The discussion of these duties occurs early in the second chapter of The Right and the Good. Ross has been expressing dissatisfaction with utilitarianism and its commitment to viewing production of amounts of good as the basis for what makes right acts right (which has been rendered in recent treatments as making the good prior to the right). In opposing this position Ross refers to a "plain man" making a promise because he thinks he ought to do so, a situation that in this case is one that Ross takes to involve no thought of consequences. However, whilst this seems like a simple and direct opposition to the utilitarian position Ross in fact concedes a point to the utilitarian enquiry because he admits that circumstances can so conspire that fulfilling a promise is something that can have very adverse consequences such that we judge it right not to do this. Hence, whilst fulfilment of the promise might well be performed for reasons that have no reference to consequences the action of non-fulfilment of the promise is one that arises in an account in which consequences are taken account of.
Now, examples follow this statement that help to clarify it such as the point that the promise might concern something relatively trivial and non-fulfilment of it might be due to attending to victims of an accident. However, the example is clearly not the real point since its salient characteristic has already been described by including references to consequences so Ross' account appears to have become consequence-sensitive. This doesn't entail for him, though, that the reason for such sensitivity is due to a commitment to bringing about more good in the world. If this is not the reason then there can be a basis for consequence-sensitivity that does not lead one to embrace consequentialism.
It is when considering this point that Ross first introduces the notion of prima facie duties. In the example cited we can balance the duty of fulfilling a promise against a duty of relieving distress but, and here comes the specific mention, this latter notion does not strictly speaking involve thought of a duty but instead of "things that tend to be our duty, or prima facie duties" (18n). This is defined by the notion that there can be circumstances in which something that tends to be a duty can be set against something similar and one or the other of them will, "in the circumstances", tend to be more of a duty.
So the notion of prima facie is introduced as a way of speaking about consequence-sensitivity with the conception being that such sensitivity arises when there would be a conflict between two candidates for a duty to be performed which cannot both be adopted in the circumstances. Ross terms them, not unreasonably, "cases of conscience". This view is summarised neatly in the following statement:
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. (19)
So the prima facie duties are ones that we would, were it not for other intervening factors (involving consequence-sensitivity) simply accept as being duties proper. Since the latter elements have to be taken account of, Ross also describes such prima facie duties as "conditional" duties. Ross' terminology here is awkward as he freely admits since the prima facie duty is, considered simply as a prima facie duty, not yet a duty at all. Further the expression "prima facie" suggests that it may only be a deceptive feature that leads us to think of the "duty" in question as being such whereas this is not Ross' view since he rather takes it that such "duties" include in them factors that render them quite clearly such as to involve a claim upon us (although he also has problems with the word "claim" since this refers mainly to others rather than to ourselves). The fundamental point about them is that they "rest on a definite circumstance which cannot seriously be held to be without moral significance" (20).
Turning next to the description of what falls under the heading of such "prima facie duties" Ross gives six classes of them. The first group involves duties that arise from previous acts I have committed and this first group is divisible into two classes, basically duties of fidelity and reparation. The second group rest on previous acts of others and are duties of gratitude. With regard to both these first two groups Ross subsequently corrects the way he has described them as they seem to involve motives and he does not wish to suggest we have duties to have certain motives so the disposition to fulfil a promise does not require we adopt a motive to so fulfil it but only that we fulfil it because the promise has been made (and so created an "objective situation" regardless of our motives). Similarly "gratitude" is something that refers to certain acts of ours not the adoption of an emotion of gratitude.
The third class refers to duties of justice with reference here to distribution of pleasure or happiness with regard to merit. The fourth group of duties is duties of beneficence where we attempt to make other peoples situation better. The fifth group is duties of self-improvement and the sixth is non-maleficence towards others.
So what the theory of prima facie duties involves Ross in a commitment to is a pluralism about the right. These different potential grounds of a duty are not equivalent to each other for him or reducible to some other ground that is taken to be more basic (though he does later indicate that he thinks the grounds of beneficence and self-improvement are the same). In moral experience we find the situation to be even more complicated since these prima facie duties are there compounded. This ensures that Ross' account is certainly not tidy:
Every act therefore, viewed in some aspects, will be prima facie right, and viewed in others, prima facie wrong, and right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima facie wrongness, in those respects in which they are prima facie wrong...For the estimation of the comparative stringency of these prima facie obligations no general rules can, so far as I can see, be laid down. (41)
Immediately after making this claim, one that seems to lead towards a strict form of particularism, Ross qualifies it by indicating that duties of "perfect obligation" have a greater stringency and he describes those as the duties of fidelity, reparation and gratitude adding that with the rest the decision "rests with perception". In subsequent postings I want to look at how some contemporary theorists have treated Ross' view of prima facie duties as a means of modifying the Kantian approach to ethics.