Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Prima Facie Duties and Moral Reasons

The discussion of W.D. Ross' notion of prima facie duties has clearly brought out that there is quite a bit that is odd in the description of them as "prima facie duties". The oddness at first seems to attach to the description of them as being prima facie when Ross is clear that these duties are not ones that only "appear" to be duties but are, rather, ones that have a real claim upon us even in situations where we find we cannot follow them. That this claim exists appears to be understood by Ross in a rather realist way as part of the account of what exists in the situation. Shortly after writing The Right and the Good Ross returned to the topic of prima facie duty in his next work The Foundations of Ethics

In this later work Ross responds in part to C. D. Broad's view that there is attached to the notions of "right" and "wrong" some sense of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" or, in the language he takes from Samuel Clarke, that there is something of "fitness" attached to what it is that is right. On these grounds Ross describes rightness as involving "the greatest amount of suitability possible in the circumstances". However he still wishes this to be distinguished from anything like a utilitarian notion and rather conceives of moral suitability by an analogy with aesthetic suitability (perhaps with echoes of G.E. Moore in his thoughts). As Ross puts this:

There seems to be something not altogether different from the way in which a situation calls for a certain act, and the way in which one part of a beautiful whole calls for the other parts. Here, as in the case of a right act, there is no question of subserving an extraneous purpose; there is a direct harmony between the parts of the composition, as there is between a moral situation and the act which completes it. (54)

This conception of "harmony" is one that Ross has related to a sense of the whole situation just as the account of prima facie duty in The Right and the Good required. As with the earlier account this still leaves room for a commitment to pluralism:

Our common use of the word 'right' is so fluid that, although what it naturally conveys is simply the notion of fitness or correctness, without implying either that there is only one act or emotion that fits the situation, or that it is in the agent's power to produce the act or emotion in question, yet by usage 'right' is very often treated as equivalent to 'obligatory'. (55)

Some fine questions emerge for Ross concerning the sense of "obligatory" in the sentences that follow but, leaving this aside here, the notion of "right" understood in this way becomes one that leaves open the question of whether there is, as Ross has here said, "only one act or emotion that fits". So what is right (in this new sense of "fitting") may well not be only one act or emotion and what would be right might not even be something we could do but it is still what would, in some way, make the situation harmonious.

Intriguingly, Philip Stratton-Lake , a foremost expert on Ross, is somewhat disturbed by this account of prima facie duties in terms of fittingness which he describes as too aesthetic a notion to account for the relation between prima facie and actual rightness. In making this point Stratton-Lake indicates a wish to find in Ross an account of practical reason as becomes clear when he discusses prima facie duties as "principles of moral salience" that describe which types of consideration are salient in determining whether something should be done or ought not to be done. In understanding  
prima facie duties in this way Stratton-Lake suggests that the real problem with Ross' expression "prima facie duties" rests not, ultimately with the stress on prima facie but instead with the stress on duty. Ross does indicate that the word duty is indeed wrong here when he first introduces the notion of prima facie duty in The Right and the Good stating there such a "duty":

is not in fact a duty, but something related in a special way to duty. (20)

This "special way" is now suggested by Stratton-Lake to be that the principles of prima facie duties provide "normative moral reasons, rather than principles of duty".

This suggests two questions to close this posting on that I will pursue in future ones. Firstly, is Stratton-Lake right to think that the notion of "suitability" or "fittingness" is "too aesthetic" a relation between prima facie duty and actual duty? Secondly, if the principles of prima facie duty are really principles of practical reason rather than principles of duty then how do such principles relate to the Kantian sense of "duty"? This latter question is the one with real bite since it will enable me in future postings to trace out the manner in which Stratton-Lake (and others) postulate a connection between Ross and Kant in contemporary moral theory. 

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