The men and women struggling to avert disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant are becoming the faceless heroes of the worst nuclear industry crisis in Japan’s history. From what I’ve heard last, 3 of them have already died, others have been hospitalized and the rest are still trying to keep the nuclear plant under control. Their deeds can be included in the highly debatable category of supererogation acts.
The concept of supererogation is controversial and cannot be captured by a strict formal definition. The Latin etymology of “supererogation” is paying out more than is due (super-erogare). Supererogatory actions are those actions beyond duty, morally good, but not necessary or required. In other words, supererogatory behavior is fully optional.
Immanuel Kant, in its Foundation of Metaphysics of Morals classifies this actions as being morally imperfect since there is no morally imperative about the hero’s actions. Kantian ethics is based on the idea of moral laws and duty as being the only conceivable expression of moral values in human action. However, he doesn’t think much of sacrifice: he considers that it implies selfishness and vanity, which are not correlated to moral laws, and may even be a violation of the duty itself.
On the other hand, from a utilitarian perspective, Mill assumes that not asking much from people would encourage them to do the right thing and to promote general utility. This may be one way of interpreting the courage of the Fukushima 50 or even the education of the Japanese people: they have been working under the constant threat of radiation sickness, fires and explosions.
Going above and beyond the call of moral duty is what we can call their action – sacrificing their selves for the greater good, for the salvation of a nation. Certainly this example should remain as paradigm of courage and why not, it could revive the discussions on the concept of “supererogation”.