Must I Do So? A Superficial Look At W.D. Ross’ Duty Ethics Part I

Having a chance to read Steven Kahn and Peter Markie’s exposition** on W.D. Rossduty ethics, I found his theory fascinating and therefore am now going dedicate a two-part blog to it.  I should note that the title of the blog post is an accurate reflection of the nature of the post, especially its nature as being superficial.  The following “critical look” is superficial since I’ve not actually read any of Ross’ works, but only encountered his system in a secondary way.

In the first part of this two-part series, I will simply present Ross’ system and I will evaluate it in the second part.

Ross found many problems with other ethical theories.  Ethical egoism, hedonistic utilitarianism, and rule/ideal utilitarianism are to name a few.  The criticism Ross advances toward ethical egoism, the theory that all ethical and moral actions are and should be beneficial to the subject performing the actions, is that a greater part of our duty is to respect and serve the needs and interests of others at whatever cost that is to ourselves.  Ross also finds problems with hedonistic utilitarianism because it finds human pleasure as the ultimate intrinsic good.  For Ross, pleasure is not the only intrinsic good since there are other intrinsic goods that we recognize, i.e. a good character in a person or an intelligent understanding of the world.  Yet, if we are to even reject hedonistic utilitarianism and adapt a simpler and purer form of utilitarianism, i.e. rule utilitarianism, Ross still sees problems with this adoption.  His criticism towards rule utilitarianism is that moral intuition (what he calls common sense) tells us that in certain situations, it is not the consequence of an act that makes the act right; rather, it is what has happened in the past that obligated the act that gives rightness to the act, e.g. making a promise obligates keeping it.

Since Ross is not happy with anyone else’s theory because he’s super picky, he proceeds to propose an ethical theory which involves duty.  This theory is partially grounded upon ethical intuitionism, a pluralistic, deontological position in normative ethics.  Thus, for Ross, an ethical dilemma is to be solved with one’s moral intuition with the action (duty) that one deems to hold more importance when faced with such. These duties are to be known, for Ross, through intuition but are also self-evident.

For Ross, there are objective moral truths and the basic ones are self-evident.  Ross insists that the basic principles of ethics are, like the principles of mathematics and logics, self-evident truths.  He observes that mathematical truths are truths in themselves and we accept them without the need for proofs.  Likewise, Ross says, “…when we have reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention to the proposition [that an act is prima facie right], it is evident without any need of proof or of evidence beyond itself.”  Notice here that Ross does not propose that the prima facie rightness of an act as being evident from the beginning of our lives, or that it is  evident from the first time that we attend to it; rather, it is evident from “sufficient mental maturity” and “sufficient attention” to the proposition.

Moreover, it is helpful here to direct our attention to a distinction between the rightness versus the goodness of an action.  The distinction is helpful insofar as it guides us to understand why Ross insists on the idea of moral actions as duties instead of supererogatory.  The distinction between the two, rightness and goodness, is that the former is the morally correct action itself and the latter is the morally correct action added with the good intention for such an action.  For his purpose, Ross deals strictly with the rightness of action.  Ross writes, “…I have urged, it is not our duty to have certain motives, but to do certain acts.”  And again, “…that it is our duty to do certain things, and not to do them from certain motives.”

Having established self-evident truths of morality and stating the scope of his project to be dealing with only rightness of the actions, Ross proposes what he calls the prima facie duties.  For Ross, ethical intuitions are best captured with prima facie duties, all other things being equal.  They are seven: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and nonmaleficence.

Before moving into an explanation for the list of seven prima facie duties, however, I want to address the reason why Ross chose to them the name.  Ross acknowledges the difficulty for the term duty since “it suggests that what we are speaking of is a certain kind of duty, whereas it is in fact not a duty, but something related in a special way to duty.”  Additionally, Ross acknowledges that prima facie seems to “suggest that one is speaking only of an appearance which a moral situation presents at first sight, and which may turn out to be illusory.”  However, what Ross is proposing is that one attends to the objective dimension of moral dilemma, an “element of its nature,” but not its whole nature (which duty proper does).  Further, given the nature of certain duties we have under certain situations, Ross proposes prima facie duties in contrast to duty proper:

I suggest ‘prima facie duty’ or ‘conditional duty’ as a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant.

Having explained the reason for his choosing the terms ‘prima facie duties,’ Ross moves enlists seven of such duties and an explanation for each.  For the duty of fidelity he suggests that for us to have made a promise in the past, it becomes our duty to keep such a promise.  Accordingly and implicitly, with the duty to keep promises is the duty of fidelity, that is, the promise not to tell lies; thus we should not lie.  Thirdly, the duty of reparation is, as the word suggests, to make up for what we have done wrongly to others.  Fourth, we have the duty to show gratitude to others who have done some good to or for us.  Ross suggests that, if it is possible, we should return such good acts to others.  Justice, for Ross’ purpose, is defined as “the bringing about of a distribution of happiness between other people in proportion to merit.”  Therefore in this sense, justice is not being fair; rather, to distribute burdens and benefits fairly when acting.  The duty of beneficence, for Ross, is to do good to others and to better their conditions in respect of virtue, intelligence, or of pleasure.  Another prima facie duty is the duty to better ourselves, aptly called ‘self-improvement.’  This duty, as obvious by the definition, is the duty to “improve our own condition in respect of virtue or of intelligence.”  And last, but certainly not least or less significant, is the duty of nonmaleficence.  This is the duty to do no harm to others (either physical or psychological) and, implicit in the duty, to prevent harm from others from causes other than himself.

**Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations for this series of blogs will come directly from the Cahn and Markie text.

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One comment on “Must I Do So? A Superficial Look At W.D. Ross’ Duty Ethics Part I

  1. […] the first part of this two-parter, I roughly presented Ross’ prima facie ethics, also called duty ethics. […]

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