Moon, Daniel Muñoz, Doug Portmore, Sue Su, Philip Swenson, Ethan Terrill, Chris Tweedt, anonymous referees, and the audiences at the 2020 Obligations to Oneself Workshop and the 80th Meeting of the Virginia Philosophical Association. I greatly appreciate their support, and I’m especially grateful to my fabulous former student, Sue Su. I formulated the original draft of this paper in my head, thanks to Sue Su’s many excellent questions relating to her own term paper. Without her questions, this paper probably would not exist.


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Tucker, C. Too far beyond the call of duty: moral rationalism and weighing reasons. Philos Stud 179, 2029–2052 (2022).

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  • Supererogation
  • Too far beyond the call of duty
  • Moral rationalism
  • Weighing reasons
  • Douglas Portmore