AskDefine | Define supererogation

Dictionary Definition

supererogation n : an effort above and beyond the call of duty

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Doing more than is required.
    Surprisingly, the history of supererogation in non-religious ethical theory is very recent, (...) — David Heyd: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Extensive Definition

Supererogation (Late Lat. supererogatio, payment beyond what is due or asked, from super, beyond, erogare, to pay out, expend, ex, out, rogare, to ask) is the performance of more than is asked for, the action of doing more than duty requires. Supererogatory, in ethics, indicates an act that is good but not morally required to be done. It refers to an act that is more than necessary, when another course of action, involving less, would still be an acceptable action. It differs from a duty, which is an act that would be wrong not to do, and from acts that are morally equivalent.

In theology


In the theology of the Roman Catholic Church, "works of supererogation" (also called "acts of supererogation") are those which are performed beyond what is required by God. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that while everyone is free to marry, it is better to refrain from marriage and remain celibate in order to better serve God. The Roman Catholic Church holds that the counsels of perfection are supererogatory acts, which specific Christians may engage in above their moral duties. Similarly, it teaches that to determine how to act, one must engage in reasonable efforts to be sure of what the right actions is; after the reasonable action, the person is in a state of invincible ignorance and guiltless of wrongdoing, but to undertake more than reasonable actions to overcome ignorance is supererogatory, and praiseworthy.
According to the classic teaching on indulgences, the works of supererogation performed by all the saints form a treasure with God that the church can apply to exempt repentant sinners from the works of penitence that would otherwise be required of them to achieve full reconciliation with the church. Opposition to this teaching and the abuses arising out of it was the main point of Martin Luther when he began opposing the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and thus a seed of the Protestant Reformation as a whole. The Anglican Church of England denied the doctrine of supererogation in the fourteenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles.


A Muslim must engage in a minimum number of daily prayers. To do nafl prayers (prayers in addition to the minimum number) is supererogatory. There are also several other supererogatory acts in Islam, like extra fasting or the giving of sadaqa (a voluntary Islamic charity, which may be financial assistance or even a smile to someone), which is not obligatory.

In ethics

Whether an act is supererogatory, or obligatory, can be debated. In many schools of thought, donating money to charity is supererogatory. In others, where some level of charitable donation is regarded as a duty — such as tithe in Judaism and many Christian sects — exceeding it is a supererogatory act.
In criminal law, it may be observed that state prohibitions on killing, stealing, and so on derive from the state's duty to protect one's own citizens. However, a nation state has no duty to protect the citizens of an adjacent nation from crime. To send a peacekeeping force into another country would be (in the view of the nation doing it) supererogatory.
Some schools of ethics do not include supererogatory acts. In utilitarianism, an act can only be better because it would bring more good to a greater number, and in that case, becomes a duty, not a supererogatory act.

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