by Daniel A. Kaufman
School is back in session, so it’s time, once again, for Course Notes. This semester I am teaching two sections of Ethics and Contemporary Issues, a course that is part of the General Education curriculum, and Aesthetics, an upper-division offering that runs every Fall.
I have made a significant change to the first section of Ethics and Contemporary Issues, which is devoted to theory. The second section is concerned with specific issues in Applied Ethics – war, abortion, homosexuality, and our treatment of animals – and remains largely the same.
The theory section used to involve a relatively in-depth exploration of the two most popular and influential modern moral philosophies: Utilitarianism and Kantian Deontology. Students would be required to read all of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism and significant portions of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Lately, however, I have become dissatisfied with this way of introducing students to theory. For one thing, they are increasingly loathe to do extended – i.e. book-length – readings and for another, it seemed to give students a misimpression about the ways in and extent to which ethical theory is useful in approaching concrete issues, like the ones we tackle in the course. The first may seem a concession to sloth, but I have become convinced that one of the effects of growing up with smart phones and social media has been the erosion of young peoples’ capacity to engage in sustained, concentrated activity, which means that if I am to be effective as a teacher, I must adapt. The second suggested to me that not only should ethical theories beyond the narrow band of Utilitarian and Kantian moral philosophies be included, but literature more skeptical of traditional moral philosophy too. With these considerations in mind, the theory section of the course now looks like this:
Utilitarianism (rough sketch)
Kantianism (rough sketch)
W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Ch. 2)
Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”
Virtue Ethics (rough sketch of Aristotelian Eudaimonism)
It seems to have gone over well, this first time that I’ve done it. We’ll see how they do on the exam I just gave them.
It’s no secret to anyone who reads my work that I am an admirer of W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good and that I think it is one of the greatest works of moral philosophy of the last century (the others would include Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue), so it will come as no surprise that I really enjoyed teaching this material – which I’d only done before with upper-division students – to a General Education audience. I focused on chapter 2 and especially, on Ross’s methodology.
Ross’s take on what moral theorizing consists of reveals something that both the Kantian and the Utilitarian have in common, namely, they both see moral theorizing as fundamentally prescriptive in nature. That is, they see moral theory as both being prior to and determining moral practice: one first identifies the general character of moral obligatoriness and prohibitedness and then, employing it as a criterion, identifies what one’s duties and obligations are, irrespective of what one might have thought prior to having theorized. Felt obligated to keep a promise to a friend? Well, you were wrong, the Utilitarian says, because your duty is to maximize happiness, and there are things you could do that would more effectively accomplish this, if you broke that promise. Thought you should lie, when the SS officer asked if you were hiding Jews in your attic? That would be a mistake, the Kantian says, because you are obligated to act only on principles that you can rationally universalize, and one cannot rationally will a principle of universal dishonesty.
Ross takes the opposite approach. For him, that we feel morally obligated in various ways is a fundamental, basic fact about us that arises from our activities and relationships with other people. Someone does me a kindness, and I feel obligated to demonstrate my gratitude in some way. I promise someone that I will do something, and I feel obligated to follow through on it. I see someone suffering, and I feel obligated to help. These are the basic phenomena of normal, day-to-day moral life, and not only are they not the products of ethical theories, they are what motivate and provide the grounds for them. Were feelings of obligation not basic elements of human interaction and social life, it would never occur to us to engage in ethical theorizing in the first place, and once we do, those feelings become the subject-matter of that theorizing, whose purpose is to help us better understand them. Our feelings of obligation are to moral theorizing, then, as our sensory experiences and observations are to scientific theorizing. In each case there is a set of phenomena in which we take considerable interest, and the aim of the relevant theorizing is to give some rational account of it; to make sense of it, in one way or another. As Ross put it, “We have no more direct way of access to the facts about rightness and goodness and about what things are right or good, than by thinking about them; the moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people are the data of ethics just as sense-perceptions are the data of a natural science.” (1)
Some who are committed to the prescriptive model of ethical theorizing, like Peter Singer, maintain that this picture misses the extent to which theory may – and should – be used to correct our pre-theoretical feelings of obligation, which, after all, may be incorrect, and which demonstrates that the analogy with sense experience and science is a bad one. (2) But Ross thinks that this represents a profound misunderstanding. For one thing, our observations may also be mistaken, but this cannot be determined by way of a theory, but only by further observations and thus, entails nothing different about the relationship between observations and theories in science. Correspondingly, our feelings of obligation may be overridden, but only by other feelings of obligation that may arise upon further consideration of the relevant situation. “Just as some of the latter [sense experiences] have to be rejected as illusory, so have some of the former [feelings of obligation],” Ross explains. “But as the latter are rejected only when they are in conflict with other more accurate sense-perceptions, the former are rejected only when they are in conflict with other convictions which stand better the test of reflection.” (3) To think otherwise – to think that a theory could override the feeling that I am obligated in one way or another – would be like thinking that an aesthetic theory could override my experience of something as beautiful, because according to the “correct” theory of beauty, it shouldn’t be experienced as such, which is obviously absurd. (4)
Ross describes the feelings of obligation that arise from our activities and relationships with other people as prima facie duties; duties on their face and presumed obligatory until demonstrated otherwise. There may be as many of these as there are dimensions of our relationships and activities, and Ross outlines just a small number of them in The Right and the Good:
- Some duties rest on previous acts of my own. These duties seem to include two kinds, (a) those resting on a promise or what may fairly be called an implicit promise, such as the implicit undertaking not to tell lies which seems to be implied in the act of entering into conversation (at any rate by civilized men), or of writing books that purport to be history and not fiction. These may be called the duties of fidelity, (b) Those resting on a previous wrongful act. These may be called the duties of reparation. 2. Some rest on previous acts of other men, i.e., services done by them to me. These may be loosely described as the duties of gratitude. 3. Some rest on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (or of the means thereto) which is not in accordance with the merit of the persons concerned; in such cases there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution. These are the duties of justice. 5. Some rest on the mere fact that there are other beings in the world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure. These are the duties of beneficence, 6. Some rest on the fact that we can improve our own condition in respect of virtue or of intelligence. These are the duties of self-improvement. (5)
But what determines our actual duty, on a given occasion? For it seems quite clear that in a particular situation, more than one prima facie duty may be in play, and moreover, they may conflict. A promise I’ve made to meet you for lunch incurs a duty of fidelity that requires me to honor it, but if I pass a burning car wreck on the road, with a bleeding person lying next to it, a duty of beneficence also arises, namely that of helping to save the person’s life. In this case, I cannot act on both, so beyond the question of what my prima facie duties are, the further question of what is – and what determines – my actual duty now becomes pressing.
Ross’s answer here seems to me exactly the right one, but it inevitably frustrates those who are committed to ethical theory in its traditional role. In determining our actual duty on any given occasion, we must consider all of our prima facie duties, as well as the specific details of the current situation, and then make a judgment as to which prima facie duty is the most significant one. Once we have done that, the other competing duties are not so much overridden as temporarily defeated, the evidence for which is that they continue to exert influence over our actions, both present and future. If, in the case I’ve described, I’ve deemed my duty to help save the person’s life more significant than my duty to keep my promise to meet you for lunch, I may apologize to you for standing you up, suggest that we meet for lunch another time, and even offer to pay for your lunch, as recompense for breaking my promise to you, none of which I would likely do, if the duty to keep my promise truly had been overridden.
To the extent that this picture is grounded in perception and judgment, it is characterized by fallibility. I could get things wrong. It also shows that what I ought to do – my actual duty – cannot be determined in advance, by way of any general principle or line of reasoning that a theory might provide me with. Each determination of an actual duty is the result of a carefully considered judgment, based on a number of feelings of obligation as well as a perception and assessment of the present situation. Those who are wedded to ethical theorizing in its traditional mode take this as a reason for rejecting Ross’s approach, but I believe it that it counts in his favor. After all, ethical life looks exactly as you’d think it would if Ross were correct. We experience profound, wrenching moral dilemmas, in which duties conflict; we have to make judgments in order to get through those dilemmas; and we can and often do get things wrong when we make those judgments. Meanwhile, ethical life looks nothing at all like it should if Kant or the Utilitarians are correct. On their view, there should be no moral dilemmas or need for judgment. Moral decision making should proceed as per a theoretical calculus, with the only difficulty being essentially akratic; i.e. an inability to make ourselves do what we know is the right thing.
I would maintain that if anyone reflects earnestly on his or her own experience of moral life, it will become quickly evident that it is nothing like this.
- W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 41.
- See, for example, Singer’s “Ethics and Intuitions,” The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9 (2005).
- The Right and the Good, p. 41. [My brackets]
- The Right and the Good, p. 40. My emphases.
- The Right and the Good, p. 21.