Lecture Supplement on W.D. Ross’ “What Makes Right Acts Right?” [1930][1]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


I. Introduction:


Here we combine aspects of Mill and Kant in what Pojman calls an “ethical intuitionism.”[2]  Against utilitarianism, Ross contends that we have an intuitive knowledge of the rightness and wrongness of acts that doesn’t amount to the evaluation of the consequences of our actions.  Unlike Kantianism, however, Ross contends that this intuitive knowledge doesn’t consist of a set of moral absolutes that can not be overridden.  In short, Ross contends that our moral principles present us with prima facie duties.[3]  While these duties’ value is not upon circumstances, their applicability is so dependent.  Ross contends that circumstances are extremely important in determining our overall duty, and here our perception of the situation is also extremely important. 


     Ross is careful to warn us about a possible misunderstanding of his theory.  One might construe prima facie duties as “things” which appear to be duties but are not in reality such.  He contends that this would be a complete misinterpretation of his view however.  Ross insists that when an act is a prima facie duty, this is an objective fact about it—it is a duty.  Its “prima facie” character comes from considering the action in this single light alone.  That is, being a prima facie duty is a “parti-resultant” property of an action—it is an objective fact about the act from a single perspective. 


     According to Ross, “duty proper” is a “toti-resultant” property that is determined by looking at the total situation—and this usually involves considering a number of different (and conflicting) prima facie duties! 


     As Fred Feldman points out, Ross’s moral theory is pluralistic—Ross claims there are several characteristics which make an act right, and they are not reducible to some one characteristic or formula.[4] 


     There are some attractive advantages to the sort of view that Ross offers—it seems to pay attention to both the consequences and to our duty (judged independently of the consequences of our actions).  There is an accompanying disadvantage to his sort of view however: it does not give a clear-cut decision procedure (it does not explicitly tell us what is right and what is wrong).  Here the views of Kant and Mill are superior—they tell us, absolutely, what we ought to do! 


     Ross is well aware of this fact, however:


it is worth while to try to state more definitely the nature of the acts that are right.  We may try to state first what (if anything) is the universal nature of all acts that are right.  It is obvious that any of the acts that we do has countless effects, directly or indirectly, on countless people, and the probability is that any act, however right it may be, will have adverse effects (though these may be very trivial) on some innocent people.  Similarly, any wrong act will probably have beneficial effects on some deserving people.  Every act therefore, viewed in some aspects will be prima facie right, and viewed in others, prima facie wrong, and right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima facie wrongness, in those respects in which they are wrong....For the estimation of the comparative stringency of these prima facie obligations no general rules can, so far as I can see, be laid down.[5] 


     While Pojman characterizes Ross as an ethical intuitionist, and while we will see passages in his work which strongly support this view of his moral theory, the above citation (and similar ones) are indicative of the fact that he denies that we have some special intuitive faculty which enables us to clearly and exactly know what our duty is in a situation.  He does think we have such a “sense,” but it is “highly fallible, but it is the only guide we have to our duty.”[6] 


     Cf., p. 327 of our reading selection!  Note his discussion of the contrasts and similarities between ethical and scientific procedures. 


     Also, explain the notion of “reflective equilibrium.” 


II. The Text:


320 G.E. Moore offers what Ross calls an “ideal utilitarianism”—one which holds that “...what makes acts right is that they are productive of more good than could have been produced by any other action open to the agent.”  Ross holds that this sort of utilitarianism is the result of a long series of developments of theories that base rightness on productivity of some result:


-Egoism is the “first” such theory.  It “comes to grief over the fact, which stares us in the face, that a great part of duty consists in observance of the rights and a furtherance of the interests of others....” 


-Hedonistic utilitarianism modifies egoism to include this fact, but it is also inadequate.  “On reflection it seems clear that pleasure is not the only thing in life that we think good in itself.” 


-G.E. Moore’s “ideal utilitarianism” which counsels doing those acts which are “productive of the greatest good,” then, marks a significant advance over both egoism and hedonistic utilitarianism (since “good,” here, is far more widely construed than “pleasure” [or, perhaps, “happiness”]). 


--Ross points out that “ideal” utilitarianism is, really, presupposed by hedonistic utilitarianism: if the hedonists didn’t believe that pleasure was good, their view would loose its luster—it would no longer make sense to maximize it. 


But, Ross contends, “productivity of maximum good” is not what makes all acts right:


-“When a plain man fulfills a promise because he thinks he ought to do so, it seems clear that he does so with no thought of its total consequences, still less with any opinion that these are likely to be the best possible.  He thinks in fact much more of the past than of the future.  What makes him think it is right to act in a certain way is the fact that he has promised to do so—that and, usually, nothing more.” 


--Consider a case where I get better consequences if I break a trivial promise—does this sort of case imply that utilitarianism is correct?  No—conflicting obligations! 


-321 “It may be said that besides the duty of fulfilling promises I have and recognize a duty of relieving distress, and that when I think it right to do the latter at the cost of not doing the former, it is not because I think I shall produce more good thereby but because I think it the duty which is in the circumstances more of a duty.” 


321 Two Key Passages for understanding Ross’ orientation:


-A. Kant vs. Utilitarianism: “there are two theories, each in its way simple, that offer a solution of such cases of conscience.  One is the view of Kant, that there are certain duties of perfect obligation, such as those of fulfilling promises, of paying debts, of telling the truth, which admit of no exception whatever in favor of duties of imperfect obligation, such as that of relieving distress.  The other is the view of, for instance, Professor Moore and Dr. Rashdall, that there is only the duty of ‘producing good’, and that all ‘conflicts of duties’ should be resolved by asking ‘by which action will the most good be produced?’  But it is more important that our theory fit the facts than that it be simple, and the account we have given above corresponds (it seems to me) better than either of the simpler theories with what we really think....” 


-B. Prima facie duties: “...Moore seems to simplify unduly our relations to our fellows.  [He] says, in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbors stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my action.  They do stand in this relation to me, and this relation is morally significant.  But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case.  When I am in a situation, as perhaps I always am, in which more than one of these prima facie duties is incumbent on me, what I have to do is to study the situation as fully as I can until I form the considered opinion (it is never more) that in the circumstances one of them is more incumbent than any other; then I am bound to think that to do this prima facie duty is my duty sans phrase in the situation.”[7] 


--Note that one could contend that Kant has a non-relational ethics.  For him there is only one relationship one can stand in which is important, and it is one’s relationship to rationality itself.  It is not people one truly cares about but, rather, reason and rationality.  This point makes Alan Goldman’s criticism especially appropriate: “if my spouse or children thought that I am moved to provide...for them primarily because I perceive this as the rational thing to do, they would be repelled by my peculiar psychology.”[8] 


--In effect, we can construct a version of the critique which Bernard Williams deploys against utilitarianism by building upon Ross here: just as, according to Williams, utilitarianism alienates individuals from their projects and themselves, so Kantianism alienates individuals from their projects and themselves.  Whereas utilitarianism stresses exclusively our relation to others as beneficiaries of our actions, Kantianism stresses exclusively our relation to others as rational beings (or “instances of pure reason”)—both theories ignore the multitude of other relationships we bear to one another.[9] 


321-322 There is nothing arbitrary about prima facie duties according to Ross: “each rests on a definite circumstance which cannot seriously be held to be without moral significance.”  That is, for Ross, the question of whether or not something is prima facie obligatory is one which is a matter of fact one.  `Prima facie’, then, modifies not the obligatory character of the action but, rather, the question of whether or not it must, all things considered, be done.  In short, the prima facie duties are obligations, but they can be (and often are) over-ridden by other prima facie duties. 


-Cf., footnote 3 [p. 327] and his discussion there of his “intuitionism.”  Together these discussions clarify the core of his “support” for his view.  Note how different his theory is on this point from that of Kant and Mill. 


322 Ross contends that there are at least six types of prima facie duties:


1. Duties of Fidelity: those that rest upon previous acts of my own (promising and reparation). 


2. Duties of Gratitude: those that rest upon previous acts of others (gratitude). 


3. Duties of Justice: those that rest on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (justice). 


4. Duties of Beneficence: those that rest on the fact that there are others whose condition we may make better (benevolence). 


5. Duties of Self-Improvement: those that rest on the fact that we may make ourselves better (self-improvement). 


6. Duties of Non-Maleficence: those that rest on our obligation to not injure others (non-maleficence). 


-He does not claim his list of prima facie duties is an ultimate list. 


-He recognizes that his theory does not provide a decision procedure for recognition of our duties:


--323 “...in principle there is no reason to anticipate that every act that is our duty is so for one and the same reason.  Why should two sets of circumstances, or one set of circumstances, not possess different characteristics, any one of which makes a certain act our prima facie duty.”  According to him, we can not hope to reduce all duties to one sort of grounding. 


--323-324 Nonetheless, he wishes to remain a “moral objectivist:” “...when we have reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention to the proposition it is evident without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself.  It is self-evident just as a mathematical axiom, or the validity of a form of inference is evident.  The moral order expressed in these propositions is just as much part of the fundamental nature of the universe...as is the spatial or numerical structure expressed in the axioms of geometry or arithmetic.” 


-324 Ross contends that sometimes our obligation may not be to produce the best consequences.  Consider this case:


-A promise to A which nets 1,000 units of good to A in a situation where another act will produce 1,001 units of good to B.  Should I void my promise? 


--324-325 “Such instances—and they might easily be added to—make it clear that there is no self-evident connection between the attributes `right’ and ‘optimific’. 


--326 “To make a promise is not merely to adopt an ingenious device for promoting the general well-being; it is to put oneself in a new relation to one person in particular, a relation which creates a specifically new prima facie duty to him, not reducible to the duty of promoting the general well-being of society.” 


327 Ross contends that the fact that a certain sort of action is prima facie right is self-evident to us.  He offers a capsule-version of the methodology which he recommends in the following: “what we think” [the appeal to our moral intuitions], contains a lot of moral knowledge!  While in science we appeal to our sensory experiences, in morality we appeal to our moral intuitions.  Or, rather, he appeals to the moral intuitions of “thoughtful and well-educated people.”  His discussion of the differences and similarities of science and ethics here focuses upon the fallibility of the appeals in each case (whether to sensory experience, or to moral intuitions). 


-The judgments we make as to our duties all-things-considered are not at all certain: they are not self-evident, nor are they the results of deductions based upon self-evident truths. 


-This does not mean that morality is to be left to chance.  There is a similarity here to our attempts to judge what is in our long-run personal advantage.  While we can not be certain that a particular action will be in our long-run advantage, we have learned that careful judgment is better than capricious choice! 


-“We have no more direct way of access to the facts about rightness and goodness and about what things are right or good, than by thinking about them; the moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people are the data of ethics just as sense-perceptions are the data of a natural science.  Just as some of the latter have to be rejected as illusory, so have some of the former...[but] only when they are in conflict with convictions which stand better the test of reflection.  They existing body of moral convictions of the best people is the cumulative product of the moral reflection of many generations....” 




In regard to the appeal to our moral “intuitions,” you may find Jonathan Bennett’s “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn” interesting.[10]  Bennett’s essay helps us see the importance of narratives for ethical theory—novels, plays, and other fictional resources can help develop and hone our moral sensibilities and intuitions.  Similarly, in his “Giving The Truth A Hand,” Edward Rothstein maintains that careful consideration of powerful metaphors play a similar role—metaphors are a basic activity of the mind which “...permeate our lives, determining how we think and affecting our understanding.  We speak of time, for example, as money....”[11]  Finally, a story by Ambrose Bierce, “A Horseman In The Sky,”[12] provides a powerful intuitive response to a Kantian overemphasis upon the dignity of acting from the conception of duty. 


     Finally, a process called “reflective equilibrium” can also be of assistance and importance here.  This notion was “introduced” by Nelson Goodman in his Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.[13]  Stephen Stich offers an important critique in his “Reflective Equilibrium, Analytic Philosophy, and the Problem of Cognitive Diversity.”[14]  In her Considered Judgment, Catherine Elgin criticizes some of Stich’s criticisms of reflective equilibrium.[15] 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] The lecture supplement is to a selection in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 319-327.  The selection is a substantial portion of Chapter II of W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1930).  The work is reprinted by Hackett in 1988. 

[2] Louis Pojman, “Introductory Remarks” to Ross selection, in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, op. cit., p. 319. 

[3]Prima facie’ may be translated as “on first appearance,” or “the face of it.” 

[4] Cf., Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), p. 149—this is on reserve in the Library.  Here Feldman maintains that Ross’ theory is unlike the “monistic” theories of Kantianism and Utilitarianism in that it “...claims that there are several distinct characteristics, not reducible to a single one, and one of which tend to make an act right.” 

[5] W.D. Ross, The Right and The Good (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1930), p. 41.  The work is reprinted by Hackett in 1988 with the same pagination. 

[6] Ibid., p. 42. 

[7] `Sans phrase’ may be translated as “without qualification.” 

[8] Alan Goldman, Moral Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1988), p.107. 

[9] Cf., Bernard Williams, “Against Utilitarianism,” in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 245-254.  Williams’ essay originally appeared in Utilitarianism: For and Against, Bernard Williams and J.J.C. Smart (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1973), pp. 226-235. 

[10] Jonathan Bennett, “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn,” in Philosophy v. 49 (1974). 

[11] Edward Rothstein, “Giving The Truth A Hand,” the New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1999. p. 25. 

[12] Ambrose Bierce's “A Horseman in the Sky” was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on April 14, 1889.  Bierce published a slightly altered version in his Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891. 

[13] Cf., Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp. 66-67. 

[14] Stephen Stich, “Reflective Equilibrium, Analytic Epistemology, and the Problem of Cognitive Diversity,” Synthese v. 74 (1988), pp. 391-413.  Reprinted in Contemporary Readings in Epistemology, eds. Michael Goodman and Robert Snyder (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), pp. 350-364. 

[15] Cf., Catherine Elgin, Considered Judgment (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1996), pp. 118-119. 

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