–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Chapter Two of The Right and the Good, by W.D. Ross (1930)

by | Jun 9, 2024

People who are familiar with my work know that I am an admirer of W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good and think it is one of the best works of moral philosophy of the last century (the others would be between Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue), so it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed teaching this material, when I was still a working professor.

Ross’s take on what moral theorizing consists of reveals something that both the Kantian and the Utilitarian have in common: they both see moral theorizing as fundamentally prescriptive in nature. That is, they take moral theory as being prior to and determining moral practice: one first identifies the general character of moral obligatoriness and prohibitedness, by way of philosophical theorizing, and then, using it as a criterion, identifies what one’s duties and obligations are, irrespective of what one might have thought prior to having theorized. Felt obligated to keep a promise to a friend? Well, you were wrong, the Utilitarian says, because your duty is to maximize happiness, and if you broke your promise, there are things you could do instead that would more effectively accomplish this. Thought you should lie, when the SS officer asked if you were hiding Jews in your attic? That would be a mistake, the Kantian says, because you are obligated to act only on principles that you can rationally universalize, and one cannot rationally will a principle of universal dishonesty.  

Ross takes the opposite approach. For him, that we feel morally obligated in various ways is a fundamental, basic fact about us that arises from our activities and relationships with other people. Someone does me a kindness, and I feel obligated to demonstrate my gratitude in some way. I promise someone that I will do something, and I feel obligated to follow through on it. I see someone suffering, and I feel obligated to help. These are basic phenomena of normal, day-to-day moral life, and not only are they not the products of ethical theories, they are what motivate and provide the grounds for them. Were feelings of obligation not fundamental elements of human interaction and social life, it would never occur to us to engage in ethical theorizing in the first place, and once we do, those feelings become the subject-matter of that theorizing, the purpose of which is to help us better understand them. Our feelings of obligation are to moral theorizing as our sensory experiences and observations are to scientific theorizing. In each case there is a set of phenomena in which we take a considerable interest, and the aim of the relevant theorizing is to give some rational account of it; to make sense of it in a distinctly philosophical way. As Ross put it, “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.”

Some, like Peter Singer, who are committed to the prescriptive model of ethical theorizing maintain that this picture misses the extent to which theory may – and should – be used to correct our pre-theoretical feelings of obligation which, after all, may be wrong, and which is supposed to demonstrate that the analogy with sense experience and science is a bad one. But Ross thinks that this represents a misunderstanding. For one thing, our observations may also be mistaken, but that is not something that can be determined by way of a theory, but only by further observations and entails nothing different about the relationship between observations and theories in science. Correspondingly, our feelings of obligation may be overridden, but only by other feelings of obligation that may arise upon further consideration of the relevant situation. “Just as some of the latter [sense experiences] have to be rejected as illusory, so have some of the former [feelings of obligation],” Ross explains. “But as the latter are rejected only when they are in conflict with other more accurate sense-perceptions, the former are rejected only when they are in conflict with other convictions which stand better the test of reflection.” To think otherwise – to think that a theory could override the feeling that I am obligated in one way or another – would be akin to thinking that an aesthetic theory could override my experience of something as beautiful, because according to the “correct” theory of beauty, it shouldn’t be experienced as such, which is absurd.

Ross describes the feelings of obligation that arise from our activities and relationships with other people as prima facie duties; as duties on their face and presumed obligatory until demonstrated otherwise. There may be as many of these as there are dimensions of our relationships and activities, and Ross outlines just a small number of them in The Right and the Good:

1. Some duties rest on previous acts of my own. These duties seem to include two kinds, (a) those resting on a promise or what may fairly be called an implicit promise, such as the implicit undertaking not to tell lies which seems to be implied in the act of entering into conversation (at any rate by civilized men), or of writing books that purport to be history and not fiction. These may be called the duties of fidelity, (b) Those resting on a previous wrongful act. These may be called the duties of reparation. 2. Some rest on previous acts of other men, i.e., services done by them to me. These may be loosely described as the duties of gratitude. 3. Some rest on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (or of the means thereto) which is not in accordance with the merit of the persons concerned; in such cases there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution. These are the duties of justice. 5. Some rest on the mere fact that there are other beings in the world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure. These are the duties of beneficence. 6. Some rest on the fact that we can improve our own condition in respect of virtue or of intelligence. These are the duties of self-improvement.

But what determines our actual duty, on a given occasion, for it seems quite clear that in a particular situation, more than one prima facie duty may be in play and may even conflict? A promise I’ve made to meet you for lunch is a duty of fidelity and requires me to honor it, but if I pass a burning car wreck on the road, with a bleeding person lying next to it, a duty of beneficence also arises, namely that of helping to save the person’s life. In this case, I cannot act on both, so beyond the question of what my prima facie duties are, the further question of what is – and what determines – my actual duty now becomes pressing.

Ross’s answer here seems to me exactly the right one, but it inevitably frustrates those who are committed to ethical theory in its traditional role. In determining our actual duty on any given occasion, we must consider all of our prima facie duties, as well as the specific details of the current situation, and then make a judgment as to which prima facie duty is the most significant one, given that situation. Once we have done that, the other competing duties are not so much overridden as temporarily defeated, the evidence for which is that they continue to exert influence over our actions, both present and future. If, in the case I’ve described, I’ve deemed my duty to help save the person’s life more significant than my duty to keep my promise to meet you for lunch, I may apologize to you for standing you up, suggest that we meet for lunch another time, and even offer to pay for your lunch, as recompense for breaking my promise to you, none of which I would likely do, if the duty to keep my promise truly had been overridden.

To the extent that this picture is grounded in perception and judgment, it is characterized by fallibility. I could get things wrong. It also shows that what I ought to do – my actual duty – cannot be determined in advance, by way of any general principle or line of reasoning that a theory might provide me with. Each determination of an actual duty is the result of a carefully considered judgment, based on a number of feelings of obligation and both a perception and assessment of the present situation. Those who are wedded to ethical theorizing in its traditional mode take this as a reason for rejecting Ross’s approach, but I would maintain that it is a strength, rather than a weakness. After all, ethical life looks exactly as you’d think it would if Ross were correct. We experience profound, wrenching moral dilemmas, in which duties conflict; we have to make judgments in order to get through those dilemmas; and we can and often do get things wrong when we make those judgments. Meanwhile, ethical life looks nothing at all like it should if Kant or the Utilitarians are correct. On their view, there should be no moral dilemmas or need for judgment. Moral decision making should proceed as per a theoretical calculus, with the only difficulty being essentially akratic; i.e. an inability to make ourselves do what we know is the right thing.  

I would maintain that if anyone reflects earnestly on his or her own experience of moral life, it will quickly become evident that it is nothing like this.