Sunday, 7 February 2010

W.D. Ross and Intuitionism

I suggested earlier, when I first introduced the topic of intuitionism, that it would be incorrect to characterise this view of ethics as directly competitive with consequentialism. One of the reasons why it is not is because intuitionism in fact occupies a number of different roles in moral theory. One of those roles is as a form of account of moral knowledge and, indeed, it is its role in this aspect that is most often referred to when people think of intuitionism. In this role, however, it need not be incompatible with consequentialism as is seen in the case of G.E. Moore who adopts an intuitionist view of moral epistemology but whose normative principles embody what is often termed an "ideal utilitarianism". 

Moore's combination of intuitionism with a version of utilitarian normative principles is certainly intriguing though, it has to be said, that his normative principles have been rarely taken that seriously in the history of ethics (despite apparently having some influence on the Bloomsbury Group!). William David Ross is a different kind of character and his work embodies a combination of intuitionist epistemology with an approach to normative principles that is decidedly non-consequentialist. Ross' most famous work is surely The Right and the Good and in this work Ross argues that neither "the right" nor "the good" can be understood in a monistic way.

Essentially Ross distinguishes "the right" from "the good" by indicating that the former concerns what is obligatory and concerning this he departs clearly from consequentialism as when he writes: 

"An act is not right because it, being one thing, produces good results different from itself; it is right because it is in itself the production of a certain state of affairs. Such production is right in itself, apart from any consequence." (pp. 46-7.)

There is, then, as he puts it on page 47, some "intrinsic rightness" attaching to certain types of act due to the nature of these acts regardless of any reference to consequences. So, whatever it is that is "right" is not so judged in terms of anything like the normative principles adopted by Moore. If we next turn to how Ross accounts for "the good" we might then expect that in relation to this we could yet find some kind of admixture such as applied to the case of Moore. However, this is not so. With regard to the property of "goodness" Ross claims that it is objective and intrinsic to the things that are good. These things include virtue, pleasure, the allocation of pleasure to the virtuous, and knowledge, but moral goodness is taken primarily to consist in adoption of a sense of duty (despite the fact that this is not itself something we are "obliged" to adopt on Ross' view of "the right"). Hence the account of moral goodness, like that of rightness, turns away from a consequentialist account and when Ross repudiates assessing rightness in terms of production of consequences he rejects any view of moral goodness that sees the latter as determinative of rightness due to the former being understood in a productive sense. Hence Ross appears to come much closer to the ideal type of deontologist that Broad describes. To this needs to be added a fuller consideration of the way the normative structure of Ross' theory works in relation to acts and rules. This requires, however, a discussion of his account of prima facie duties, a topic that needs a separate posting.

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