Thursday, 11 February 2010

Suitability and Prima Facie Duties

As I mentioned in the previous posting on W.D. Ross, the suggestion that the relationship between prima facie duties and actual duties might reside in a sense that there was something "suitable" in the situation that called for the performance of the duty has been questioned by one of the foremost contemporary scholars of Ross, Philip Stratton-Lake. Stratton-Lake's suggestion is that this picture of the relationship between prima facie duties and actual duties is "too aesthetic" and, indeed, Ross does refer to an aesthetic sense of harmony when he mentions this view of the relationship between prima facie duties and actual duties. 

However, this reference to an aesthetic sense is far from being sufficient as a discussion of Ross' reference to "suitability" as a basis for connecting prima facie duties and actual duties in the argument of The Foundations of Ethics. Stratton-Lake's account only refers to the first place Ross discusses "suitability" in the third chapter of The Foundations of Ethics but Ross later returns to the topic in the seventh chapter of this book where he simply states that a "right action" means in general "one that is morally suitable to the situation". In returning to the topic here Ross differentiates between various senses of suitability referring to objective and subjective elements. The objective elements of the situation are the elements of it that suggest an action as suitable to the results we think it would produce whilst the subjective elements, by contrast, refer only to our thoughts concerning the probable results of alternative actions.

But this is not the only distinction Ross introduces since he goes on to include the difference between performing an action from a certain motive as involving suitability in a situation in a sense in which a mere action, regardless of motive, does not. This leads to the following apparent clarification:

Both the view that it is our duty to produce certain results, and the view that it is our duty to act from certain motives, are natural enough perversions of what seems to be the true view, that it is our duty to set ourselves to produce certain results. It is sometimes said that it is neither results nor motives but intentions that make actions right or wrong, and this is almost true. There is a certain danger in laying the stress on intention, since intentions may remain idle; but it would be true to say that the nature of what is intended in an act is what makes the act right or wrong. (pp. 159-60.)

Here Ross' prose almost catches one out as in the first sentence it takes a very attentive ear to note the difference between having a duty to produce certain results on the one hand and having the duty "to set ourselves" to produce results on the other. However the difference is nicely caught when Ross arrives at the notion that it is intention "in the act" that is at issue. This is a clear attempt to bring together the focus on the action alone (viewed as productive of result) on the one hand or the motive alone (viewed in some sense purely) on the other. And it is a further feature of consequence-sensitivity that some such attempt is needed. So perhaps Stratton-Lake is being far too hasty in suggesting that attention to the situation is too aesthetic an account of the connection between prima facie duties and actual duties. And, perhaps more needs to be filled in on the notion of "intention". 


Mark said...

I think you're right about SL being too hasty.

As I mentioned below, once you think of the prima facie duties as pro tanto, the problem of how to get from prima facie to actual duties becomes a little less problematic.

All the prima facie duties are actual duties, unless they conflict with each other. The problem is not how they become duties, but how they become non-duties, and how one trumps the other.

Ross's use of 'prima facie' is a bit confused and confusing. He wanted to reserve the claim 'prima facie' for the duties since what might appear to be a duty could turn out to be one. But then, he seems to indicate the only way a pf duty will not be a duty is if it conflicts with another duty. So, they should really be regarded as 'have to be done unless contravened' rather than as 'tend to need to be done, but need further support before being regarded as a duty proper'.
In any case, all Ross'duties need to be performed unless they cannot be, by being trumped by another duty. If two duties are mutually exclusive, it becomes somewhat easy to see why a pf duty is not a can't be held to have to do the impossible.

So the main problem here for Ross is how to determine an incumbency ordering without appealing to teleology, rather than having to account for how a p.f. duty becomes an actual duty.

Gary Banham said...

Yes I can see the case for the pro tanto reading since it produces a sense that there are duties in a sense but they are limitatively connected to each other and that does have an attraction. The previous posting on moral reasons suggested, following Stratton-Lake, that instead of viewing prima facie duties as duties of a certain sort that they instead be seen as a way of formulating practical reason. If viewed in that way they would instead be something like the basis for thinking when we have duties and that requires the discussion of situation and suitability. In some respects these two readings are not necessarily competing except that the misleading notion that certain things only "appear" to be duties would be removed on Stratton-Lake's conception.