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Summary of Ross's Ethics

Summary of Rosss Ethics

In his book The Right and the Good, he attempted to incorporate aspects of utilitarianism and
aspects of Kantianism. Ross rejected the utilitarian notion that an action is made right by its
consequences alone, but he was also troubled by Kants absolute rules. He saw that such rules
fail to show sensitivity to the complexities of actual situations, but also that they sometimes
conflict with one another.

Ross believes it is necessary to consider consequences in making a moral choice, even
though he believes that it is not the results of an action taken alone that make it right.
Moral Properties and Rules

For Ross there is an unbridgeable distinction between moral and nonmoral properties. There
are only two moral properties rightness and goodness and these cannot be replaced by, or
explained in terms of, other properties.

To say that an action is right is not at all the same as saying that it causes pleasure or
increase happiness, as utilitarianism clains.

The rightness of the action is not identical with the actions being a case of relieving suffering.

Ross also makes clear that we must often know many nonmoral facts about a situation before
we can legitimately make a moral judgment. Thus, rightness is a property that depends partly on
the nonmoral properties that characterizes a situation. I cannot determine whether the physician
is doing the right thing or the wrong thing until I determine what the nonmoral properties are.

Ross claims that our experience with rightness and wrongness in the world abounds us, this
puts us in a position to come know rightness and goodness with the same degree of certainty as
when we grasp the mathematical truth that a triangle has three angles.

We have moral intuitions about the things we see around us, and these can supply us with the
moral rules of a general kind. But Ross refuses to acknowledge these rules as absolute. For him
they can serve only as guides to assist us in deciding what we should do. Ultimately, in any
particular case we must rely not only on the rules, but also on reason and our understanding of
the situation.

- Consider the problem of whether to lie to a terminally ill patient about her condition. Let us
suppose that, if we lie to her, we can avoid causing her at least some useless anguish. But then
arent we violating her trust in us to act morally and to speak the truth?

In such cases, we seem to have a conflict in our duties. It is because of such familiar kinds of
conflicts that Ross rejects the possibility of discovering absolute, invariant moral rules like
Always tell the truth and Always eliminate needless suffering. Ross says that we have to
recognize that every rule has exceptions and must in some situation be overridden.

Actual Duties and Prima Facie Duties
Actual Duty is simply what my real duty is in a situation. It is the action that, out of the various
possibilities, I ought to perform.

Prima Facie literally means at first sight, but Ross uses the phrase to mean something like
other things being equal. A prima facie duty is one that dictates what I should do when other
relevant factors in a situation are not considered. If I have a promised to meet you for lunch,
then I have a prima facie duty to meet you. But suppose I am a physician and, just as I am
about to leave for an appointment, the patient I am with suffers cardiac arrest. In such
circumstances, according to Ross s view, I should break my promise and render aid to the

Rosss Duties:
1. Duties of Fidelity: telling the truth, keeping actual and implicit promises, and not representing
fiction as history.
2. Duties of Reparation: righting the wrongs we have done to others.
3. Duties of Gratitude: recognizing the services others have done to us.
4. Duties of Justice: preventing a distribution of pleasure or happiness that is not in keeping with
the merit of the people involved.
5. Duties of Beneficence: helping to better the condition of other beings with respect to virtue,
intelligence, or pleasure.
6. Duties of Self-Improvement: bettering ourselves with respect to virtue or intelligence.
7. Duties of Nonmaleficence: avoiding or preventing an injury to others.

- Rosss believes that the duties on the list are all ones that we acknowledge and are willing to
accept as legitimate and binding without argument. He explicitly rejects the possibility of
providing us with reasons or arguments to convince us to accept his list of prima facie duties.
We are merely invited to reflect on certain kinds of cases like keeping promises and Ross is
convinced that this reflection will bring us to accept his claim that these are true duties.