Intentions, motives and supererogation

Claire Benn

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Amy saves a man from drowning despite the risk to herself, because she is moved by his plight. This is a quintessentially supererogatory act: an act that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Beth, on the other hand, saves a man from drowning because she wants to get her name in the paper. On this second example, opinions differ. One view of supererogation holds that, despite being optional and good, Beth's act is not supererogatory because she is not praiseworthy; the other agrees that Beth is not praiseworthy but holds that her act is nevertheless supererogatory because, while supererogatory actions are generally performed by praiseworthy agents, an individual need not be praiseworthy for their act to be supererogatory. In this paper, I raise a problem for this latter position, which I shall call the Anti-Motivation View of supererogation. While the Anti-Motivation View rejects the claim that the agent's motivations are important, it accepts that the agent's intentions are. Thus, this view assumes that a clear, coherent distinction can be drawn between intentions and motivations in the context of supererogation. This distinction is often attributed to Mill; however, his original discussion reveals an inconsistency. Consider Clara, who saves a man from drowning because she wants to torture him later. According to Mill, Clara's act is not morally good; those who follow Mill will have to accept that it is therefore not supererogatory. Mill asserts that Clara's act differs from Amy's and Beth's not just in motivation but also in intention. I question this explanation and demonstrate that the distinction between motivation and intention is not as clear as the Anti-Motivation View has supposed and that the gap between the Anti-Motivation View and the alternative Praise-Based View is either much greater or much smaller than previously thought
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)107-123
    JournalThe Journal of Value Inquiry
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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