Intentions, Motives and Supererogation

Journal of Value Inquiry

Author/s (editor/s):

Claire Benn

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

Find this publication at:

Claire Benn, ‘Intentions, Motives and Supererogation’, Journal of Value Inquiry, 53(1) 2019: 107-23.

Supererogatory actions go beyond the call of duty. They are actions that, while being morally good,1 are neither morally required nor morally forbidden. On these two features—goodness and optionality—all accounts of supererogation agree. I focus in this article on two further features proposed by some accounts of supererogation: praiseworthiness and intentionality.

With respect to supererogation and praiseworthiness—and the motivation of the agent more generally—two camps have emerged. According to one, the praiseworthiness of the agent is a necessary condition for an action to be supererogatory, while the other rejects that necessity. However, I challenge the idea that the latter camp can sufficiently distinguish themselves from the former without giving a radically permissive account of the supererogatory, given that both camps acknowledge the importance of the intentions of the agent.

In §2, I outline the two different positions on motivations taken by accounts of supererogation by introducing two cases of rescuing a drowning man. In §3, I explore the importance of intention for supererogation. I then turn, in §4, to the origins of the distinction between intentions and motivations. This gives us the third drowning man case. In light of this case, I challenge the distinction between intentions and motivations as construed by those who reject the claim that for an action to be supererogatory the agent must be praiseworthy. In §5, I examine possible responses to the three cases and argue that the two positions on praiseworthiness and supererogation are either much more radically different or much more similar than previously thought. I conclude in §6 with a final argument that the role that intentions play that make them so important is one that motives can have too.

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