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

In the first part of this two-parter, I roughly presented Ross’ prima facie ethics, also called duty ethics.  In this second part, I wish to introduce his system to some moral problems to see if it can help us in our moral reasoning.

The first moral problem is this:  A woman is having a heart attack on the sidewalk and I am the only person witnessing this occurrence.  The closest phone is a block away and a child’s bike is nearby.  I know that if heart attacks are not treated immediately by professionals it could result in fatality.  The dilemma here is whether or not I should take the child’s bike (without his permission) to call for help and save the woman’s life.

In the current dilemma, there are two prima facie duties that are in conflict.  The first in the duty of nonmaleficence, implicit within which is the duty of harm prevention.  The second duty is to be just.  In this case, the fulfillment of the duty of harm prevention is to save to woman’s life by taking the child’s bike to call for help.  The other duty, the fulfillment of justice, is not that I should not do anything; rather, I would be unfairly distributing burdens onto the child, a burden that he has don nothing to merit, by taking his bike without his permission.  So what action should I take?  The actual duty (in contrast of prima facie duty – what seems to be the duty) in this situation, Ross would propose, where two prima facie duties conflict, is that moral intuition should take over and thus helping the woman seems more important than that of taking the bike, making saving the woman the actual duty.  Thus, I should take the bike to call for help.  It also seems that Ross would suggest that I could make up for the temporary bike loss by fulfilling one of the other prima facie duties of reparation, to find a way to make it up to the child.

With the last dilemma, it seems that Ross’ duty ethics might just work.  But let us for one moment examine another moral problem: the ethical permissibility of the death penalty.  Let us apply Ross’ ethics to duty to it and see if it works out.  Here, the prima facie duties apparent to be abided by or violated are the duties of non-injury and harm prevention (both are implicit in nonmaleficence) versus the duty of reparation.  Non-injury and harm prevention both strive to protect the person who is to be executed by appealing to the duty of doing no harm to others.  However, if the distribution of burdens and benefits is to be fair in the duty of reparation, then the person must be executed for the crime he has committed.

Here is where I think Ross’ theory is quite problematic.  In the case of the death penalty, if we are morally intuitively more inclined to say, in a specific situation, that non-injury and harm prevention should be more important than reparation, then the death penalty is impermissible.  On the contrary, if we are intuitively more inclined towards reparation, then it would seem as thought the death penalty is, not only permissible, but necessary.  In either case, the decision being made is one that is based upon moral intuition.  However, moral intuitions are evidently not the same for all persons thus rendering decisions to be subjective when prima facie duties conflict.

Take for example another similar moral problem: the problem of abortion.  The duties in conflict here are the duties of non-injury versus that of self-improvement.  In a situation where it would be better for the mother’s welfare to abort the child, it would seem appropriate to presume that Ross’ theory would allow such a choice to be ethically permissible.  However, if there would be no improvement of self for the mother if the child is to be aborted, then Ross would seem to suggest that she cannot abort the child.  Both of the duties, however, are up to the discretion of the mother and what she intuitively feels is more important; thus, there arises inconsistencies.  My criticism here is that when dealing with moral situations where our moral intuitions are more inclined towards certain prima facie duties, there arise inconsistencies in the moral decision making process as well as the moral choices made.

Accordingly, it seems that Ross’ system is fairly incomplete and does not tell us how to resolve conflicts of duties.  Or another similar criticism we can advance is that Ross does not place stringencies upon the obligations of the prima facie duties, resulting in our inability to know the criterion of moral rightness. In other words, Ross does not tell us which action is absolutely right or wrong.  Thus, when we want to assess the rightness and wrongness of an action we must look at the moral situation and assess it from our own moral intuitions, but just as we have seen, there arises both inconsistencies and contradictions because of the subjective nature of moral intuitions.

Ross is well aware of the above criticisms however:

But no act is ever, in virtue of falling under some general description, necessarily actually right; its rightness depends on its whole nature and not on any element in it.  The reason is that no mathematical object ever has two characteristics that tend to give it opposite resultant characteristics, while moral acts often (as everyone knows) and indeed always (as on reflection we must admit) have different characteristics that tend to make them at the same time prima facie right and prima facie wrong; there is probably no act, for instance, which does good to anyone without doing harm to some one else, and vice versa.

But here I think Ross complicates certain fundamental moral actions and prohibitions.  For instance, love is always a good moral action in any situation or killing an innocent person is always wrong.  There is more to this last thought, but my head is going crazy with all kinds of thoughts so I’ll leave it here for now.  If you have comments or questions, I’ll gladly entertain them.


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