Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 28 November 2016


Ethics play a very important role in the lives of almost every individual. Each person has to face various situations in his or her life that comes with different choices and alternatives. In order for an individual to make a sound decision he or she has to take into consideration ethical standards that will aid him or her in arriving at the right choice. In connection with this, the decisions that individuals make are not only essential for his or her well being but rather it also affects the welfare of others.

Being the case, numerous personalities have already dedicated their time in studying and analyzing different ways in identifying and explaining the ethics as it applies to an individual and the situation that he or she has to face. One of the most notable philosophers who made a substantial contribution in the field of ethics is Sir William David Ross. He is best known for his work about the Right and the Good. Ross was able to discuss in the Right and the Good his own theory about ethical behavior.

His deontology emphasizes the importance of prima facie duties as it relate to the decisions an individual should adhere to especially in contemplating the right thing to do. In line with this, it is the objective of this paper to identify and explain Ross definition of prima facie duties. The discussion will also give due consideration in explaining the difference between prima facie duties and actual duties. Different examples of prima facie duties will also be enumerated and explained.

Moreover, an analysis of how Ross’ deontology applies in conflicting situations wherein more than one prima facie duty is present. Lastly, the main strengths and weaknesses of Ross’ moral theory will also be included. Prima Facie Duty “Prima facie duty” also known as “conditional duty” pertains to a concise way of identifying the characteristics that a particular act possesses. It tend to distinguish the kind of act, which could be a duty proper if it is not at the same instance also identified as another kind that has moral significance.

Ross clarified some misconceptions in his usage of the term prima facie duty. First, the term suggests that it is referring to a particular kind of duty. However, it is not actually a duty but something that is related to the concept of duty in an unconventional way. Simply put, Ross wants to use the phrase not as an adjective but as a separate noun (Ross, 58). Second, the term “prima” facie may suggest that it is simply pertaining to an appearance of moral situation that is already presented at first sight. As such, this might be characterized as illusionary.

Nevertheless, he is actually speaking of an objective fact that is included in the nature of the situation or more strictly in the very element of nature itself. It must also be noted that prima facie duty is unlike proper duty because it does not arise from the whole nature (Ross, 58). Professor Prichard suggested the word “claim” in order to explain what Ross was pointing out in his moral theory. However, Ross believes that although this term seems to capture much of his arguments, it does not express the agent’s point of view.

Moreover, “claim” tends to connote two persons wherein one has a responsibility over the other. This may cover the realm of social duty but it does not give due attention in cultivating a certain character of an individual (Ross, 58). Ross further elaborated on his idea of prima facie duty by using the concept of a promise. He explained that when an individual fulfils a promise, he or she do so without thinking of the possible choices or consequences of his or her actions. In this sense, the action of an individual is based upon the past commitment that he did rather than its effect in the future.

Ross moral theory emphasized that an action is not simply considered as right based upon the fulfillment of a person’s promise. The consequences of fulfilling this promise should also be taken into consideration especially in exceptional cases wherein accomplishing this commitment could mean detrimental effect to other people. He gave an example wherein he promised to meet his friend at a particular for some trivial matters. However, he did not fulfill this commitment by justifying that he helped somebody from incurring a serious accident.

He broke his promise in order to bring relief to another individual. In this case, the person chose to help someone in need in exchange of not fulfilling his promise no because he deems that this would bring greater good but rather he saw this as more of a duty. The promise he made is also considered as a duty but the person believes that aiding a person from harm poses more of a duty than the former (Ross, 57). In this situation, Ross gives importance in identifying the duty that individual has.

He points out that at times a person would deem that his actions are right based upon the fulfillment of a previous commitment that he or she had. Nevertheless, there are also cases wherein he or she would make a decision of which duty is more important not because of the greater good that it could bring but because of the person’s perception of what constitute more of a duty among the choices. Difference of Prima Facie Duty from Actual Duty Prima Facie duty as previously discussed above is an objective fact that is involved in the nature of the situation (Ross, 58).

Every individual is face with various situations in almost everyday of their lives. In every scenario, a duty exists and sometimes even more than one of it is present. Prima facie duties are those facts that are observable in a given situation. They are objective duties that a person may choose to fulfill or not. This could be further understood in a given scenario wherein an individual have to choose among the duty of gratitude and duty of justice. An employee has a deep sense of gratitude towards his boss because he paid for the hospitalization of his daughter. One time his boss asked him for a favor.

Since he was the accountant of their company, his superior instructed him to change the expenditures of their department from the real figures that he had computed. His boss did not give any specific reason for such instruction but he knows that such action is illegal. He is face with two duties of whether he should repay the good deed of his boss or rightfully account the financial transactions of the company. These two duties that is part of the situation of this particular employee is in are prima facie duties. On the other hand, actual duties become apparent through the judgment of an individual.

Since there are cases wherein a situation does not only involve one objective duty the person has to make a decision on which among these, he or she perceived has the more moral duty. Being the case, the decision of the person on which has a more incumbent duty becomes his or her actual duty. Using the same example of the employee’s problem, the actual duty of this particular individual is the decision that he will make. If for instance, he decided that he would rather perform his duty and accurately make the accounting for the company, then he chose the duty of justice.

He deems that it is more of a duty maybe because he perceives that fulfilling this would be more beneficial for him and the whole company. As such, the duty of justice becomes his actual duty because this is the one he chose among the objective facts that existed during that particular situation. This becomes the person’s duty proper or his moral obligation. In deontology, its main principle revolves around the idea of “what is ought to do? ” Based upon Ross’ moral theory, there are situations wherein there are objective facts that an individual have to analyzed and choose from.

These are the prima facie duties, which are possible actions that an individual should do. When the individual already decided which among these prima facie duties is his or her actual duty, then that is the time that he or she already accomplished the very idea of deontology. An individual was able to choose and perform what he or she “ought” to do. Determining Actual Duty Identifying once actual duty is very essential especially since this would serve as the moral obligation that an individual decided to do.

This is based upon an individual’s decision of which upon those prima facie duties is his or her actual duty. However, there are queries on how an actual duty should be determined especially when several prima facie duties are applicable. Ross explained that the common sense of people is the guide that tells him or her whether an action is right. This is not because of the effects or consequences of the action but rather because of what happened in the past just like the example of making a promise.

In relation with this, it is also an individual’s common sense that informs him or her that there is more than one duty in a particular situation. Common sense is also responsible in allowing the individual to judged one duty that stands as “more of a duty” than among those others that exist. Nevertheless, there are also instances wherein two alternative actions can produce equal amount of goodness. The individual should choose the one that has a moral obligation or is considered as an actual duty. This could be exemplified in a situation that has two alternative of whether to fulfill a promise or not.

The individual’s moral obligation is to fulfill the promise since this is his or her duty unlike the other alternative of not doing so, which is not classified as one of his or her prima facie duties. In Ross’ arguments it is seen that an individual’s common sense plays a vital role in identifying which among the prima facie duties is his or her actual duties especially in situation wherein there are two duties that are applicable within a given scenario. It is also the factor by which a person could identify his or her moral obligation.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Ross’ Moral Theory The greatest strength of Ross’ moral theory is the way by which he was able to explain and give importance to the ordinary moral thinking of an individual. This exemplifies how a person thinks whether a particular action is right or wrong. For example, the act of stealing is considered as wrong. Individuals do not have to justify this judgment that stealing is wrong. However, sometimes a person realizes that stealing might be justified as acceptable or even right based upon the situation that he or she is in.

Moreover, Ross was able to explain moral behavior by using the common sense and judgment of a person. He does not base it upon overall utility but rather he deems that everyone in his or her sound minds would be able to identify it. The main strength of his argument is allowing the simple thinking and logic of people to govern decisions. Nevertheless, Ross also has some faults in his moral theory. He based the actual duty or moral obligation of a person upon the common sense of an individual. In this case, the idea of what is right from what is wrong is dependent upon the subjectivity of a person.

As such, the idea of right could be very diverse especially since it is subjected to the interpretation of the people. This could cause confusion and conflict among people especially since a person could simply justify a wrong act based upon his or her perception that this could be justified by a more incumbent duty that he or she needs to accomplish. Lastly, Ross gave different categories of these prima facie duties namely: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-malfeasance.

These duties tend to identify the different prima facie duties that a person could encounter in a given situation. However, there are cases wherein there are alternative actions that do not fall under these categories. In this situation, the person could easily disregard this alternative since it is not included in Ross’ categories but this option could also be an essential duty. Ross could not simply identify the duties of an individual through these categories alone because his argument that gave importance to the common sense and logical thinking of an individual also comes with its their various perception of duties.

The discussion above shows the focal points in Ross’ moral theory. He was able to shed light to the ordinary thinking of an individual and how this is related with their perception of what is right from what is wrong. Ross was able to explain a different side of deontology that is unique from other philosophers. His arguments have its strengths and weaknesses that must be given due consideration and importance.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 28 November 2016

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