Ross on Prima Facie Duties 

         2004 Megan DaPisa

Most ethical theories are based either on the actions that a person performs or the results that occur from the action. From these two things (actions and results), the theories will tell us whether or not the person involved is morally right or morally wrong. From W. D. Ross's perspective, morality is based on the goodness of the action, despite what the results or consequences might be. His theory on duty and intuition, in The Right and the Good, is that "each action must be evaluated in terms of the agent's prima facie duties, these duties will often be in conflict, and there is no way to decide which duty has priority in advance of examining the specific case" (Gracyk, website).

I had a hard time understanding what this theory was trying to explain until the analogy of a card game came up to clarify. Prima facie means "at first glance," so when you first look at your hand, at first glance you might think that you will win in a "top card wins" game because you have an Ace. However, you might end up losing if another player has a trump card. This can be any card in the deck, but the players have determined beforehand that this card will beat, or trump, any other card, even the Ace. It is essential to understand this in order to continue on with Ross's ideas on a person's moral duties.

Ross explains that there are six categories of prima facie duties. These duties are either promises we make to ourselves or others that we have a personal relationship with, or contracts, which can be formal or informal, that we make with others. He explains that if a person breaks or doesn't fulfill one of these duties, then that person has performed a bad action and is morally wrong, despite the results that occur following that action (or maybe inaction). Ross only gives six categories of duties but he says that these are the common sense duties, so there very well could be more duties.

The first duty is created by the person's prior actions. You either gave someone else (or a group) an explicit or implicit promise. Whenever you make a promise, your duty is to honor that promise through your actions. The duty of reparations also falls under this category, which means that for whatever action you perform that causes harm, you have the obligation to make that previous promise you made and then went back on, good. The second duty is created by the behavior of other people, specifically the gratitude you owe to other people when they perform certain actions. When someone performs a favor for you, you then owe them one of the same nature.

The third duty, which starts out the impersonal duties, involves justice. Ross doesn't go much into this duty because it can involve very broad categories. We were given an example in class that explained that when someone commits a crime and then does not accept their guilt, taxpayers then have the duty to pay the costs of that crime, whatever they may be. The fourth duty is one of beneficence, or charity. This could mean either giving money to the needy or even opening the door for a person with full arms. The fifth duty is self-improvement, meaning that you must strive to continuously make yourself a better person through your actions. The final duty is of non-malfeasance, or the duty to not harm others in any kind of way.

The second part of Ross's essay can be explained by the card game analogy. After he explained the six different duties, he went on to say that most situations will involve more than one duty. Most times, these duties will conflict with one another and the person making the action must decide which duty to follow. We were given an example in class about a young girl that was molested by a family member, but her mother told her to lie and say it was the neighbor, sending him to jail for many years. The girl had to decide whether to obey her mother and lie, or disobey her mother and tell the truth. Which duty trumps the other in this situation? There are so many other situations that involve this problem and Ross doesn't have an exact answer to that question. As he explains through the thesis, a person cannot determine in advance which duty to follow. The best answer to give is that it is a specific situational decision and it has to be up to the person performing the action.

Ross explained that personal duties should usually take precedence over the impersonal duties. However, this point can easily be argued by some. There are really awful people in this world that don't care about anybody else. When these people get together and form these personal relationships, they might be performing their personal duties but at the same time going completely against the impersonal duties, harming many others. For example, someone could have made a promise to another person to hurt someone. This would obviously be a case where that person should follow the duty of non-malfeasance and not harm that person, instead of following the personal duty of his prior action of making that promise.

For the most part I like this theory and I think that I follow it pretty well. I was raised basically by these different duties. I know which actions are morally right and wrong. However, these duties do bring about the problem of which to follow. Ross did a good job of explaining his theory and he even admitted that he didn't also have a clear cut answer as to which duty to follow when more than one were conflicting with each other. Ross was right to say that it is different for every situation. Although this does contribute to the confusion in people's moral actions, I think that there would be even more problems in this world if we tried to create clear cut answers to every hypothetical problem people might face. The moral actions people commit should be up to them (free will), but people must be punished for their wrong actions because they are wrong actions, no matter if there didn't happen to be a negative outcome.

Note on the Text: This essay was written by a student in Theodore Gracyk's Philosophy 101 course during fall semester 2004, and it is posted here with her permission.