W.D. Ross advocates a deontic approach to the moral right in “The Right and the Good”, and he explicitly sets himself up against utilitarianism. In other words, he advocates thinking of moral principles as being right/wrong in themselves, rather than in virtue of the positive/negative outcomes caused by one’s actions. In particular, he sets himself up against G.E. Moore’s “ideal utilitarianism”: right actions just are those that produce the most positive outcomes compared to other available courses of action. In other words, an action’s rightness is determined by whether or not it actually benefits the affected agents, and the accrued benefits are the best possible ones. On Ross’s account, however, the foundation of an action’s rightness is the particular relationship that exists between agents in a given circumstance. I have three goals here: explain Ross’s critique of ideal utilitarianism; explain Ross’s account of moral duties; and provide a critique of Ross’s account.
Ross seems to have one major criticism of utilitarianism: it is false that there is a connection between what is good and what is right. That is, goodness is not constitutive of an action’s rightness. Ross proposes two ways of understanding how it is that goodness might constitute rightness. First, if an action produces the most amount of good, it is right; additionally, if an action is right, then it produces the most amount of good. Therefore, an action is right if and only if it produces the most amount of good. Second, since there’s a consistent relationship between rightness and goodness — that is, rightness doesn’t seem to obtain unless goodness also obtains — we can induce that maximal goodness constitutes rightness.
Regarding the first interpretation, Ross asserts that neither premise is true. For instance, suppose I make a promise to my girlfriend (A), and by keeping my promise to her she would accrue 50 units of good. There is also something I could do for my brother (B), and that action would allow him to accrue 51 units of good. However, in order to do B, I’d have to reneg on A. On Ross’s understanding, the utilitarian would say that the obvious course of action is B, but that doesn’t seem right. Intuitively, it seems like I have good reason to do A instead. If one accepts this reasoning, then the argument of the first interpretation is false. That is, it’s not necessarily the case that an action which produces the most amount of good is right, and vice versa.
Regarding the second interpretation, Ross asserts that it would be impossible to establish such a constitutive relationship inductively. Not only would we have to analyze every possible action that an individual could do in a given situation, but we’d have to analyze the effects that each action has on individuals indirectly affected by the action; we’d also have to analyze the effects that each action would have in the future. Perhaps we could establish that “a large variety of typical acts that are judged right appear, so far as we can trace their consequences, to produce more good than any other acts possible to the agents in the circumstances” (Ross 272). However, the utilitarian needs to demonstrate that goodness is always constitutive of rightness, so the utilitarian would have to examine every possible outcome of an action — both direct and indirect. Obviously, this is impossible. Hence, Ross concludes that we have no reason to accept the utilitarian thesis.
Ross suggests that certain actions are right in virtue of certain situations we find ourselves in. For instance, if someone makes a promise, they automatically have a duty to keep that promise. Alternatively, if one comes across someone who is suffering, they have a duty to relieve their suffering. In other words, certain situations give rise to prima facie duties: actions that we are obligated to execute under certain circumstances. The grounding of some of our prima facie duties is that they “bring [intrinsically good things] into existence” (Ross 264). For instance, it seems intrinsically good that we should help others make others happy or bring them pleasure (Ross 264). From this would arise the duty to be benevolent towards others, whether they are suffering or not. There is, however, another way that prima facie duties can obtain, viz. through our own actions. For instance, when someone makes a promise, they “create an expectation that [they] can be counted on to behave in a certain way in the interest of another person” (Ross 266). By creating such an expectation, they therefore obligate themselves to fulfill their promise.
In addition to prima facie duties, we have actual duties. That is, there are certain actions that we are obligated to do given every component of a situation that we find ourselves in. These actual duties must, of course, derive from prima facie duties. For instance, suppose I have promised my girlfriend to meet her at a certain time (A). However, my brother is seriously injured and needs my help at the time I agreed to meet her (B). I am now faced with two prima facie duties: a duty to keep a promise, and a duty to alleviate my brother’s suffering. Intuitively, I should do B and forsake A. Notice that I said “intuitively” (i.e. a strong intellectual hunch, similar to a gut feeling about something). Ross does not think that we can know our duties, whether prima facie or actual, via argumentation. Rather, we know what our duties are intuitively (i.e. our duties are self-evident). In the case of actual duties, however, this does not exempt us from having to think about what we ought to do. Ross points out that “we are more likely to do our duty if we reflect to the best of our ability on the pima facie rightness or wrongness of various possible acts” (Ross 269). By doing this, we can at least have a likely idea of what our actual duty is, even if the conclusion is entirely intuitive rather than the conclusion of a formal argument.
I have two problems with Ross’s argument — both his account of the right and his argument against utilitarianism. I will deal with the latter first. In setting up my criticism, consider the following key passages:
“Apart from my general prima facie duty to do to A what good I can, I have another prima facie duty to do him the particular service I have promised to do him, and this is not to be set aside in consequence of a disparity of good of the order of 1,001 to 1,000…Such instances…make it clear that there is no self-evident connexion between the attributes ‘right’ and ‘optimific’” (Ross 271).
“[I]f we suppose two men dying together alone, do we think that the duty of one to fulfill before he does a promise he has made to the other would be extinguished by the fact that neither act would have any effect on the general confidence [of society]? Anyone who holds this may be suspected of not having reflected on what a promise is” (Ross 273).
Ross believes that these arguments provide a refutation to utilitarianism. However, there is something important to note about these arguments. Either example concludes that we ought not break our promises on entirely intuitive grounds, and the same can be said for the final example he gives. The problem is that Ross is criticizing utilitarianism via a standard that his opponents don’t accept. His opponents would say that we determine what is right based on our knowledge of which actions are most conducive to positive outcomes. Ross, on the other hand, asserts that we know what is right based on our intuitions. He seems to be trying to refute his opponent’s stance, but he’s attempting to do this via his own position. This is problematic because he fails to provide two things. First, he does not provide any reason to reject the utilitarian thesis qua self-evident principle (Ross 270). Comparing the utilitarian thesis to Ross’s intuitionist thesis, it does seem as if the intuitionist thesis is more self-evident. However, the question isn’t one of comparison. The question is whether or not the utilitarian thesis is self-evident at all. Merely asserting that his thesis lines up with our intuitions does not establish that the utilitarian thesis is not self-evident. It could be that the utilitarian thesis is not self-evident, but this is not established by simply asserting (implicitly) that his thesis is actually self-evident.
The second thing that Ross fails to do is provide non-intuitive support for his thesis. In this case, Ross’s specific claim is that we know that things are morally right via our intuitions. In order for us to know that something is morally right intuitively, we need to be certain of two things. First, we need to be certain that our intuitions are revealing certain duties to us because the relevant actions just are morally right. Second, we need to be certain that our intuitions are reliable sources of knowledge. The first assumption might be unwarranted. It could be the case that we have our particular moral intuitions because we have been socialized in a certain way. This is not an implausible assumption: for instance, many people in America believe that one has a right to do with their food what they please, so long as they are the ones who earned it. Contrast this with the intuition that someone from a hunting-gathering tribe might have: it doesn’t matter who caught the animal, the meat belongs to the entire community. The simplest explanation for why they have these differing moral intuitions isn’t that one of them is right and the other is wrong. Rather, the simplest explanation is that they were socialized differently, hence their differing intuitions. This isn’t to say that neither of them is right, but that’s not the point. Rather, just having an intuition about something being right or wrong doesn’t indicate that we have this intuition because the action is actually right or actually wrong.
The second assumption encounters a far more difficult problem. In order to be certain that our intuitions are reliable sources of knowledge, we’d have to demonstrate their reliability without using our intuitions. That is, we cannot say that it’s intuitively true that our intuitions are reliable, because we’d be assuming that our intuitions are reliable — we’d be assuming exactly what we’re trying to prove. It’s like trying to prove that the Bible is true by pointing out certain passages in the Bible: you have to assume it’s true in order to prove that it’s true. It just doesn’t work.
There are two ways to avoid this problem: we could either argue that our intuitions are reliable a priori (i.e. without referring to experience), or we argue that they are reliable a posteriori (i.e. referring only to experience). On the one hand, we use reason alone, but on the other hand we use our senses and inductive reasoning. Suppose that we are able to successfully construct two sets of arguments for the reliability of our intuitions based on either method. In order for these arguments to be successful, we’d also have to establish the reliability of the faculties used to construct them. We wouldn’t be able to use our intuitions in order to establish their reliability, since we’re trying to prove that this very faculty is reliable. If we use our senses to prove the reliability of reason, we’d need an argument for the reliability of our senses; and vice versa. There’s an obvious problem looming overhead: no matter how we try to demonstrate the reliability of our intuitions, we either demonstrate its reliability circularly and therefore establish nothing at all, or we’re left throwing our hands up in the air with no argument at all.
In the end, I think Ross is right about this much: certain actions just are morally right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. For instance, I have tried to come up with counterexamples to how he explains our duty to keep our promises. I think it makes sense to say that when we make a promise, we are saying something like ‘I am obligating myself to do x for you’. At the same time, I’m hoping he’s wrong: it seems to follow the form of the infamous ‘is-ought’ fallacy. That is, it seems to follow a fallacious line of thought that says “because x obtains, people ought to do x” (e.g. because people do drugs, they ought to do drugs). Although, it could be that there are instances where the form of the ‘is-ought’ fallacy is adhered to, and yet the line of thought is not actually fallacious. Ross’s explanation of our duty to keep our promises might be one of them. I also think Ross is right to point out that utilitarianism does rub up against our moral intuitions. The very problem with Ross’s approach, however, is that he is an intuitionist about our moral knowledge. I don’t think that route of critique is open to him, nor do I think he has adequately justified the notion that we know moral truths intuitively. Indeed, I’m not sure that it can be justified, but he is the first intuitionist I have read, so I’ll have to suspend judgment.
I hope you all enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave questions, criticisms, and any other sort of commentary you can think of! Please let me know where the language was confusing. I’m trying to get out of the academic mode of writing, so it would be helpful if others could point out where my language was too technical or obscure. My next few critical summaries will be on contemporary utilitarianism and contemporary virtue ethics, in that order. It will be fune stuff. Stay tuned!
Ross, W.D. “The Right and the Good”. Ethics. 10th Edition. Oliver A. Johnson and Andrews Reath. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 259-274.