In moral philosophy we sometimes talk about a category of action called “the supererogatory.” Supererogatory actions are heroic. They are not required, it’s not the case that anyone has to do them; they go beyond the call of duty. But they are not forbidden either. They’re optional. But they're very good. Very, very good. Now, the thing about this particular moral category that we have to watch out for is that sometimes, because it is human nature to be lazy about doing what is required by morality, it is easy for us to slip into thinking that when we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re doing something especially laudable, supererogatory, heroic. But remember, supererogatory acts are more than what we're supposed to do. We can be morally good without being heros.
For example, imagine a household in which there is a father and a mother and two small children. Imagine, further, that both parents have day jobs. Stretch the imagination still a little further to picture that, usually, at the end of the day, the mother gets the meal on the table, cleans up the kitchen, and gets the kids ready for bed. Except on Fridays. On Fridays, the big treat is that Dad picks up pizza and a DVD on the way home from work and makes a salad and puts the dinner on the table and disposes of the box and puts the glasses in the dishwasher, gets the movie going, puts the popcorn in the microwave, and eventually gets the kids ready for bed and reads them a story. Sometimes, when Dads do this sort of thing, everyone jumps up and down with praise. Wow, isn’t Dad wonderful! He takes over every single Friday night! Hello! This is not heroic. In fact, this Dad is not doing his fair share of the domestic labour. And when Mum goes out to her book group for the evening once a month on Wednesdays, Dad is NOT, I repeat, he is NOT, babysitting. He’s a parent. Parents spend time with their children. He does not deserve a hero cookie. If anyone deserves one, it's the mother. She's doing more than she should. That’s just one example. It’s nice to encourage people, but let’s remember that doing what you’re supposed to do is not heroic, even if lots of others don’t do it.
For more writings about heros, heroines, heroism and the heroic, see this week's Sunday Scribblings.