A Simple and Usable (Although Incomplete)
Ethical Theory Based on the Ethics of
W. D. Ross

By Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Revision: August 10, 2004.

The purpose of this essay is to introduce a simple ethical theory and to give credit to the thinker who is the source of most of the ideas in it. This essay does not pretend to fully set forth W. D. Rossís "moral intuitionist" theory, which is considerably more sophisticated than a brief discussion can show. Direct references below to Ross's words refer to The Right and the Good (2002). For more on Ross, see the items by Ross, Regan, and Stout in the Bibliography.
Contents
The Prima Facie Duties or Moral Guidelines
Applying the Prima Facie Duties
When the Guidelines Conflict
Priority Rules
Importance of Avoiding Misuse
Moral Intuitionism
The Source of Moral Intuitions

The Prima Facie Duties or Moral Guidelines

According to W. D. Ross (1877-1971), there are several prima facie duties that we can use to determine what, concretely, we ought to do. A prima facie duty is a duty that is binding (obligatory) other things equal, that is, unless it is overridden or trumped by another duty or duties. Another way of putting it is that where there is a prima facie duty to do something, there is at least a fairly strong presumption in favor of doing it. An example of a prima facie duty is the duty to keep promises. "Unless stronger moral considerations override, one ought to keep a promise made."

By contrast with prima facie duties, our actual or concrete duty is the duty we should perform in the particular situation of choice. Whatever one's actual duty is, one is morally bound to perform it. Prima facie duties relate to actual duties as reasons do to conclusions of reasoning.

Note: The term "duty" in "prima facie duty" is slightly misleading. The prima facie duties are understood as guidelines, not rules without exception. If an action does not correspond to a specific guideline, one is not necessarily violating a rule that one ought to follow. However, not following the rule one ought to follow in a particular case is failing to do one's (actual) duty. In such cases it makes sense to talk about violating a rule. The rule might be the same in words as a prima facie duty (minus the phrase "unless other moral considerations override"), but it would no longer be merely a guideline because it describes what one concretely should do.

The prima facie duties include

1. Fidelity. Duties of fidelity are duties to keep oneís promises and contracts and not to engage in deception. Ross describes them as "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 . . . or of writing books that purport to be history and not fiction" (Ross, 21)

2. Reparation. This is a duty to make up for the injuries one has done to others. Ross describes this duty as "resting on a previous wrongful act" (Ross, ibid.)

3. Gratitude. The duty of gratitude is a duty to be grateful for benefactions done to oneself and if possible to show it by benefactions in return.

4. Non-injury. The duty of non-injury (also known as non-maleficence) is the duty not to harm others physically or psychologically: to avoid harming their health, security, intelligence, character, or happiness. (21-22)

Added August 2004: Jacques Thiroux (2001, 65) claims that Ross' duty of non-injury includes a duty to prevent injury to others. This seems to be wrong regarding Ross, but it might be reasonable to add such a prima facie duty to the list. Non-injury in Ross' strict sense is distinct from the prevention of harm to others. Non-injury instructs us generally to avoid intentionally, negligently, or ignorantly (when ignorance is avoidable) harming others. Harm-prevention instructs us generally to make a real effort to prevent harm to others from causes other than ourselves.

See also the comment following the discussion of beneficence.

5. Harm-Prevention. Once again, this is the prima facie duty of a person to prevent harm to others from causes other than him- or herself.

6. Beneficence. The duty to do good to others: to foster their health, security, wisdom, moral goodness, or happiness. This duty, says Ross, "rests upon the 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" (Ross, 21-22).

Added August 2004: Beneficence and harm-prevention are clearly related. There is an obvious sense in which to prevent harm to persons is to do them good. But this is trivially true, normally not even worth saying (just as it's normally not worth saying that there is at least one person in the room when we already know there are two persons in the room).

How, if at all, can we distinguish between harm-prevention, on the one hand, and beneficence in the strict sense, on the other, that is, beneficence that is not primarily harm-prevention? And why should we bother? Let's answer the second question first: We should bother because frequently harm-prevention is morally more demanding than beneficence. If the alternative is between preventing a toddler from wandering into a busy street and playing catch with her sister, it is clear what should take priority.

But how can we distinguish harm-prevention from beneficence in the strict sense? Loosely, harm seems to be whatever significantly degrades, or risks degrading, our health or other capabilities for coping with and getting the most out of life. By contrast, benefit seems to be whatever enhances, or is likely to enhance, those same things.

7. Self-Improvement. The duty of self-improvement is to act so as to promote oneís own good, i.e., oneís own health, security, wisdom, moral goodness, and happiness. Ross himself mentions "virtue" or "intelligence" in this connection (21).

8. Justice. The duty of justice requires that one act in such a way that one distributes benefits and burdens fairly. Ross himself emphasizes the negative aspect of this duty: he says that this type of duty "rests on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (or the means thereto) that is not in accord with the merit of the persons concerned; in such cases there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution" (21). Thus the duty of justice includes the duty, insofar as possible, to prevent an unjust distribution of benefits or burdens.

Possible Additions to Ross' List

To Rossí list we might add three more. Ross might say that these are already implicit in his list, but it may be useful to make them explicit.

9. Respect for freedom. So far as possible we should avoid coercion of others and, insofar as we are able, provide conditions of empowerment especially to those who radically lack them. (Ross might say that these duties are contained in non-injury and beneficence, respectively.)

Respect for freedom requires, negatively, that we not enslave or kidnap others or force them to participate in the activities of our particular religious group. It also requires, positively, that, if we are able, we support efforts to ensure basic health and educational opportunity for those unable to secure them for themselves.

10. Care. A second possible prima facie duty not mentioned by Ross is the duty to care, a duty reflecting concrete relationships such as occur within families or between close friends. Some moral philosophers favor adding Care to the list, while others warn that it will be misapplied if used too often to override other prima facie duties. According to one formulation, a duty to care can be stated in part thus:

We should exercise special care for [persons] with whom we are concretely related, attending to their own needs, values, etc. and responding positively to these needs, etc., especially of those most vulnerable (Velasquez 2002, chapter 2).
See, if you wish, Care Ethics, for a discussion of an entire ethical theory based on this idea.

11. Non-parasitism. This is the principle of not being a "free rider." This guideline asserts that, as a general rule, we should do our part to abide by the rules of an institution in which we willingly participate and from which we willingly accept benefits. This prima facie duty weighs against plagiarism and activities that violate laws.

Ross might say that this is included in his Principle of Justice.

Non-parasitism could support the more concrete duty not to steal the property of others. If I benefit from the respect that others have for my own property (they do not take it or use it without my consent), I am a beneficiary of the institution of respect for personal property. But if I myself steal from others, I am acting as a parasite on that institution.

Several of the prima facie duties listed above (or principles quite like them) have been proposed at various times to be the most basic insight or principle of ethics. Even if we agree with Ross that no single general duty is applicable in every situation that calls for moral choice, we can still learn from theories that have more fully explored the potential implications of each duty. See Correlating Prima Facie Duties with Ethical Theories.

Applying the Prima Facie Duties

How do we use this approach when faced with a situation of moral choice? In the simplest cases, if we have had a decent moral upbringing, we can simply see what moral rule is relevant and apply it.

If you are carrying a heavy load into a building and a passer by holds the door open for you, you can see immediately that an expression of gratitude is in order. (You are directly applying the relevant prima facie duty where it is applicable and discovering your actual duty in the circumstances.)

If you are an able-bodied passer-by not carrying anything yourself and you notice someone trying to carry a heavy load into a building, you might see immediately that you ought to hold the door open for him or her. (You would be directly applying the prima facie duty of beneficence.)

A normal ten-year-old may observe a neighbor childís toy and be tempted to add it to her collection, but she sees that doing so, even if she could get away with it, would violate the principle of non- injury (it would in a way harm the neighbor child to make off with her toy), justice (it would improperly distribute benefits), and non-parasitism (it would be doing unto others as she would not want any other to do to her). She can perhaps see that these three prima facie duties dictate her not taking the neighbor childís toy. Her actual duty is not to take the toy.

Every prima facie duty is general but has exceptions. In the simpler cases, prima facie duties directly guide us to choose our actual or concrete duty, what we should do here and now, in the particular case at hand.

When Prima Facie Duties Conflict

Suppose you observe an elderly neighbor collapse with what might be a heart attack. You are a block away from the nearest phone from which you could call for help. A childís bike is close at hand and no one but you and the collapsed elderly person is around. One or more duties seem to say "take the bike and go call for help," while others seems to say "taking the bike is wrong."

On the "don't take" side are justice and non-injury (it seems unjust to the owner of the bike and an injury to him or her). On the "take" side lies harm-prevention. It is widely known that people die from heart attacks that are not treated quickly. (Note that this seems to be a case of harm-prevention rather than beneficence in the strict sense.) The solution might be to recognize that in this circumstance, harm-prevention takes priority over what on the surface looks like injustice and injury. So the actual duty is probably to take the bike and get help. Besides, it should not be difficult to make up the temporary bike loss to its owner, that is, there might be an actual duty of reparation.

The point is that prima facie duties by themselves are often not enough to determine what we should do. We have to see which prima facie duties have priority in the situation we face, and which do not.

Priority Rules

Besides the basic prima facie duties, there are also priority rules that can give us guidance when the basic prima facie duties seem to give conflicting guidance. For example, other things equal, it is more important to avoid injury than to do positive good. In fact,

1) Non-injury normally overrides other prima facie duties.

Moreover,

2) Fidelity normally overrides Beneficence.

For example, keeping contracts (which falls under Fidelity) normally overrides random acts of kindness.

Beneficence, non-injury, harm-prevention, and self-improvement in relation to lasting positive qualities such as knowledge, moral character, and skill often override any conflicting prima facie duty we might think we have to give each other (or ourselves) short-term pleasure or avoid causing each other (or ourselves) short-term pain.

Thus, persons cannot be educated or mature without occasional discomfort or the pain that comes with admitting truths we might prefer to deny, yet we gain from such sometimes unpleasant experiences in our ability to cope with difficulty, in moral goodness, and in wisdom.

However, according to this view, not only is no prima facie duty is without exception, but also no priority rule is without exception.

You just have to see or recognize the exception when it occurs.

The Importance of Being Wary of Misuse

In ethics, as probably in everything else, there seem to be no good general ideas that cannot be perverted, i.e., that are immune to misuse. Ross was especially well aware of this. That is why his moral guidelines are prima facie, not exceptionless, rules.

The duty of self-improvement, especially in moral habits, is a more continuous actual duty than most of us realize. Moral improvement consists largely in growing awareness (based on experience) of what traps to avoid. Alas, there are many.

For instance, the prima facie duty of beneficence is misapplied when the desire to promote happiness (or to "save souls") leads one to violate an actual duty to respect persons' freedom or an actual duty not to physically or psychologically injure them.

The prima facie duty of beneficence is misapplied if we allow the intention to promote the pleasure of others to override an actual duty of non-injury, respect for freedom, or promotion of moral development and intelligence.

The prima facie duty of fidelity may be misapplied if one thinks one has a strongly binding moral obligation to keep a promise one has made under coercion. (But don't count on exploitive people appreciating this point!)

The prima facie duty of care may be misapplied if it leads a person to cover up or excuse moral wrongs of others, say, wrongs by members of your family or friends involving injury to outsiders.

The prima facie duty of non-injury may be misapplied if one uses it to justify refraining from telling a person what she needs to know for the sake of her future moral development or long-term well-being because it may distress her or somebody else in the short run.

The prima facie duty of respect for freedom may be misapplied if one appeals to it to justify letting a child take risks that have a significant chance of permanently injuring her.

The prima facie duty of self-improvement may be misapplied if one prefers pleasure to other benefits to oneself (health, moral improvement, intellectual improvement) or allows the prima facie duty of self-improvement in areas other than moral character to override a high presumption of duties relating to fidelity, non-injury, justice, or respect for freedom, i.e., high-priority prima facie duties directly involving others.

Moral Intuitionism

Moral intuition or perception has three functions in this approach:

1) It tells us when one prima facie rule, which at first seems to apply, does not apply because another overrides it. In other words, moral insight tells us when we have exceptions to specific guidelines. This type of moral intuition requires sensitivity to the morally significant aspects of the situation in which the chooser is located.

The other two functions are related not to the situation directly but to the general rules.

2) Moral intuition tells us what the prima facie duties themselves are. We just see, by moral intuition, that generally, non-injury is a good rule to follow.

3) Moral intuition tells us what the priority rules are. We just see, by moral intuition, that generally non-injury takes precedence over beneficence.

Note that the moral intuition or perception about which we are talking is not the same as perceiving a color, a sound, a taste, a texture, or a smell; nor is it the same as perceiving physical thing. It is a grasping of a truth. When it picks out morally relevant parts of a sitution, it makes use of perceptions of the nonmoral kind, but it goes beyond them to certain features as morally relevant, features that call for applying a prima facie duty to the situation. When moral intuition grasps the prima facie duties themselves, it is a grasping of a moral general truth.

The Source of Moral Intuitions

The simple theory explained above leaves unanswered the basic question about where these moral intuitions come from. This question can be answered in part by the theory of Virtue Ethics, which we will discuss later in the course. Our abilities to have correct moral perceptions depend upon our moral upbringing, the moral habits we have formed. Have we formed virtues or vices?

Moral perception can be corrupted or distorted. We can imagine people who always follow a distorted version of the duty of self-improvement and ignore the other principles; for instance, they promote their own pleasure (taking that to be the essence of happiness) and do not care whether they injure others or are unjust in their dealings with others. One might plausibly say that these people have formed defective moral habits, vices.

We can also imagine people who technically adhere very well to the duty of non-injury but never make positive contributions to the well-being of others and do nothing else to promote justice in their community. One who follows a theory of the sort being outlined here could say that such people also have defective moral habits and perceptions.

An Incompleteness in the Simple Theory

Students find that their application of this theory works quite well for many moral problems and that it allows them to reach a remarkable degree of agreement with other people. But it does not yield such a satisfying result in some discussions. For example, when people discuss abortion, some will dig in their heels and insist that non-injury (in relationship to the fetus) applies in almost all cases and overrides any other consideration, while others will say that respect for freedom (of the mother) should almost always override non-injury to the fetus, at least in the first months of pregnancy. This debate reveals that when people place different degrees of value upon fetal life and adult freedom (and ignore less obvious considerations such as the long-term effects of reproductive choices), the approach outlined here will be inconclusive.

Similar inconclusive results may occur if we attempt to use the approach outlined here to resolve debates between persons who are vegetarians out of respect for animal rights and those who wish to defend their meat-eating habits.

Bibliography

Regan, Tom, 1992. "W. D. Ross." In Encyclopedia of Ethics. Eds. L. C. and C. B. Becker. New York: Garland Publishers. Page 1111.

Ross, W. D., 2002. The Right and the Good. Edited, with an Introduction, by Philip Stratton-Lake. New York: Oxford University Press; rpt. of original 1930 edition.

Stout, A. K., 1967. "William David Ross." In Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: MacMillan. Vol. 7: 216-217.

Thiroux, Jacques, 2001. Ethics: Theory and Practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Velasquez, Manuel G., 2002. Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Ted Lockhart's academic web page on W. D. Ross