A Case of Value Pluralism: W.D. Ross

There are two main ethical theories, and both fail to capture the basic convictions of the plain person, which R. values highly:

1.      Consequentialism: an action is right to the extent that it maximizes the good


         Some duties are not fully dependent on consequences.For example,

o   When I keep a promise, I think of the past (the act of promising) more than the future

o   If the same amount of good would be caused by keeping my promise and by helping one to whom I made no promise, I would still see the former as my duty

         Morally, my relation to others is not just one of benefactor and beneficiary

2.      Kant: an action is right just in case it obeys the CI


         Duties of perfect obligation such as telling the truth admit of no exception in favor of duties of imperfect obligation, such as relieving distress.The results are too counterintuitive to be acceptable.

         The motive of duty is not the only one that has moral worth

Note that Utilitarians would not be moved by Rís charge that Util. is not attuned to common sense.

Prima Facie Duty

         Prima Facie Duty is the characteristic of an act in virtue of which the act tends to be right

         A PF duty can be outweighed only by another PF duty

         PF duties are self-evident in the sense that an intellectually mature plain person will take them as not requiring any proof or evidence beyond themselves.These intuitions about PF duties are the basic data of ethics, much as sense experiences are the basic data of science.

         A list of PF duties:

                                i.            Fidelity: telling the truth, keeping promises and contracts

                              ii.            Reparation: making up for my previous wrongs

                            iii.            Gratitude: repaying good with good

                            iv.            Justice: ensuring that happiness is distributed according to merit

                              v.            Beneficence: helping others, promoting the maximum aggregate of good

                            vi.            Self-improvement: Improving ourselves

                          vii.            Non-maleficence: not harming others

PF duties are not all equally important.For example, the duty of non-maleficence is more important than that of beneficence, and the duties of fidelity, reparation, and gratitude are more important than that of beneficence because they rest on personal relations with others, which generate special rather than general duties.

Thought question: Would you add some PF duties to Rís list?How about respect for freedom? Or care for people related to us? OrÖ.

Actual duties

         In the absence of other conflicting PF duties, a PF duty is an actual duty

         When PF duties conflict in a given situation, things can get complicated because context matters

o   The actual duty is that which would be discovered by one who had perfect knowledge.In other words, there is a truth to the matter of what oneís actual duty is: Ross is a moral realist

o   However, in practice, the best we can do is to reflect about the situation and balance the various PF duties to arrive at a considered opinion.For example, for most people in the Danish fisherman case the actual duty is to lie to the Nazi officer because the PF duty of telling the truth is outweighed by the PF duty of not causing harm.Different persons can come to different conclusions and we can never be absolutely sure we have done the right thing; still, reflection and experience help.From the fact that we donít know everything it does not follow we know nothing and we should act randomly.

o   Although R. does not give a procedure, we could follow the following procedure to arrive at a determination of an actual duty: for each action you are considering, determine how well it satisfies each of the PF duties, perhaps by assigning a number from 0 (goes against) to 10 (fully satisfies).†† Give a weight to the various PF duties; for example, non-maleficence 100%; reparation 90%....Then add the weighted numbers and perform an action such that no other has a higher number.

Thought Questions:

         I could go see MozartísDon Giovanni or I could stay with my friend Joe who is depressed because his girlfriend has dumped him big time.Whatís my actual duty?

         I promised Jim on his death bed that I would give his money to the Big-Eaters Club.But with that money I could save 1000 starving children.What should I do?

         I promised Jim on his death bed to give his money to a group that only now I can see is in fact associated with the Nazi Party, and that will use the money to harm people.Whatís my actual duty?



         How do we know which PF duties are relevant, as much depends on how we describe a case?

         How do we rank PF duties?

         How can one overcome disagreement?Some of it depends on factual disagreement, but some does not, e.g., ranking of PF duties

         Are Rís, and the plain manís, intuitions about PF duties just a byproduct of his own historically determined and parochial culture?R. compares them to mathematical intuitions, but is he right?