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Utilitarianism and Ross's Theory of Prima Facie Duties*

  • H. H. Jack (a1)


Inl recent textbooks on moral philosophy Sir David Ross's theory of prima facie duties is usually presented as the main current alternative to utilitarianism as an account of the nature and basis of moral duties and obligations. The theory of prima facie duties is usually regarded as a more plausible version of the anti-utilitarian views put forward in H. A. Prichard's famous Mind article of 1912, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”. Ross himself always acknowledged this debt; in addition, he presented his own theory in both his books as a reaction to, and a corrective of, Moore's ideal utilitarianism. In this paper, I wish to suggest that Ross's theory is in reality an unsatisfactory compromise between the views of Moore and Prichard, and that a satisfactory anti-utilitarian theory can only be achieved by throwing out the Moore elements, and returning, in effect, to Prichard. To accomplish this I first present a brief critique of Moore's ideal utilitarianism, and then discuss Ross's theory of right and wrong in some detail.



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1 The Right and the Good (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1930) and Foundations of Ethics (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1939). These books will be referred to by the abbreviations R.G. and F. E.

2 This summary is meant to suggest the “ideal” content of ideal utilitarianism rather than to be a literal exegesis of Moore. I assume below that Ross accepted a) and b) without the “and only” clauses, and implicitly also c). (Cf. Section f) below). The term “optimific” is taken from Ross rather than Moore. For a) and b) cf. Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1948) p. 148. For c) cf. Ethics (Galaxy Book edition, New York, 1965) p. 75.

3 Cf. Principia Ethica, p. 149: “Accordingly it follows that we never have any reason to suppose that an action is our duty: we can never be sure that any action will produce the greatest value possible.” (My italics)

4 Ibid., pp. 152-8.

5 See especially Principia Ethica, pp. 162-4.

6 I was led to see the great importance of this methodological distinction by hearing some lectures given by W. K. Frankena in 1967. He used the terms “descriptive” and “normative” to mark the distinction.

7 This criticism of Moore's theory was made in passing by Urmson, J. O. in “Saints and Heroes”, in Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. Melden, A. I. (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1958), p. 198. He did not make much of it however, no doubt because his major concern was to insist that the required/for-bidden/indifferent trichotomy is not sufficient to make all of conventional morality intelligible and needs to be supplemented by a fourth category of supererogatory actions — saintly or heroic actions which go beyond what is morally required. Ideal utilitarianism has no more room for this category than its does for the indifferent category, as Urmson also pointed out (p. 206). He held that this latter criticism also applied to intuitionism.

8 “The second difficulty moral philosophy can relieve by an examination of the moral rules current in a given society, with a view to dividing them into their different classes …. There are, or may be, some whose correctness is self-evident (as, for instance, the rule that we should produce as much good as we can)” (F.E., p. 313). By implication, this passage gives the optimific principle the status of a moral rule “current” in our society. Again, “For while all men are probably at bottom agreed in thinking we ought to produce as much that is good as we can …” (F.E., p. 19). Obviously the interpretation to be given depends on the significance of the qualification “at bottom” in this passage.

9 Ewing, A.C., “Recent Developments in British Ethical Thought” in British Philosophy in the Mid-Century, ed. Mace, C. A. (Allen and Unwin, London, 1966), p. 69, my italics.

10 Cf. R. G., p. 21 and F. E., pp. 112-3.

11 Cf. e.g. R. G., p. 27: “[Justice], therefore, with beneficence and self-improvement, comes under the general principle that we should produce as much good as possible, though the good here involved is different in kind from any other.”

12 This is maintained somewhat more tentatively in his later book. Compare F. E., pp. 73 and 319, to R. G., pp. 138 and 140.

13 Ethical and Political Thinking (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1947), p. 99.

14 Op. tit., p. 74.

15 Baier, K., The Moral Point of View (paperback edition, Random House, New York, 1967), p. 109.

16 “I suggest ‘prima facie duty’ or ‘conditional duty’ as a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant.” (R. G., p. 19) Again, “I accept the principle that if something is good there is a prima facie obligation to produce it, and an actual obligation unless some more stringent prima facie obligation intervenes.” (F. E., p. 271).

17 Cf. R. G., p. 41.

18 These examples are taken from Eric D'Arcy. His Human Acts (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963) has an excellent analysis of the manner in which actions are conceived and described in our ordinary thought and language. The relativity of the act/consequence distinction has been exploited recently by Andrew Oldenquist. In “Rules and Consequences” (Mind, April 1966, pp. 180–192), he argued that the deontological/teleological dispute is a bogus one because the two positions only amount to preferences in regard to equally legitimate ways of describing actions; deontologists, e.g. always prefer to absorb consequences into their action descriptions. Thus, the two theories in the end amount only to two different languages for saying the same things in substance.

19 In “Doubts About Prime Facie Duties” (Philosophy, January 1970, pp. 39-54), Peter Jones has also pointed to the difficulties in Ross's account of prima facie and actual duties. He traced these to confusions in Ross's concepts of the individuation of particular actions and of the descriptions of types of actions. While I have followed Jones in this, my main emphasis has been upon the distorting influence on his theory of Ross's acceptance of the optimific principle.

* An earlier version of parts of this paper was read to the Western Philosophical Colloquium, Edmonton, October 1967. Work on this paper was materially assisted by a Canada Council Leave Fellowship.

Utilitarianism and Ross's Theory of Prima Facie Duties*

  • H. H. Jack (a1)


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